Secrets of the Blue Ridge: The Crozet Underpass: To Avoid Unnecessary Perils

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By Phil James

The railroad arrived in 1851 at a quiet wooded crossroads that was destined to become downtown Crozet. Traffic flow was greatly enhanced in 1917 by installation of an “undergrade crossing,” following three years of legal wrangling between village merchants and railroad authorities. In the end, the State Corporation Commission ordered the C&O Railway Co. to eliminate the dangerous at-grade crossing. (1950s photo by Mac Sandridge). Additional images accompany the print edition of this article.
The railroad arrived in 1851 at a quiet wooded crossroads that was destined to become downtown Crozet. Traffic flow was greatly enhanced in 1917 by installation of an “undergrade crossing,” following three years of legal wrangling between village merchants and railroad authorities. In the end, the State Corporation Commission ordered the C&O Railway Co. to eliminate the dangerous at-grade crossing. (1950s photo by Mac Sandridge). Additional images accompany the print edition of this article.

Mention downtown Crozet to someone and before long the subject will arise of its ever-increasing traffic. Where did all of those vehicles come from, and where in the world are they going?

Well, let’s just cut to the quick and place blame right where it’s due—with the Colonial-era government. They are the ones who started this mess! A court-issued road order in 1734 shows Peter Jefferson “… appointed Surveyor of the Road from the Mountains to Licking hole Creek…”. In 1737, one of western Albemarle’s earliest settlers, Michael Woods, was charged “… to Clear a road from the Blew Ledge of Mountains down to Ivy Creek.” Unlike most east-to-west progressions in Virginia’s development, this roadway was improved from west to east.

That rustic byway, thought by highway historians Pawlett & Newlon “to be the improvement of an Indian trail from Tidewater to the Valley,” became part of Virginia’s storied highway: the Three Notch’d Road. In 1780, the state capital moved from Williamsburg to more centrally located Richmond. Old Three Notch’d served that new seat of government that had one eye keenly set on western development.

For 200 years, from the 1730s into the 1930s (when the development of U.S. Route 250 brought about a straightening of that system of roads), much of the westward traffic passed right through the center of… yes, you guessed it: downtown Crozet. So, our suspicions are confirmed.

The 1830s ushered in the age of railroads in the Old Dominion, and in a herky-jerky fashion, the steel rails eventually arrived in Charlottesville and headed west, making it through (future) Crozet by 1851. The 1860s brought the indecencies of the War Between the States, with both armies utilizing the rail path at various times during those years.

Then came Samuel Miller’s Manual Labor School to offer hope and a future for orphaned children. Miller’s unheard-of million-dollar bequest was what got the name Crozet printed onto the maps beginning in 1876. Now, not only did the big highway pass through the center of town, but the train stopped there, too. Moreover, on that train came people who saw the word “potential” written on every tract of good farmland that fronted the roadways heading into and out of the blossoming village.

The 1880s and ’90s saw the first commercial plantings and lucrative harvests of local fruits: apples, peaches, plums, berries of all sorts, and waiting markets just hours away by rail. Ohhh… what to do with this “sudden” flush of cash? Why, build a bank to keep it in, and advertise for more people to come and join in building up the town. The idea caught on. Rapidly.

By 1910, there were around 250 people identified as living at Crozet, and plenty of jobs to go around. Most anything you needed could be had right downtown or just around the corner: a hardware, bank, brick manufacturer, a cider producer, a cooperage to barrel up all those good apples to send to the Queen of England and all her subjects. If you lived in the right place, there was electricity and running water, and if you did not have it, you probably knew someone who did and you could go over and use theirs.

Within three decades of nailing up the “Crozet—y’all come!” shingle, there was “one barber, three blacksmiths, a butcher, two carpenters and house builders, two carriage and wagon-makers and dealers of the same, a druggist, several fruit growers, a furniture dealer, nine general merchants, three livery stables, corn mills, flour mills and saw mills, dealers in wood and railroad ties, three churches, two hotels, five music teachers, three notaries, a painter and paperhanger, a shoemaker, watchmaker/jeweler, an undertaker, a realtor, four physicians, an attorney and two teachers.” Whew!

So, what did the town not have? 1) Many cars; and 2) a safe way to get across the train tracks. You see, in spite of very few cars, there was still a traffic problem because everyone and every thing coming and going had to queue up at the village bottleneck when they needed to cross the tracks beside the depot. And heaven help ’em all if the train had stopped there to pick up or drop off passengers, take on freight, or switch boxcars onto or off of the sidings.

So the downtown merchants and principal farmers around the area, i.e. the Crozet Board of Trade, took it upon themselves to hire local lawyer Russell Bargamin and formally request that the C&O put in a two-way underpass to replace the “exceptionally dangerous” downtown crossing that had long since outlived its usefulness— and on the railroad’s dime, no less. You know what the railroad owners said.

The group representing the Village of Crozet (formally composed of J.M. Ellison, Russell Bargamin, T.W. Woollen, Walter Whately, and C.F. Ballard) prepared their case. First, they counted the traffic at the town’s crossing. They found that “in October, 1913, there were, per day, consisting of foot passengers, buggies, wagons, horseback riders, and automobiles, about 1,150 units per day. Evidence also shows that for six [of those] days [likely during apple harvest], about 2,000 units crossed per day.”

The case of the “Commonwealth of Virginia, at the relation of J.M. Ellison and others, vs. The Chesapeake and Ohio Railway Company” dragged on until June 1916, when the State Corporation Commission decreed the building of “An undergrade crossing re-establishing the old White Hall road, which was blocked by the embankment of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway when it was constructed in 1851… so as to avoid unnecessary perils to travelers upon the highway.”

On July 26, 1917, the Charlottesville Daily Progress reported: “Crozet has at last gotten on the map of the C&O Railway, as evidenced by the improvements that have been made and are yet to be made. The completion of the underground crossing and the conveniences it carries with it surpass the anticipations of us all.”

The road through Crozet was hard-surfaced in 1921. A new, long-hoped-for passenger depot was placed in service in December 1923. Eventually, the highway between Brownsville and Mechum’s River was straightened and improved, denying, by default, a new generation of travelers the pleasantries and delights of a wonderful village, just off the beaten path, built on the hard work, pride and cooperation of its citizenry.

Follow Secrets of the Blue Ridge on Facebook! Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County. You may respond to him through his website: www.SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2016 Phil James

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