By the end of 2020, hikers, bikers, and history buffs will have a new recreational destination in central Virginia: visiting the Claudius Crozet Blue Ridge Tunnel, which runs through Afton Mountain under Rockfish Gap, via either the eastern portal in Nelson County or the western portal in Augusta County. The entire trip from the beginning of one trail to the end of the other will be approximately 2½ miles in length, with a 54-foot grade rise from east to west within the tunnel. Phase III of the long-awaited tunnel restoration project is now underway.
At its January 9 meeting, the Crozet Community Association (CCA) was treated to a fascinating presentation on the history and restoration of the Blue Ridge Tunnel by Wayne Nolde and Bob Dombrowe of the Claudius Crozet Blue Ridge Tunnel Foundation. Nolde retired in 2019 after 20 years as a Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) engineer for the Staunton District. Dombrowe is a retired IT director who serves on the boards of the Blue Ridge Tunnel Foundation, the Crozet Trails Crew, and the International Motor Sports Association.
Claudius Crozet, principal engineer and surveyor for the Virginia Board of Public Works in the 19th century, surveyed the best route for the Virginia Central Railroad to cross the Blue Ridge Mountains—fulfilling Virginia’s long-term goal of linking the navigable rivers of the Chesapeake Bay watershed with the Ohio River and points west—as a series of four tunnels under Rockfish Gap to span the 17-mile section from Mechums River to Waynesboro. Only one of these tunnels, the Little Rock, is still in use. The Blue Ridge tunnel, located at the intersection of Albemarle, Augusta, and Nelson Counties, was in use for 85 years. It was replaced in 1944 by a larger, parallel tunnel that could accommodate larger trains. The Blue Ridge Tunnel recreational area lies at a major crossroads, where the Shenandoah National Park/Skyline Drive meets the Blue Ridge Parkway. Both the Appalachian Trail and the U.S. Bicycle Route 76 run just above it.
Crozet began work on the tunnel in 1849, when he was 60 years old. Undertaken a decade before the invention of dynamite, Irish workers and slaves—who had been rented to the project by their owners—dug and blasted through solid Catoctin green granite with only hand drills and black powder. They worked in two shifts seven days a week, opening 26 feet of tunnel per month. Crozet used a bellows system powered by horses to pump air in to the workers, and a siphon to drain water from the tunnel. Besides being skilled blasters, the Irish workers installed bricks in the elliptical shape of the tunnel to support the western portal entrance, where the rock is as soft as sandstone. Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, which took over from Virginia Central in 1868, later extended this bricking, which now extends about 1,000 feet into the tunnel and uses 600,000 bricks. The 4,360-foot tunnel opened on April 13, 1858. At that time it was the longest train tunnel in the U.S. and considered to be one of the engineering wonders of the modern world. It has been designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.
Control of the tunnel shifted sides during the Civil War. It was used for troop transport by Stonewall Jackson. Accidents, plus a cholera epidemic, killed 170 workers—but in those lean times there was an unending supply. Many are buried at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Staunton. In 1969, Hurricane Camille washed an enormous amount of debris and mud into the tunnel; it was three feet deep in mud when clean out began during Phase II.
Nelson County envisioned, and began fundraising for, the restoration project 19 years ago. In 2006, CSX Railroad sold the tunnel to Nelson Co. for $1. The project was planned in three phases, all of which were completed by local contractor Fielder’s Choice Enterprises. Funding came from grants—from VDOT and the Commonwealth Transportation Board; Albemarle, Augusta, and Nelson Counties; the City of Waynesboro; and the National Park Service—as well as from many private donations. Alan Hale, president of the Tunnel Foundation, has shepherded the project through all three phases.
Phase I, to complete the trail and parking lot on the eastern side in Nelson County, was completed in 2015 at a cost of $488,000—which represented 20% over the original estimate. The wide, graveled trails must be 50 feet from the railroad tracks for safety reasons. In the fall of 2017, a University of Virginia assistant professor and two graduate students used a ground-based autonomous robot to scan and map the tunnel using Lidar (light detection and ranging, also known as 3D laser scanning). The result was a three-dimensional map of the tunnel that can be used for restoration or construction projects in the future.
The more ambitious Phase II, to clean out and open the tunnel itself, was completed in October of 2019 at a final cost of $3,492,889. This challenging phase required blasting out two 12-foot thick bulkheads, built of concrete reinforced with 1½-inch rebar, which had been installed in the 1950s by a gas company that planned to use the tunnel as a propane storage facility—a plan that was never realized because of leaks. In an ecologically sensitive move, netting was installed over both portals the winter before blasting started to encourage bats to nest elsewhere. Phase II also required cleaning out mud and debris, plus draining a lot of water from the tunnel and diverting water that cascades down the mountain during rainstorms. Now visitors can literally see the light at the end of the tunnel for the first time since the 1950s! The interior of the tunnel will not be lit; any needed lighting must be supplied by the trail walker or bicyclist via a headlamp or flashlight. This preserves the history of the tunnel as well as avoiding the prohibitive cost of installing and maintaining lighting within the tunnel.
Phase III, to complete the trail and parking lot on the western side in Augusta County, is currently underway and is estimated to cost $1,079,953. This trail is longer and requires more filling and grading to level out hills and valleys, plus the installation of drainage culverts. A Phase IV may occur in the future to extend this trail toward Waynesboro and perhaps culminate in a park. There have also been discussions of someday developing a trail on the Albemarle side from Crozet to the tunnel. The tunnel is still closed to the public during this final phase. After many delays and roadblocks, it is expected to open to the public in late 2020.
The project is still in much need of support. Donors of $100 (individual) or $200 (family) will be recognized on a plaque along the trail. If you would like to donate, contact [email protected] or 434-263-7015.
Mary E. Lyons books The Blue Ridge Tunnel: A Remarkable Engineering Feat in Antebellum Virginia and The Virginia Blue Ridge Railroad may be purchased at the Foundation website www.blueridgetunnel.org, with proceeds going to the restoration project. If you’d like to own a piece of local history, a limited edition print of P. Buckley Moss’s painting of the Crozet Tunnel may be purchased by visiting or calling her Waynesboro gallery 540-949-6473 www.pbuckleymoss.com/waynesboro.html—but these purchases no longer benefit the Tunnel Foundation.