Documentary by Local Filmmakers Showcases Blue Ridge Tunnel

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Over 30,000 people have visited the Blue Ridge Tunnel since it opened to the public in November, 2020. The hike is 2.25 miles on paved trails from one parking lot to the other. Courtesy American Focus Films.

“Emotion is a big part of what makes a good documentary film,” advised Academy-award-winning filmmaker Paul Wagner. “As human beings watch a film, they don’t just connect to the facts, but to the people telling the story. We try to use compelling people in our documentaries, because that is how the viewer connects with the story on both an intellectual and emotional level.” 

This emotional connection is clearly evident in The Tunnel, the Wagners’ brilliant, 35-minute documentary film about the creation and re-creation of the Blue Ridge Tunnel. “Written, directed, filmed, and edited by Paul Wagner,” according to the credits, and produced by Ellen Casey Wagner, it was released for streaming on YouTube on St. Patrick’s Day and premiered the following Tuesday, March 23, on Virginia Public Media PBS in Richmond, Charlottesville, and Harrisonburg. Wagner recommends watching it on YouTube at youtu.be/IRJGKjT-ahQ, because the broadcast version has been cut down to 30 minutes. The film deftly interweaves two stories: how the tunnel was first built between 1850 and 1858 by Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine, and how it was restored by Nelson County and the Blue Ridge Tunnel Foundation between 2002 and 2021 at a total cost of $5.4 million (blueridgetunnel.org), funded by 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. After 19 years of fundraising, planning, draining, and restoration, the tunnel was re-opened the tunnel for public use in November of 2020. Since then more than 30,000 visitors have walked through it, causing parking lots to overflow on the weekends. Funding for The Tunnel was provided by the Claudius Crozet Blue Ridge Tunnel Foundation, Virginia Humanities, and the Virginia Tourism Corporation. 

The Nelson County government hired Fielder’s Choice Enterprises (FCE) to restore the abandoned Blue Ridge Tunnel. The process took 19 years and cost $5.4 million, funded largely by a series of grants from the Commonwealth Board of Transportation, overseen by VDOT, using federal funds intended for non-traditional transportation projects. Local governments and private donors also provided funds. Courtesy American Focus Films.

Including stunning archival photographs of the Irish workers, the African American slave workers, and the original 19th century track; fascinating video of the tunnel before, during, and after reclamation; testimony from experts in engineering, history, and archaeology; haunting Irish background music; and dramatic narration by Hamner Theater’s Boomie Pedersen, The Tunnel creates that emotional connection in spades as we learn of the hazards the Irish workers and rented slaves faced as they dug and blasted their way through the mountain using only pickaxes, star drills, and black powder. The work was so dangerous that many Irish men and boys were killed or maimed in the process. “As far as the tunnel itself, there is blood down in there, and bits of bone. These guys did not just fall over and have a heart attack; they were blown up. I see it as a sacred place,” declared Mary Lyons, author of The Blue Ridge Tunnel and Slave Labor on Virginia’s Blue Ridge Railroad. A cholera epidemic in 1854 took even more lives. 

The 4,273-foot Blue Ridge Tunnel, designed by French engineer Claudius Crozet, was “the longest tunnel in America at that time,” explains engineer and VMI professor Gary Rogers in the film. “It was a notable achievement, and remains the longest tunnel driven by hand-drilling and black powder explosives.” It was named a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1976, with a plaque at the eastern portal in Nelson County. “It’s an historical treasure trove,” confirmed Allen Hale, chairman of the Blue Ridge Tunnel Foundation. This “forgotten element” of American cultural history inspires awe. “I know that everybody for the first time will marvel when they go through it,” says Clann Mhòr member Dan Burke in the film, “and I think a lot of them, like me, will want to come back.” 

The west portal before restoration. Courtesy American Focus Films.

Creative editing and telling details—from the fragments of Irish clay cuddy pipes (long part of the Paddy stereotype) found during an archaeological dig, to the hip boots required to wade through the flooded tunnel before restoration—“like two firehoses coming out of the side of the rock”—to the torch-lit visits with students of the Blue Ridge Irish Music School, who also provide enchanting, live fiddling and dancing—create a comprehensive video history of the Crozet Tunnel. “We are piecing together that culture” of the shanty town where the Irish lived, says University of Maryland archaeologist Stephen Brighton, who supervised the dig on the eastern side, “or how they transformed that culture to fit into this strange landscape for them.” The dig was sponsored by the local Clann Mhòr Irish Heritage Society—meaning Great Family (www.clannmhor.org)

“We started this project eight years ago, early in the restoration process,” said Ellen. “We attended a compelling final presentation about a case study of the tunnel project by a Preservation Planning class in the U.Va. School of Architecture—including graduate student Kirsten Sparenborg, who appears in the film—and became intrigued. Our original idea was to do it quickly. But the fundraising took time, so after early filming of the archeological dig and other pre-work, we moved to other projects and went back to it as we could. Finally we decided to wait until tunnel was open.” “The contemporary story provided a lens to make the historical film relevant,” Paul continued. “Now, instead of our film promoting the tunnel as we originally planned, the instantly popular tunnel is promoting the film.” Plan your tunnel visit at www.nelsoncounty.com/blue-ridge-tunnel/, and be sure to bring a flashlight or headlamp.

Paul Wagner is an acclaimed independent filmmaker who has lived in Charlottesville since 1991. He and Ellen Casey Wagner have directed and produced more than forty documentary and dramatic films over a forty-year career, many of which were broadcast on PBS. “I started working in film in the 1970s while working on a Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. I wasn’t really committed to the academic life, but I loved being around smart people and ideas. When I signed up— almost by accident—for a class in documentary film, the light bulb went on. I declared myself a filmmaker and started collaborating with scholars and the Smithsonian Institution to make documentaries based on the folklore and cultural history of America.” 

Ellen Casey Wagner and Paul Wagner of Charlottesville produced and directed The Tunnel documentary, about the creation and re-creation of the Blue Ridge Tunnel. Photo: Mary Wagner.

Paul and Ellen soon became a creative team. “We met in 1985 at a reception at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., and were married a few years later,” she explained. Their first joint project was the full-length feature film Out of Ireland, which follows the lives of eight Irish immigrants from the famine-swept villages of 19th century Ireland to the industrialized cities of 20th century America. “The character of William Murphy—voiced by Liam Neeson—became one of the inspirations for researching the Irish contribution to the Blue Ridge Tunnel,” Paul added. “This was a profile of a particular type of immigrant—an itinerant worker who came to America in the 1860s from Northern Ireland and travelled all over the country building bridges, tunnels, and laying railroad track. This kind of rootless drifter is exactly the kind of man we honor in this film. Some of the Blue Ridge Tunnel workers settled in Staunton, but most moved on, west to Kentucky or Ohio.” Ellen’s extensive Irish heritage—“Casey and Hanley plus Shields, Fitzsimmons, Smith, and McKittrick on my dad’s side,” Ellen confided, “and on my mother’s, McKallor and Gavin”—also helped to spark their interest in Irish culture. 

“Ellen and I created the nonprofit company American Focus about 30 years ago to make documentaries about the cultural history of America,” Paul explained. “We’re a mom and pop shop—sometimes our kids help too—and our projects tend to be low budget. We share this interest in people telling their stories. These are subjects we feel passionate about. We find narrators and actors who are as interested in the subject as we are. They are happy to do it because they want to see the story told. For us, it’s a labor of love; our job is to serve the people who helped make it. Our favorite project is always the one we’re currently working on—we get so wrapped up in the story we’re telling and the people we’re working with.” 

Students from the Blue Ridge Irish Music School learn about the tunnel from members of the Clann Mhòr Irish Heritage Society. From left to right: Dan Burke, Marjorie Maxey, Michael Brittingham, and Rhonda Roebuck, plus BRIMS students. Courtesy American Focus Films.

Wagner’s films have won many honors. Stone Carvers, a charming portrait of the vanishing, traditional Italian American artisans who created the statues and gargoyles of the Washington National Cathedral, won the 1984 Academy Award for best documentary short subject as well as the Emmy award for best director. It was produced with Marjorie Hunt, based on her Ph.D. dissertation. Out of Ireland was selected for documentary film competition at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival; Wagner’s films have also been screened at festivals in Toronto, Rotterdam, and Tokyo. A Paralyzing Fear: the Story of Polio in America (2005), narrated by Olympia Dukakis, which tells the story of America’s triumph over polio, won the Emmy award for best documentary film research. Miles of Smiles, Years of Struggle (1982) covers the untold story of the Pullman Porters, who formed the first African American labor union. “For Miles of Smiles, we were able to interview still-living pullman porters. Their stories became a window into how they lived.” Fishing with Dynamite (2019), about the cost of American corporations’ obsession with short term profits, was produced with the ethics department at U.Va.’s Darden School of Business and is widely used in their classes. Wagner currently teaches a year-long film course with Doug Grisson in the U.Va. Drama Department, focusing on screenwriting in the fall semester and on film directing in the spring.

The Wagners are already at work on their next project, a biographical film about Georgia O’Keefe. Currently doing research and building partnerships, they hope to go into production later this year. The story will be revealed primarily through the 25,000 letters she exchanged with photographer Alfred Stiegliz (1864-1946), whom she married in 1924. “To a great extent, O’Keefe defined modernism in America; she had tremendous cultural import. These letters provide incredible insight into her as an artist and as a woman.” To learn more, visit paulwagnerfilms.com.  

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