Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Why Crozet?

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This Crozet High School building, the second one so named within the village, opened in 1924, housing grades one through eleven. Routinely referred to as Claude Crozet High School, its scope was changed to elementary grades one through seven beginning with the 1953–’54 school year following the opening of Albemarle High School in fall 1953. Its tenure as a public school building ended in 1990 with the opening of a new Crozet Elementary School building directly across the road. Courtesy the Phil James Historical Images Collection.

Wondering minds want to learn about many things. Each of us knows at least a part of a good many stories. Some know these stories because of firsthand experiences. Others may have heard stories and testimonies from trustworthy sources who were eyewitnesses. Then there are those who sift through and study documents and recordings from earlier times in order to piece together descriptive narratives.

It is important that we share the parts of the best stories we know with others who want to know. The fourth grade class taught by Mrs. Brandy Garbaccio at Crozet Elementary School has been reading about the history of the town of Crozet and western Albemarle County. They sent letters to this writer in regards to one of their many new interests.

“Dear Mr. James,” they wrote, “[We are] interested in learning more about the history of Crozet. Our class was wondering if you know of any connection between Claudius Crozet and Crozet Elementary.”

Fourth grade students at Crozet Elementary School wrote letters to a Crozet historian in March 2022, asking to learn more about their town’s and school’s namesake Claudius Crozet. Courtesy of Mrs. Garbaccio’s 4th grade class at Crozet Elementary School.

So, first of all, who was this man Claudius Crozet? In 1886, 22 years after Crozet’s death at Midlothian, VA, Augusta County native John D. Imboden composed a two-page sketch of the life of Crozet which he presented to the Virginia House of Delegates. A contemporary of Claudius Crozet, Imboden gathered his notes from Dr. Charles Mills, son-in-law of Crozet. Dr. Mills quoted his father-in-law, who said, “As an old soldier, I understand the value of discipline, without which no service can be efficiently rendered.”

Two extensive biographies focused on Crozet’s busy, disciplined life. The first of those works was 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.”

Claude Crozet (1789–1864) was born in France and immigrated to the United States in 1816. Claudius was more commonly used as his first name in the US. In 1839, while Principal Engineer for the Virginia Board of Public Works, he surveyed through western Albemarle County, seeking a possible rail route across the Blue Ridge Mountains. In 1849, as Chief Engineer for the Blue Ridge Railroad Company, he and his assistants surveyed the line of the Blue Ridge Tunnel and its approach in order to extend the Virginia Central Railroad westward into the Shenandoah Valley. Courtesy the Phil James Historical Images Collection.

A second biography was published in 1989 by co-authors Robert F. Hunter and Edwin L. Dooley Jr. In 2014, Col. Edwin Dooley of VMI visited Crozet Library where he spoke about the life of the town’s namesake. “Crozet is one of Virginia’s most important historical figures,” said Col. Dooley. “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. It’s incredible what he did. We need to keep his name up. He did a tremendous amount of work for Virginia.”

In 1948, Virginia Military Institute erected a substantial granite marker with a brass plaque affixed, reading: “Claudius Crozet, Soldier-Scholar-Educator-Engineer. Born December 31, 1790 [sic] 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.

But about this unusually named town in western Albemarle County, and the elementary school which bears its name… why Crozet? Was he actually here?

Crozet Elementary School teacher Mrs. Isabelle Dunn Bing and one of her 4th grade students, Phillip James, 1961–’62 school year. This writer credits Mrs. Bing with introducing him to local and state history and inspiring him to pursue those interests. Courtesy the Phil James Historical Images Collection.

Most certainly he was! In 1839, while employed as Principal Engineer of the State of Virginia, Crozet surveyed across the rolling fields of western Albemarle County, seeking a potential route that could be used by the Louisa Railroad to pass from the Piedmont region across the Blue Ridge Mountains into the Shenandoah Valley and beyond. Virginia’s borders at that time extended to the Ohio River. No doubt his surveying work aroused the curiosity of many of the farmers in this area who wondered why he was trespassing on their property. At day’s end along his remote route, he likely sought out room and board at some nearby home or ordinary.

Claudius Crozet returned to the area in 1849, this time employed as the Chief Engineer of the Blue Ridge Railroad project. Jeremiah Wayland, owner of Pleasant Green, and, later, his son Abram, provided bed and meals (room and board) to workers and travelers. They would point out the room in their home where Crozet stayed when he and other civil engineers boarded with the Wayland family while surveying the line of the Blue Ridge Tunnel and its approach.

Commissioned by the Virginia General Assembly in 1848, Claudius Crozet created a “Map of the Internal Improvements of Virginia” along with a written report outlining the benefits of those improvements to the Old Dominion’s economy. Courtesy the Phil James Historical Images Collection.

Jane Warwick O’Neill Graham grew up at Pleasant Green. Her paternal O’Neill and maternal Gentry grandparents were contemporaries of both Jeremiah and Abram Wayland, and owned neighboring farms. It was Jane O’Neill Graham who pointed out to this writer the room at Pleasant Green which her O’Neill family was informed by the Wayland family as having been occupied by Claudius Crozet.

It was not until 1876, when local farmers led by Abram Wayland petitioned the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad to establish a flag stop near the place referred to locally as Wayland’s Crossing, that the village we know as Crozet received its name and subsequent dot on the map of history.

In his reply to the farmers’ request for a rail stop, Williams C. Wickham, then-vice-president of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad (and former president of both the Chesapeake and Ohio RR and Virginia Central RR), stated that the town would be called “… Crozet—or nothing.”

W.C. Wickham set into place the most enduring of tributes to greatness—a town—and that town’s elders, in turn, bestowed its name on the school at that place. May its students forever perpetuate the name and apply the discipline modeled by its namesake to their own endeavors. 

This fireplace hearth was in the room occupied by Claudius Crozet during his stay at Jeremiah Wayland’s Pleasant Green home. Crozet boarded with the Wayland family for a time during the surveying for the Blue Ridge Railroad project in 1849. (Historic Pleasant Green, near Blue Ridge Avenue in Crozet, was unceremoniously razed in 2020 during excavation for a new housing development.) Photo: Phil James.

Follow Secrets of the Blue Ridge on Facebook! Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County. You may respond to him through his website: www.SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2022 Phil James 

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