Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Col. Claudius Crozet: Tributes to His Genius

Claude Crozet High School, as it was commonly known, opened in 1924 and graduated high school students through 1953. It was the town’s second high school building. (Photo from The Wheel, 1940 Crozet HS Annual)

What defines greatness? In the case of Claudius Crozet, it was defined by his busy and useful life.

Down through the decades, tributes to that life fully lived have come from multiple sources. In 1886, John D. Imboden presented a two-page sketch on the life of Crozet to the Virginia House of Representatives, from notes that he had gathered from Dr. Charles Mills, son-in-law of Col. Crozet. In that paper Crozet was quoted, “We are all dependent in some way or other, and as an old soldier, I understand the value of discipline, without which no service can be efficiently rendered.”

Crozet’s life of discipline, learning, works, and accomplishments was first detailed in the biography Claudius Crozet, Soldier-Scholar-Educator-Engineer, published in 1936 by Colonel William Couper, historiographer of Virginia Military Institute. Couper summed up his own efforts as “a story gathered from far corners about a genius who for forty years had much to do with pushing back the frontiers, economic and commercial, of his adopted state.”

Those responsible for the naming of the village of Crozet in western Albemarle County, from left: Williams C. Wickham (1820–1888), first President of Virginia Central Railroad and first President of Chesapeake & Ohio Railway; Claudius Crozet (1789–1864), the town’s namesake; Abram Wayland (1834–1906) who initiated a petition c.1875 for the rural flag stop. (Composite images courtesy Phil James and David Wayland)

A second biography, Claudius Crozet, French Engineer in America, 1790–1864, was published in 1989 by co-authors Robert F. Hunter and Edwin L. Dooley Jr. Their thoroughly researched work complemented Couper’s efforts from a half-century earlier. In 2014, Col. Dooley of VMI was a featured speaker at Crozet Library, where he spoke about the life of the town’s namesake. The Crozet Gazette was there to note his learned observations.

“Crozet is one of Virginia’s most important historical figures,” Dooley shared with his audience. “His contributions to transportation continue to this day because roads and railroads follow routes surveyed by Crozet. He brought the practice of engineering according to science to the U.S. In Virginia, his work was mainly west of the Blue Ridge [before West Virginia was formed]. He mapped Rt. 60, started canals, and became an advocate for railroads. It’s incredible what he did. We need to keep his name up. He did a tremendous amount of work for Virginia.”

Robert L. “Bob” Barrett, a passionate 30-year lecturer on the life of Claudius Crozet, spent four years researching, editing and producing The Claudius Crozet Story. His 90-minute film production was released in 1997. In 2014, that valuable work was digitized and re-released.

The Virginia Historic Highway Marker program, administered by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, was begun in 1927, the oldest such program in the nation. Marker # W-170, adjacent to The Square in downtown Crozet, commemorates the naming of the village for Colonel Benoît Claudius Crozet. The Woman’s Club of Crozet sponsored the marker, erected in 1977.

Public highway markers and interpretive plaques honoring Crozet’s accomplishments have been posted at various times during the “modern” highway era. Dubbed the “Pathfinder of the Blue Ridge,” his advocacy for railroads and their eventual linking of east and west sealed his legacy.

Crozet penned wishes for his funeral in his will, written with a steady hand a year prior to his death. Final directives, as noted by biographers Hunter and Dooley, included his “request that the funeral should be ‘performed without unnecessary display… Let the money saved be appropriated to the relief of some indigent persons.’” With a nod of respect to those wishes, the local newspaper understatedly noted his passing thusly: “Died January 29, (1864) at Midlothian, the residence of his [daughter Claudia and] son-in-law Dr. C.S. Mills near the City of Richmond, Colonel Crozet, in the 75th year of his age. The New York, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Paris papers are requested to copy.”

Col. Crozet was buried at Richmond’s Shockhoe Hill Cemetery. Preceding him at that place were his first daughter, Adele, age 12; son Alfred, 33, who died unexpectedly while Crozet was still laboring to complete the Blue Ridge Railroad; and his beloved wife, Agatha. The Crozet family graves quietly remained unmarked for the next 84 years, save for a small, weathered stone for young Adele.

Virginia Military Institute was granted permission in 1942 to move the remains of Col. Crozet to a place of honor on the campus of the institution in Lexington, where he had served as first President of the Board of Visitors. A condition of the removal specified “a monument [be] erected in Shockhoe Cemetery to mark his former resting place and the graves of the rest of his family.”

This stone plinth, now part of a memorial at the final resting place of Claudius Crozet at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, was mounted originally over the east portal of Greenwood Tunnel in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western Albemarle County. Clearly visible to each westbound train engineer, it had marked the easternmost portal of the four railroad tunnels designed by Col. Crozet in the 1850s. (Photo by Phil James, with enhanced lettering)

To that end, in 1948, VMI erected a substantial granite marker with a brass plaque affixed, reading: “Claudius Crozet, Soldier-Scholar-Educator-Engineer. Born December 31, 1790 at Villefranche, France. Died January 29, 1864 at Midlothian, Virginia. Graduate of L’Ecole Polytechnique, 1807. Captain of Artillery under Napoleon. Captured in the Russian Campaign, 1812. Professor of Engineering, U.S. Military Academy, 1816–1823. Civil Engineer, State of Louisiana, 1832–1833. President of Jefferson College, Louisiana, 1834–1836. Pioneer developer of highway, canal and railroad projects. First President, Board of Visitors, Virginia Military Institute, 1837–1845. Principal Engineer, State of Virginia, 1823–1831 and 1837–1845. Chief Engineer, Blue Ridge Railroad and four tunnels near Afton, VA, 1849–1857.

“This TRIBUTE TO THE GENIUS whose extraordinary foresight and ability first pushed the avenues of transportation of the Commonwealth of Virginia from the Atlantic Waterways, through the mountain barriers to her western bounderies [sic] on the Ohio River, has been erected by The Virginia Military Institute, 1948. Claudius Crozet’s remains were re-interred on November 11, 1942 at V.M.I. where a memorial is dedicated to his honor. Buried in this lot are the bodies of Agathe DeCamp Crozet, wife, died March 14, 1861, aged 78. Adele Crozet, daughter, died March 8, 1830, age 12. Lieut. Alfred St. Armand Crozet, son, died April 23, 1855, aged 33.”

Claudius Crozet lived with his family at 100 East Main Street, Richmond, 1824–1832 (owned by Crozet 1828–’32 according to biographers Hunter and Dooley), including the years that he served as Principal Engineer for the Virginia Board of Public Works. Mere blocks away, in Monroe Park, stands a statue of Williams C. Wickham, who memorialized the name of Col. Crozet by ascribing it to a flag stop on the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway in 1876. (Photo by Phil James)

In 1935, when VMI’s William Couper was editing his notes on the life of Claudius Crozet, he sent a letter “to the Mayor of Crozet” inquiring as to when and how the village had received its name. The post office, lacking a mayor, directed the letter to local attorney Henry B. Goodloe, who promptly shared it with elder native Charles Lee Wayland.

In his reply to Col. Couper, Goodloe wrote, “I beg to advise that the town of Crozet received its name in June 1876 and Mr. Abraham [Wayland] was probably the main citizen in securing a Depot at Crozet and giving it the name. I am further informed by Mr. C.L. Wayland, a son of Abraham Wayland, that there was some dispute about the name but when the matter was taken up with Colonel William[s] C. Wickham, at that time General Manager of the C. & O. Railway, about building a station there, his reply was ‘that the name would be Crozet or nothing.’ It was therefore Crozet.”

In so doing, W.C. Wickham set into place the most enduring of tributes—a town—contingent on the due diligence of each succeeding generation of its citizens to maintain and perpetuate its good name. 

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