By Jim Crosby
The Commonwealth Transportation Board has approved $1.3 million in funding to reopen the original Blue Ridge as a trail, allowing the project to be completed. Two massive interior bulkheads will be removed, the tunnel will be rehabilitated, and a parking area and a walking-and-biking trail to its western portal will be built on the Waynesboro side.
The expectation is that reopening the tunnel as a trail will stimulate tourism and invite greater recreational use of the area. The Blue Ridge Tunnel is located at the convergence of Interstate 64, Route 250, and Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the Appalachian Trail. The tunnel is just under 700 ft. from the crest of the Blue Ridge at Rockfish Gap, in Afton.
Funding was approved at the CTB’s meeting on June 14, and includes $649,960 for Nelson County and another $649,960 for the city of Waynesboro. A previous grant allowed Nelson County to build a parking area near the old Afton depot and a trail to the eastern entrance.
The Crozet Tunnel opened in 1858 to allow the railroad to pass through Afton Mountain. Rather than the customary way of sending freight, downstream in the Valley’s rivers, the tunnel enabled affordable and quick transport of Valley farm products over the Blue Ridge into eastern Virginia, which was relatively affluent, and that tie kept the Valley believing it was Virginia, and not a headwaters of the port of Baltimore.
The 4,273-foot passage took a little over eight years to complete and was the longest tunnel in the United States at the time. The tunnel was taken out of service 86 years later in 1944, when a replacement tunnel that could handle larger trains was cut through.
The Blue Ridge Tunnel was recognized as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1976, and efforts are currently underway for the tunnel to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Between 1850 and 1858, Claudius Crozet accomplished a major engineering feat. It was also an incredible accomplishment by the contractors and laborers who hand drilled and blasted their way through the mountain, starting from each side and aiming to meet in the dark middle. Using only hand tools and black powder, more than one thousand Irish immigrants and a hundred local slaves worked on its construction. Crews dug a half-mile into the sooty mountain on faith that the two shafts were actually going to meet. The geology of the Blue Ridge at Rockfish Gap—especially on the Piedmont side—consists of greenstone that is, “as hard as can well be conceived,” Crozet said. Several of his letters to the Board of Public Works refer to the rock’s “excessive hardness.” Laborers “holed through” on December 29, 1856, meeting within inches of the carefully engineered centerline.
The tunnel is 20’ tall and 16’ wide and in the shape of a partial ellipse, which is unique in North America for railroad tunnels. Most of the tunnel length is raw exposed rock, but some portions of the tunnel towards the western portal were brick-arched where natural rock was loose.
Crozet devised a horse-powered air pump to bring fresh air into the depths of the tunnel and push the smoke from the black powder blasts out. He also employed a similar siphon pump to pull water through a 2,000-foot iron pipe and out of the tunnel.
A 1950s project tried to use the Blue Ridge Tunnel for large-scale storage of propane. Two concrete bulkheads—one is approximately 1,956 feet from the western entrance and the other approximately 750 feet from the eastern end—were constructed blocking off the middle of the tunnel, but the vault was never successfully used for propane storage due to unstoppable leakage.