Nelson County is currently seeking bids for the construction of Phase 3 of the Blue Ridge Tunnel restoration, County Administrator Steve Carter said at a recent meeting of the Nelson Board of Supervisors.
Phase 3 includes the western trail, western trailhead, and surfacing of the eastern trail between the trailhead and the eastern portal. The work includes clearing, installation of storm water pipe, excavation, installation of aggregate and asphalt concrete, fencing, installation of landscape, and signage. The construction of Phase 3 will represent the completion of the project. Handicapped access will be made by the eastern portal only, with no access from the western side.
Reference to the structure as the Crozet Tunnel is made in recognition of the chief engineer, Claudius Crozet. Virginia Blue Ridge Railroad, a history published in 2015 by Mary E. Lyons, describes the construction of four tunnels including the three “sister” tunnels in Albemarle County. They include, east to west, Greenwood Tunnel, closed since 1944; Brooksville Tunnel, destroyed to make way for I-64; Little Rock Tunnel, which is still in use, and the Blue Ridge Tunnel. All four were part of Crozet’s plan for a seventeen-mile stretch of the Blue Ridge Railroad that would connect Virginia’s coastal east with the isolated west. The Blue Ridge Tunnel, extending nearly a mile long, was a vital link seven hundred feet below the challenging Rockfish Gap. The tunnel was years in the making, beginning before the Civil War in the 1850s and extending through the decade. Lyons identifies the Blue Ridge Tunnel as a “nineteenth century engineering marvel” and “the longest mountain railroad tunnel in the world.” It is identified as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, a recognition shared by the Washington Monument, Statue of Liberty, and the Panama Canal.
The Blue Ridge Tunnel served until the 1940s despite landslides caused by flooding at Afton Depot and the eastern portal. The western end was a softer sandstone and required reinforcement of several brick layers where deterioration was severe. In 1944 the new Blue Ridge Tunnel opened, built with modern equipment and big enough for larger locomotives.
After a long period of disuse, the original tunnel was closed and leased to a gas company for use as a storage facility. Concrete bulkheads were added to seal the opening and use the cavity to store propane gas. It was an unsuccessful effort.
Restoration of the tunnel is now managed by a foundation of interested persons representing Nelson, Augusta, Albemarle Counties, and Waynesboro City. The plan is to provide a hiking trail, described as a greenway, on both sides of Rockfish Gap that connects the Shenandoah and Rockfish Valleys. Funding for the plan was acquired from the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) through the Federal Highway Administration and the Commonwealth Trans-portation Board. Supplemental funds from the non-profit Crozet Blue Ridge Tunnel Foundation assisted Nelson County in the purchase of the adjacent property near the eastern portal from Bruce Tyler, Esquire for the parking area and fencing.
The tunnel itself was donated to Nelson County by the CRX Railroad and sits at the convergence of Shenandoah National Park’s Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway. The area includes the Appalachian Trail and U.S. Bicycle Route 76. Both Route 250 and the I-64 pass over the tunnel at Rockfish Gap.
The planned restoration of the tunnel has been underway in stages. Phase 1, completed in June 2015, included the eastern portal and entrance approach with a parking area. Some guided tours were offered to the public at the time Phase 1 finished. When Phase 2 began, the area was closed again with emphasis on no trespassing by county officials. The site required heavy blasting to remove the massive bulkheads and posed a danger to visitors.
Alan Hale, a former long-time Nelson supervisor and Tunnel Foundation board member, has been working on the project since 2006. Hale expressed his dismay at vandals who continued to plague the restoration effort. Part of Phase Two required the challenging and expensive removal of many sprayed markings. Currently drainage ditches are being reworked toward the eastern portal, which is fifty-seven feet lower than the western end. Flooding from the slope makes the drainage work an imperative to complete the gravel trail through the tunnel.
With Phase 3, the western tunnel portal and easement in Augusta County could connect the regional efforts of Waynesboro City. Dwayne Jones, Director of Waynesboro Parks and Recreation Department, describes the beginning development of “Sunset Park” near Route 250 that will eventually have a hiking connector on the Augusta side of the road. It is on the site of the old municipal “dump” that, after being capped in 2003, is to be reclaimed as green space with trails for mountain bikers and hikers. The trails would run through the woods at Rt. 250 to the city limits of Waynesboro. “By connecting the trail leading to the tunnel and increasing a three-mile trip to six miles, the park is more likely to be attractive to those coming from distance points,” Jones said. The city planners are looking for a regional effort to begin construction on the park in Spring 2020 and to open in the fall of the same year.
The planned final completion date for the Blue Ridge Tunnel Rehabilitation & Trail Project is currently April 2020. Meanwhile it is a No Trespass area. Work remains, however, beyond the Phase 3 completion. The replacement of extensive brickwork inside the west portal will be needed but is unfunded. Tax-deductible contributions are welcome. The Claudius Crozet Blue Ridge Tunnel Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit foundation. More information on this historic project is available at blueridgetunnel.org.