The Blue Ridge Tunnel Foundation, which has taken on the project of opening the hand-hewn 1858 rail tunnel for foot traffic, will begin offering escorted tours of the eastern third of the tunnel in April.
Nelson County supervisor Alan Hale, who heads the non-profit organization, led about a dozen members of the Crozet Trails Crew into the repaired section of the tunnel February 13, a frigid day when icicles draped the portal walls. The CTC has a long-term goal of connecting Crozet to the tunnel and one idea is to use Jarmans Gap Road to reach the Appalachian Trail at Jarmans Gap, and at Rockfish Gap connect the AT to the tunnel, which lies 700 feet below the ridge line.
Funded by a federal grant administered by the Virginia Department of Transportation, Phase I of the project was completed in June. It created a parking area at the former Afton train depot, and opened a 3,400-foot-long, 10-foot-wide gravel trail along the old rail bed to the east portal. An eight-foot-high chain link fence separates the trail from the CSX tracks. Inside the nearly mile-long tunnel, drainage improvements have allowed most of the water that filters through the rock wall to escape. A final coating of finely crushed stone that will make the trail usable by wheelchairs will wait until construction equipment no longer uses the access.
Until the project is complete, the tunnel and trail remain off limits to the public. But soon tours of up to 20 will be able sign up at the foundation’s website, blueridgetunnel.org. The location has security cameras, and violators are subject to prosecution for trespassing.
Nelson County has asked that Phase II and III be combined into one funding grant. Phase II was intended to remove two substantial bulwarks that were built in the tunnel in the 1950s when it was conceived of as place to store natural gas. Phase III will finish the trail to the Waynesboro portal.
Inside the tunnel, dark and damp with harsh acoustics, but bearing the marks of the Irishmen who chipped away the defiant rock, CTC members came to the 10-foot thick east bulwark. The middle section of the tunnel is accessible by crawling through pipes in the bases of the bulwarks. Once through a pipe, one falls into a pool of water, Hale explained. He did it once, he said, but he’s not going to do it again.
“We’re told the money is there to get Phases II and III done, so we have submitted an application,” said Hale, a polished advocate for the tunnel who has been involved in the project for 10 years. The final phase will require $1.2 million. Hale said he hopes to solicit construction bids for the final phase in late summer. The tunnel could be open in 2017. Once complete, visitors will be able to see one end of the tunnel from the other. Inside the tunnel, water normally drains east and air typically rises toward the west.