Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Railroading Through Crozet

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Crozet’s first passenger depot (yellow with brown trim) was built in 1883 by Miller Manual Labor School. With minor alterations, including a fresh concrete platform seen in this c.1915 photo, it served the community for 40 years. Courtesy of the W.F. Carter Collection.

The village of Crozet was birthed in 1876 simply as a stop on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. But in 1849, what would become the site of downtown Crozet was little more than a conspicuous grove of oak trees surrounded by farms and farmers. The route of the c.1730’s Mountain Road surveyed by Peter Jefferson, later Three Notch’d Road, cut directly through the location of that future village on its course connecting Richmond with Staunton to the west.

Dramatic change, though, was approaching steadily in the form of steel rails and steam locomotives, with a promise of new prosperity for those nearby the path of its influence. The Blue Ridge Railroad Company was incorporated by the State of Virginia in March of 1849 in order to extend the Louisa Railroad 17 miles west, through the Blue Ridge Mountains, and into the Shenandoah Valley. Eleven months later, the Louisa RR became the Virginia Central Railroad Co., oft referred to during that period as, simply, the Central Railroad.

A view looking west across The Square at Crozet, in 1915, showed, l-r: Curtis A. Haden Store (formerly Haden Brothers; later the Crozet Theatre) and the facility of the Crozet Ice and Cold Storage Corp. Additionally, a C&O siding served the cold storage; another siding served the coal bins; and, on far right, was the main C&O passenger/freight line. Each of these rail features crossed the direct path of the at-grade rail crossing, sometimes creating onerous conditions for both foot and vehicular passage through downtown. Installation of a much safer and convenient underpass at this location was still two years away. Courtesy of the W.F. Carter Collection.

Claudius Crozet, the state’s Chief Engineer on the Blue Ridge Railroad project, began to set multiple crews to the task of converting a 17-miles-long slender strip of earth—both above and below the ground—into a heretofore unimaginable yet vital ribbon of rail.

The Virginia Central’s marching orders brought the railroad to Charlottesville in 1850, to Ivy in ’51, and the eastern bank of Mechums River in ’52. Leaping over the Blue Ridge Railroad’s active work zone, the Central began building west from Waynesboro with a visionary goal of extension to the Ohio River.

In December 1853, a cacophony of smoke, steam and train whistles from Virginia Central trains passed by Wayland’s Crossing (future Crozet) bound for the rail line’s then terminus (and locomotive turntable) at Greenwood Tunnel. Richmond’s Daily Dispatch newspaper stated, “When completed, the whole route from Mechum’s River to Waynesborough will be one of the greatest achievements of the age, and the glory of Virginia.”

In April ’54, those trains departed the mainline at the east portal of Greenwood Tunnel and, utilizing specially built engines and a temporary track, proceeded over the mountain through Rockfish Gap, safely transporting passengers and freight into Waynesboro. The barrier preventing efficient travel beyond the Blue Ridges had at last been breached.

The north approach to Crozet’s at-grade rail crossing, established in 1877. The “twin” c.1877 freight depots were originally constructed by Miller Manual Labor School on the north side of the railroad line. They were moved across to the south side when the passenger depot was built in 1883. Holsinger photo, c.1913. Photo by Rufus W. Holsinger; courtesy Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia.

In April 1858, the Blue Ridge Tunnel was completed and opened to rail traffic; the successful, temporary over-mountain track was removed, and a new era was begun.

Back in the countryside surrounding Wayland’s Crossing, many a wishful eye was cast toward the passing trains. Access to those modern-day amenities was available 3.8 miles distant, at Mechum’s River Station to the east, or Greenwood Station to the west.

When building plans were advertised for Miller Manual Labor School near Batesville in 1874, their closest railroad freight drop was at Mechum’s River Station. Sensing an opportunity, Miller School officials and local farmers petitioned the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad for a rail stop more efficient for the school’s colossal building project, and economically advantageous for shipping agricultural products.

In June 1876, C&O Vice-President Williams C. Wickham announced approval for the rail stop at a point to be designated as Crozet. The official word was published April 15, 1877: “A regular Freight Station, and a flag Station for Passengers for Trains Nos. 1 and 2, to be known as CROZET, has been established… with Mr. A. WAYLAND, as agent.”

Coal bins for Miller School were installed c.1887 by the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway on a siding at Crozet. By the time of this c.1915 image, those coal drops also powered the Crozet Ice and Cold Storage Corp. and warmed local households. Courtesy of the W.F. Carter Collection.

What followed was stuff of legend. Building materials dropped off at Crozet Station contributed to the building of Miller Manual Labor School/Miller School of Albemarle, now listed in the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places.

Apples, particularly Albemarle Pippins and Fancy Winesaps, shipped out in bounteous amounts by railcars from Crozet and other points in western Albemarle County, brought unheralded prosperity to the region and helped to make this county’s name an international byword. Peaches grown to perfection, picked, packed and shipped from Crozet led to the town’s recognition as the “Peach Capital of the East.”

Railroading through Crozet began in the 1850s over tracks laid by the Blue Ridge Railroad Company, whose principal engineer was Claudius Crozet. The Virginia Central Railroad operated over these tracks until they were conveyed in 1870 by the Commonwealth of Virginia to the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. The powerful Class G-7, 4-8-0 steam locomotive, waiting on a sidetrack beside Crozet’s freight depot in this c.1905 image, was designed to carry heavy loads across the mountains. Phil James Historical Images Collection.

By the mid-20th century, when fruit exports were slowing, industrial rail sidings were installed by the Chesapeake and Ohio, first for Acme Visible Records’ move to Crozet from Chicago. This manufacturer of world-class office filing systems became one of the county’s premiere employers. Three years later, Morton Frozen Foods (later, Del Monte), located next door to Acme, and established itself as the world’s largest manufacturer of prepared frozen foods, as well as the county’s largest employer. Raw materials for each of these business concerns arrived by the railcar load, and finished products shipped back out to waiting merchants.

For 125 years, the railroad brought jobs and prosperity to a large region whose epicenter was once-upon-a-time a solitary flag stop, named in honor of a giant who left behind, for the benefit of all, the evidences of his remarkable engineering talents. 

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 at [email protected]. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2024 Phil James 

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