Landmark Contributions: Slave Labor on Virginia’s Blue Ridge Railroad

llustration from the back cover of Slave Labor on Virginia’s Blue Ridge Railroad. of showing the brick arch inside the tunnel’s east portal, made from bricks mostly made by enslaved laborers. Photo: Bob Dombrowe.

“Mr. Smith assures me that he can get me a force of 50 to 60 negroes to work at the [Blue Ridge] Tunnel, if I will allow for them Irish wages, and insure them employment for the year of their hire, which I have promised, subject to your ratification,” Claudius Crozet wrote to the Virginia Board of Public Works in 1853. These enslaved laborers, and many more, were a vital part of the workforce throughout the building of the tunnel. His appeal was approved, and the following year the need increased to 100 men. 

More than 300 enslaved laborers, along with over a thousand Irish immigrants, worked under Crozet’s supervision to fulfill Virginia’s long-term goal of linking the navigable rivers of the Chesapeake Bay watershed with the Ohio River and points west. This stretch of the railroad took ten years to build, from 1849 to 1858, and included a series of four tunnels running under Rockfish Gap to span the 17-mile section from Mechums River in western Albemarle County to the South River in Waynesboro: the Little Rock, Brooksville, Greenwood, and Blue Ridge tunnels. While the Irish workers were paid at the rate of $1-2 a day and often went on strike for better pay, the enslaved laborers were rented from their owners—some of whom were affiliated with the University of Virginia—who pocketed the money themselves, grateful for the extra income.

Landmark Contributions: Slave Labor on Virginia’s Blue Ridge Railroad by Mary Lyons

Mary E. Lyons has written yet another masterful work of scholarship about the Blue Ridge Railroad, following The Blue Ridge Tunnel (2014) and The Virginia Blue Ridge Railroad (2015). Slave Labor on Virginia’s Blue Ridge Railroad was published March 30 by Arcadia Publishing and The History Press. Through exhaustive research, culling through hundreds of primary documents, including contracts, receipts, letters, diaries, and payrolls, Lyons is able to paint a detailed picture of the lives of these workers and the vital roles they played in making Crozet’s dream a reality—blacksmith, floorer, fireman, and brickmaker. They were also used as pack animals, to carry heavy tools and equipment up the mountain, and as “human bulldozers, backhoes, and jackhammers” (p. 37). Slaves worked six days a week, whereas the Catholic Irish refused to work on feast days, funerals, or during strikes. The book, beautifully printed on thick, photographic paper, is copiously illustrated with archival photographs of these documents, plus maps, images of the tunnels and culverts, and photographs of the slaves themselves. Its four appendices include ten pages of enslaved laborers’ names—names like Scipio, Dabney, Ellick, or twins Romulus and Remus—including their jobs, time periods worked, and the rates of pay they earned for their owners. 

While the railroad from Richmond to Charlottesville (and U.Va.) was built by the private Louisa Railroad (also with enslaved laborers), the passage through the mountain was so difficult the state of Virginia committed to fund it themselves. Slaveholders in Greenwood and environs joined other Albemarle County families—including Carters, Maupins, Jarmans, and Mosbys— to “hire out” their slaves to the state for this purpose. They were often reluctant to do so, given the hazardous nature of the work—often entailing accidents, earth slides, cave-ins, and illness such as cholera. The 1854 contract between Crozet, George Farrow, and David Hansbrough to provide 40-50 “able bodied negro men”—some as young as ten years old—stipulates that damages would be paid in case of any accident, and no loading or blasting would be required. In fact, the tunnels were so wet, smoky (with silicate dust), and deafeningly noisy (from drilling) that, after one shipment of slaves was delivered, ten of the men turned tail and ran away! When a slave was killed while working—say by a runaway train car—his owner expected to be compensated $1,100 to $1,200 for the loss of his property.

Besides being a goldmine for scholars of slave occupations, this book provides a fascinating look at the challenges Crozet faced in building the railroad itself. From culverts to ballast to brickmaking to preparing the track beds to the laying of rails, the reader gains detailed insight into railroad construction. Lyons also includes personal stories, like that of James Williams, hired out to the railroad project at the age of 12 by William Jarman. Williams later owned property in Crimora and came to be known as “Uncle Jim.” He died a free man in 1941 at the age of 102. Hannah Harden, housekeeper to Sampson Pelter, who made a series of shady deals with the Virginia Central Railroad, was repeatedly abused by Pelter; their children—but not she—were freed in his will. 

“Scores of enslaved [laborers] made the historic opening of the Blue Ridge Railroad [on April 13, 1858] possible…. Though none could ride on the road without a handwritten pass from a slaveholder, their labor ensured the safe travel of train employees and passengers for the next eighty-eight years” (p. 94). What becomes clear as we read this excellent and important book is that the railroad over Afton Mountain and the Blue Ridge Tunnel would never have been built without the dedicated work of hundreds of unsung, and often unnamed, enslaved laborers.

As Lyons points out in her introduction, “leased slave labor was [also] at the heart of the academical village construction,” and “construction of the University of Virginia and the Blue Ridge Railroad with slave labor, thirty years later, were politically all of a piece.” 

Lyons is also the author of several historical fiction as well as nonfiction books for young readers, including Sorrow’s Kitchen (1993), a biography of Zora Neale Hurston; Raw Head, Bloody Bones (1995), a retelling of African American folktales; Stiching Stars (1997), about the Underground Railroad; Letters from a Slave Girl in the Dear America series (2007); and Feed the Children First (2012), about the Irish potato famine. She lives in Charlottesville. 


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