The Blue Ridge Tunnel
The emergence of locomotive engines during the early 19th century revolutionized the capabilities of commerce and transportation across America; however, these preliminary technologies lacked the necessary power and sophistication to navigate rugged terrain like the Blue Ridge Mountains, which obstructed direct conveyance between Virginia’s Piedmont region and the Shenandoah Valley. But as railway mechanics became more developed, opportunities arose to unite the divided Commonwealth. During the mid-1840s, the Louisa Railroad sought to build an extension rail across the Blue Ridge that would connect Charlottesville to Waynesboro. While the initial plan was technically feasible, the company could not afford the cost of construction and private investors were unwilling to finance such a high-risk business venture. In March 1849, the Virginia Board of Public Works assumed control of the Louisa Railroad—rechartered as the Virginia Central Railroad the following year—which provided critical public funding for the seventeen-mile Blue Ridge Railroad. State officials named French immigrant Claudius Crozet chief engineer of the project.
A graduate of École Polytechnique in Paris, Crozet served as an artillery officer and combat engineer in Napoleon Bonaparte’s French Imperial Army. He was captured by Russian forces at the Battle of Borodino on September 7, 1812, and remained a prisoner of war until 1814. Upon his release, Crozet returned to French military service before resigning his commission in April 1816. Later that same year, he emigrated to America and found employment as a professor of engineering at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York. In 1823, Crozet was appointed Principal Engineer for the Virginia Board of Public Works, a position he would hold until 1831 and again from 1837 – 1843. During his second stint with the Board of Public Works, Crozet became the first president of the Virginia Military Institute.
Irish immigrants were the primary workforce utilized in the Blue Ridge Tunnel’s construction, which commenced on February 14, 1850. In an age before dynamite, laborers used hand drills to bore into granite and greenstone, black powder to blast through solid rock, and pickaxes to break up the rubble. A painstakingly slow process, work crews on either end of Afton Mountain averaged 26 feet per month.
The dangerous nature of tunnel construction placed many laborers at constant risk of injury or death. At least fourteen unfortunate Irishmen died from premature black powder blasts and falling rocks. An additional 33 people –including women and children—perished during a devastating cholera epidemic that ravaged the surrounding shanty towns. In 1853, Irish workers organized a three-week strike in protest of the brutal working and living conditions. They returned to work after successfully negotiating a thirteen-cent increase in pay, from $1.12 to $1.25 per day.
Following the protest, Crozet conscripted 33 enslaved men into railroad labor, signing one-year “rental” contracts with their respective owners. While unpaid and unable to strike, the slaves were prohibited from participating in any blasting activities. This protective measure was stipulated in the contracts to preserve “property values.” Instead, slaves worked as “floorers”—removing rock debris, digging ditches, and leveling embankments.
In April 1854, two enslaved men were killed during a runaway railcar accident. A third met a similar fate only a few weeks later. Crozet argued recklessness on part of the workers, but the Virginia Attorney General ruled that the Blue Ridge Railroad was responsible for the slaves’ deaths and ordered Crozet to compensate the slaveowners’ loss of property; however, no ruling was issued regarding reparations for the dead men’s families. Crozet stopped using slave labor thereafter to avoid future compensatory expenses.
As tunneling progressed further into the mountain, Crozet’s project ran into a couple of logistical problems. First, due to the tunnel’s length and depth, vertical ventilation shafts were impractical, making adequate air circulation quite the challenge. Second, the tunnel’s western entrance was positioned nearly sixty feet higher than the east, which caused problematic drainage pooling downslope. Crozet developed an ingenious horse-powered air pump to fumigate the dust and black powder smoke from the depths of the tunnel. Similarly, a two-thousand-foot siphon pump was constructed to address the flooding issue.
On December 29, 1856—nearly seven years after construction was initiated—laborers bored through the tunnel a mere six inches off perfect alignment. An additional sixteen months were required to shape the tunnel’s interior, level the grade, and lay down tracks. While these refinements were taking place, several citizens complained to the Board of Public Works about the tunnel’s delayed completion, to which Crozet took great offense, viewing these criticisms as personal attacks on his administrative competency. He resigned as chief engineer in January 1858, just a few months before the tunnel officially opened on April 13. At the time of its installation, the 4,273-foot Blue Ridge Tunnel was the longest railroad tunnel in North America.
In August 1910, the tunnel became the scene of a horrific tragedy. A group of Italian immigrants—aboard the Chesapeake and Ohio train No. 3 to Cleveland—awoke to the presence of choking black smoke in their railcar. Believing the train was on fire, the passengers panicked and began to break windows, not realizing they were in the poorly ventilated Blue Ridge Tunnel, which only exasperated the smoke and confusion. In an act of desperation, eighteen-year-old Virginia Roncoli broke open the rear exit door and attempted to jump to safety, but she fell beneath the wheels of the moving train, killing her instantly.
In 1944, the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad deactivated the Blue Ridge Tunnel and replaced it with an adjacent passageway that could accommodate larger locomotives. The defunct tunnel was then acquired by the Dixie Bottled Gas Corporation, which built massive bulkheads inside the tunnel with the intent to store propane gas; however, the concrete installations prevented adequate water drainage and the enterprise ultimately failed. The tunnel was left abandoned for nearly fifty years.
In 2001, the Nelson County government introduced measures to restore the historic tunnel and create a public recreational trail. A three-phase improvement plan was developed in 2007 following the county’s acquisition of the tunnel from CSX. Between 2013 and 2015, construction crews completed Phase I, producing the Afton parking lot and eastern trailhead. Next came Phase II, which involved removing the two, twelve-foot-thick bulkheads and draining stagnant water inside the tunnel. While demolition crews dealt with the concrete barriers, skilled stonemasons resealed the tunnel’s brick archways to reduce the risk of falling material. Following the tunnel’s renovations, Phase III was initiated in October 2019, creating the western trail and Waynesboro parking lot. In November 2020, after nearly twenty years and six million dollars in restoration costs, the 2.25-mile Blue Ridge Tunnel Trail opened to the public.
For those wishing to visit the Blue Ridge Tunnel, there are several things to keep in mind. The eastern (Afton) trail runs 0.6 miles to the tunnel and features a gentle, near-constant grade whereas the western (Waynesboro) trail extends 0.8 miles over rather hilly terrain, with some grades reaching 19%—just something to consider when choosing a starting point. The tunnel itself maintains a year-round temperature between 55 and 65 degrees thanks to Afton Mountain’s geothermal insulation, so wear appropriate clothing to remain warm. Bring a flashlight, too, as there are no additional lighting sources inside the tunnel.
The Blue Ridge Tunnel is an engineering marvel and an incredibly unique setting for a recreational trail. There is so much to appreciate on this hike—from Crozet’s industrial ingenuity to the exceptional workmanship of countless Irish and enslaved laborers—it inspires an indescribable exhilaration that can only be understood once experienced. Trail Rating: 10/10
Visit Virginia Humanities to view an intriguing documentary film about the Blue Ridge Tunnel
Check out the following publication on the Blue Ridge Tunnel's construction and restoration:
Looney, Jack. “Tunnel Visionaries: Claudius Crozet's 1858 Civil Engineering Marvel Gets Transformed into a Unique Recreational Destination.” International Regional Magazine Association, 2017.