By Mary Lyons
Long ago, the CSX railroad tracks that travel through Crozet had a different name. Labeled Section 16 while under construction between 1851 and 1854, these 2.75 miles were part of the Blue Ridge Railroad. They began immediately west of Mechums River Bridge at the intersection of Highways 240 and 250. Continuing west through Crozet, they ended at the area known as Blair Park.
A remote cemetery on Section 16 has been a lingering research puzzle. The plain fieldstone burial markers, placed in a scattered fashion, are only fifty yards or so from train cars that clatter by every day. Six years ago, I pondered the possibility that both Irish and enslaved railroad laborers might be interred in the hilly little graveyard. And so began a lengthy process of scouring Library of Virginia archives. I was looking for payrolls, contracts, letters… any document that would reveal the names of Section 16 contractors and the race of their labor force.
Hoping for expert advice, I also toured the cemetery with two archaeologists on separate occasions in 2011. My impetus was a scrap of oral history from an elderly local resident. He had always heard that the stones mark the burials of Irish men working on the Blue Ridge Railroad. One archaeologist thought the story was plausible. He said such close proximity of graves to tracks strongly suggests the cemetery was for Irish railroad casualties. He also said it was improbable that both races occupy it because the Irish never would have buried their dead near slaves. That theory led me to different thoughts.
First, numerous Irish railroad workers were interred at Staunton’s Thornrose Cemetery, which allowed the burial of slaves. Moreover, when a local railroad foreman shot and killed an Irish foreman at Rockfish Gap in June 1850, Irish co-workers took the body a long eighteen miles to Staunton. Transport was possible only by cart or wagon at that point. But a Catholic burial in ground blessed by a priest would have been supremely important to the Irish, and the only Catholic Church in the region was in Staunton. If no Irish were buried in the Section 16 cemetery, religion—not race—would have been a likelier reason.
The second archaeologist thought the graveyard was for people enslaved on what would have been a nearby plantation. However, the haphazard stones might mean that successive groups started over, so to speak, in various spots. In other words, slaves were buried there, but the railroad may have used it for Irish fatalities, too. The archaeologists left me with much to consider but no firm clues.
Section 16 was also a conundrum for chief engineer Claudius Crozet. When he finalized plans for the state-owned Blue Ridge Railroad in November 1849, he had no idea if the company would build what he called the “connecting” link between Mechums River and Blair Park. Finally the Virginia Central Railroad, which was building west from Charlottesville to Mechums, agreed in mid-1851 to construct the bridge. Meanwhile, the Blue Ridge Railroad would build from the bridge to Blair Park. Now Crozet could assign a number to this stretch and choose a contractor. Clement L. Lukins & Company signed up for both Section 16 and the bridge.
Lukins had hired Irish immigrants for work on the Illinois and Michigan Canal in the 1840s. Payments listed in a Greenwood general store ledger book indicate that he may have used Irish labor again on Section 16 and at the bridge. From September through December 1851, he paid the store for more than 61,000 pounds of beef and mutton. In the same four-month period the previous year, two Irish contractors on other sections of the railroad bought about 15,000 pounds of beef and mutton for 140 Irish workers and their family members. None of these three contractors purchased pork—the usual fare for slaves.
Proportional to the Irish contractors, Lukins and Company fed about 600 workers and family members in 1851. Still, more men were needed. Lukins made multiple trips to Richmond in the first half of 1852. He was probably seeking more hands, and for good reason. Two and one half miles of Section 16 cover relatively flat land. For instance, Claudius Crozet described the terrain at “Mr. Wayland’s farm” just east of Blair Park as “favorable as could be desired.” However, the final portion toward Mechums River was a daunting opponent. In this “lower extremity,” wrote Crozet, “the land swells and rises suddenly; there the line will have to leave its upper surface and will be graded along its western exposure, down [meaning east] to the Valley of Lickinghole Creek.”
Nine contractors in all were involved with Section 16 and its difficult “lower extremity.” Only three fulfilled their commitments. Clement Lukins and his Section 16 partner were five months behind schedule when they transferred their contract to Hugh L. Gallagher and Samuel McElroy in December 1852. Three documents stated that Gallaher and McElroy used “white laborers” and “hired negroes” on other sections they were building for the Blue Ridge Railroad. It’s highly probable, then, that they had a mixed race force on Section 16. But not for long. Gallagher and McElroy turned over their contract to William M. Sclater and his partner, Robert Richardson, four months later in April 1853. Sclater used only slaves, or “gangs” as Claudius Crozet called them in his letters.
Sclater was an indefatigable slave scout for Crozet. The following year, he convinced local slaveholders to lease the labor of at least fifty enslaved men for Blue Ridge Railroad work. One of them, Sam, perished in a handcar accident in May 1854. It occurred on steep tracks, probably at the top of Rockfish Gap. The slaveholder lived in White Hall. Sclater informed him of Sam’s death by letter. “I had him buried,” Sclater wrote, “in the graveyard at Waynesborough.” Sclater—and, no doubt, other contractors—clearly could choose the burial location for a hired-out slave.
Enslaved men laboring for Sclater and Richardson finalized a challenging, forty-five-feet-high embankment at Lickinghole Creek in June 1853. Meantime Section 16 defeated another contractor. William S. Carter of Louisa County was in charge of state-hired slave crews that were ballasting the grade on Section 16, but he quit abruptly sometime in 1853, leaving all tools and implements behind. His successor was Robert P. Smith, a Greenwood planter and contractor who “employed,” to use the parlance of the time, slave labor elsewhere on the line.
Smith’s Section 16 contract stated that he would engage “as large a force as can be employed to advantage” for “all the work that may be judged necessary.” Two of his crew were white foremen. The remaining men were slaves. These laborers smoothed the top and sides of the grade, shored up embankments, removed earth slides, cleared flooded ditches, and distributed crossties that the railroad purchased from Smith. Their toil included completing the ballasting with two-inch pieces of rock. As Claudius Crozet described the task, “1,800 cubic yards of ballasting per mile, to be procured, broken, spread, and rammed in.”
Then tracklayer N. S. Carpenter arrived from Richmond with Irish hands in August 1853. Working through the winter, they pounded all Section 16 rails to the crossties by April 1854. According to Crozet, the men attached the iron “rapidly and in a creditable manner.”
Matching names on payrolls and death records would have told me exactly which Irish men, if any, died while building Section 16. Despite years of searching, I’ve been unable to locate Section 16 payrolls, and Albemarle County death records are inexplicably silent on Irish deaths in the 1850s. So, the presence of Irish graves in the cemetery remains unknowable.
As to slave burials, I’ve settled for clues teased from letters and contracts. Gallagher and McElroy, Sclater and Richardson, William S. Carter, and Robert P. Smith used a mostly or all enslaved labor force. Should an untimely death occur, they could select the burial spot. Any slave who died during their tenures on Section 16 might lie under the silent fieldstones in the cemetery.
Maybe some mysteries will always be cold cases. No matter. While searching for answers, I’ve found solid proof that enslaved men labored on every foot of Section 16, and Irish immigrants drove the spikes that affixed the rails. The next time you cross the tracks in Crozet or hear a lonesome train whistle in the area, give a thought to the men who constructed your part of the Blue Ridge Railroad. They’re waiting for someone to remember them.
Mary E. Lyons is an Affiliate Fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. She is the author of The Blue Ridge Tunnel and The Virginia Blue Ridge Railroad.