Ain't no mountain wide enough: To keep Crozet from tunneling a new attraction

Claudius Crozet is more than a name on a neighborhood park or a tiny town. Although he's been dead for 138 years, he's a hero in engineering circles.

"He was ahead of his time," says Howard Newlon, a civil engineer and UVA faculty member. "We need more of those."

If a group of tourism boosters and outdoor types has its way, Mr. Crozet might soon be a hero in recreation circles. There's a plan afoot to turn Crozet's masterpiece– an unused railroad tunnel stretching nearly a mile through Afton Mountain– into a hiking, biking, and horseback trail. That effort got a major boost with the recent announcement that the state was awarding $300,000 to help reopen Crozet's antebellum masterpiece.

Ironically, the fact that his mid-mountain thoroughfare ceased its task in 1944 hasn't dimmed Crozet's reputation. The great engineer's body lies under an elaborate stone memorial at Virginia Military Institute, which he helped to found. And every year, a consortium of engineering groups presents the Crozet Award to an outstanding state engineer. What did Crozet do to deserve all this?


To get the Railroad through the Blue Ridge, Crozet actually built four tunnels. But none could compare with the fourth and the longest. Four-fifths of a mile long– 4,281 feet– this aptly named Blue Ridge Tunnel was by far the longest railroad tunnel in the world.

On the western, or Waynesboro, side of the mountain, Crozet's tunnel appears like a fairy-tale castle, albeit one shaped like a L'Eggs pantyhose egg and surrounded by an overgrown landscape.

"When I first saw it 25 years ago, it was the most enchanting, mystical place I'd ever seen, and it still is," says Suzanne Gandy Akers, one of the planners of the reopening. "The rush of going through an abandoned tunnel is the greatest thrill of all."

Walking through this portal, one shudders to imagine the awesome task that Crozet undertook. The elliptical entrance draws one closer with an air of anticipation and mystery. Inside, utter blackness shrouds the details until banished by flashlight beams.

Three-foot-thick brick walls (several patches have fallen down) keep the looser rock in place. According to contemporary sources, such shoring required 150,000 bricks, but only within the first 1500 hundred feet of the western entrance. From then on, however, it's all rock. Painstakingly carved, blasted, and chipped.

Before the advent of nitroglycerine, dynamite, and the pneumatic drill, Crozet's men used black powder and hand tools to do their work. Evidence of crude chip marks remains, and the clearly audible drip of unseen water must echo in some small way the chink, chink of chisels.

Standing inside gives the impression of walking into an auction house after the bidding has just ended. It seems as though the frenetic activity of building might have stopped only moments before. To complement the picture of the raw energy that hundreds of workers, many of them Irish, expended in digging the tunnel, Dan Mahon, Outdoor Recreation Planner and Greenways Coordinator for Albemarle County, pulls out a tin whistle and blows a soulful lament.

"I want to bring home the memory of those Irish laborers cutting through rock day after day, sweating, coughing, and cursing," says Mahon. "I play to that memory." Before the tunnel was finished in 1858, there'd be plenty of sweating, coughing, and cursing.


Claudius Crozet was born in France in 1789 and quickly rose through the ranks at France's famed Ecole Polytechnic and then in Napoleon's army. After the Little Corporal's final defeat in 1816, Crozet and his wife emigrated to the United States. A stint at the newly founded United States Military Academy in the chilly Hudson Valley soon had him scouting for warmer climes. A letter to Thomas Jefferson requesting a professorship at UVA was well received– except that the University had yet to open.

But through Jefferson's prompting, in 1823 Crozet was offered the post of principal engineer at the Virginia Board of Public Works, a post he eagerly accepted. There, his chief responsibilities consisted of road-building and map-making. But Crozet always favored railways as the way to transport goods past rivers and mountains. Opposing him was a man distrustful of new ideas and partial to his own, powerful State Senator Joseph Cabell, who dreamed of a canal system that would reach the Ohio River, then still a part of Virginia. In Crozet's words, Cabell was "a lion in my path."

Crozet resigned and waited while Cabell's canal project failed miserably. Invited back, Crozet began extolling the possibilities of rail commerce. From 1837 to 1849, Crozet crusaded. Meanwhile, the Virginia Central Railroad reached from Gordonsville through Charlottesville as far west as Mechums River. Crozet said he could continue the line over the mountain.

That would take big money, and since the railroad would improve the entire state's economic welfare, the Commonwealth agreed to fund the 17-mile Valley connection, dubbed The Blue Ridge Railroad.


That's how it happened that in 1850, at 60 years of age, Claudius Crozet came to face the greatest challenge of his career. The construction company had invited several hundred Irish workers from New York and New England. Immigrants who hailed from County Cork in southern Ireland, the workers and their families settled at a hastily built shantytown in Afton. Unbeknownst to these Protestant families, a similar number of northern (i.e. Catholic) Irish were already living across the mountain in Fishersville.

Before the first pickaxe was hefted, the Irish discovered each other, and mayhem erupted, culminating in the shooting of an Irish worker. While editors of the local papers hinted at a "holy war" between Protestants and Catholics, the historical record gives no evidence that one ensued.

Work began in March 1850, on opposite sides of the mountain with picks, hand drills, and black powder. Progress averaged just one foot per side per day. Tools often were dulled and broken before any perceptible dent had been made in the hard rock.

According to Claudius Crozet: French Engineer in America, by Robert F. Hunter and Edwin L. Dooley, loose rock at the west side caused so much fear among workers that they walked off the job. A worker named Michael Curren lost his hands in a black powder explosion and then was denied pay while under medical care.

As dissent among the men continued to simmer, strikes occurred, and many men headed north in search of higher pay and less danger. Daily wages, which began at 75 cents a day, started to climb. According to the book by Hunter and Dooley, a higher offer from a disgruntled former contractor lured away dozens of workers to Cincinnati, so Crozet prepared to offer $1.12 and 1/2 cent a day.

By 1853, workers doing the most dangerous work were getting $1.37 and 1/2 cent per day. A cholera outbreak in 1854 killed 35 workers: 28 on the Augusta side and seven from the Afton side.

Although slaves were hired at a dollar a day, their owners were allowed to keep the money. Because of their intrinsic worth, the slaves were forbidden to work anywhere near the blasting. Unlike the Irish, though, slaves could not strike, observe religious holidays, or take a two-day break when a friend died.

No evidence of where the slaves camped has been found, but the crews must have had little contact since not one black slave contracted cholera in the epidemic. However, two died when a runaway flatcar hurtled them down Afton mountain toward a parked train engine in Waynesboro, according to the book.

Crozet faced woes of his own, not least of which was the general idea that the tunnel would never be usable. The nearly impenetrable rock, the constant threat of landslides, a national financial crisis, and continued attacks from local editors plagued him constantly. The fact that his own salary was the then generous sum of $3,000 opened him to criticism from a chorus of critics including the Lexington Gazette, whose editor opined that he was "stupid."

Undaunted, and freed perhaps by the fact that his tunnel broke so much new ground– er, featured so many innovations– he pushed the men to work around the clock in three eight-hour shifts. While weather posed little problem (the tunnel remains a cool 52 degrees year round), constant seepage was an aggravation that provided opportunity. Crozet devised the longest siphon then on record, an 1,800 foot-long iron pipe that discharged water at the voluminous rate of 60 gallons a minute.

Crozet had cleverly sloped the tunnel 56 feet from end to end so that water would always drain out the lower Afton side, while smoke would float out of the higher Waynesboro side. But until bore-through day, the smoke was trapped. So Crozet supervised construction of a machine made of inverted tubs and pipes to usher the smoke out– powered by mules on a treadmill.

Did he really know what he was doing?

"Absolutely," attests engineer Newlon. "He thought in terms of facts and quantitative measures."

But scant support in the 1850s kept tongues wagging, and many bets were wagered on the eventual outcome of Crozet's project.


At 16 feet wide and 20 feet high, the egg-shaped tunnel looks too narrow to accommodate a steam engine. Crozet picked this elliptical form because it conforms to the outline of steam trains while diminishing the quantity of earth that needed to be removed. It also provided escape room for any man who might be working in the tunnel when the train came through, as well as allowing some ventilation and draft space when steam engine smokestacks belched their thick black smoke.

On December 25, 1856, the east and west bores met up. In what would become part of the most celebrated fact of Crozet's legend, the two bores were just half an inch from the center line Crozet had plotted.

A victorious day of celebrating roused the journeymen. But the battle wasn't quite over. Rumors began to circulate (prompted in part by those pesky editors) that the bore wouldn't be big enough. The Lexington Gazette smugly derided the tunnel as "too small to admit the passage of a single car, much less a full train."

Crozet, though, had the last laugh. Rails were laid, and on April 13, 1858, a mail train passed through, marking the beginning of nearly 90 years of Blue Ridge Tunnel use.


The Virginia Central Railroad was eventually acquired by the C&O, and today the tunnel property still belongs to CSX, its successor corporation. And while official railroad policy is that trespassers can be prosecuted, the edict doesn't seem to have stopped revelers, drinkers, and curiosity seekers from exploring the inner recesses of Afton Mountain.

On a recent visit, beer cans, convenience store junk food wrappers, and a smattering of graffiti littered the hallowed interior. When the bank of Afton was robbed in the spring of 2001, members of the Nelson County sheriff's department, armed with automatic rifles, immediately headed for the tunnel, surmising that that destination would make an obvious hiding spot. The alleged perps were apprehended elsewhere. Nearly a mile from Route 250, the nearest highway, the tunnel might have been too hard to find.

Because the tunnel is still beautiful, one naturally assumes that some hapless individuals would think of using it as a sheltered abode or open air port-a-john, but the cool interior smells of nothing more offensive than dank air.

When this tunnel officially closed in favor of the newer, wider version in 1944, an idea germinated to store natural gas in the dark confines of the central part. Although two poured concrete walls constructed for that purpose now prevent walk-thru passage, actual storing of gas never materialized.

Albemarle greenways expert Mahon says he's climbed through the hatches in the concrete walls and seen leftover gallon buckets, rubber boots, and sealants left from the days when the experiment was considered viable.

Re-opening this tunnel as a trail enhancement project will take a colossal amount of support, but The Whitesell Group, a Roanoke landscape architect/planning firm that currently leads the charge in the tunnel preservation, says that's not going to be a problem.

"People have been coming out of the woodwork to offer help, assistance, land, easements, whatever it takes to make it possible," says firm principal Gene Whitesell. Hired in 2001 by the City of Waynesboro to implement a fledgling downtown revitalization and Greenways trail system, Whitesell and partner Suzanne Gandy Akers suggested continuing the trail system to incorporate the Blue Ridge Tunnel.

Waynesboro gave the thumbs up, but since then, even more exuberant support has come from Nelson County. The Board of Supervisors ushered a grant proposal through federal red tape in January. In May, word came that the project had been selected as worthy of a $300,000 grant under the "T-21" program, which funds alternative ideas in transportation.

While the Whitesell Group estimates that reopening the tunnel and improving adjacent trails will cost a total of $1.8 million, organizers seem confident that the federal money– like a freight train puffing through the tunnel– will keep on rolling.

Nelson County Administrator Steven Carter evinces an infectious enthusiasm that sweeps everyone around him into a similar kind of fervor. The tunnel project will add noticeably to Nelson County's already lengthy list of eco-friendly tourist destinations, and he's behind it 100 percent. "Of course, I'm very prejudiced," he humbly admits.

Opposition hasn't been quite so vocal. Attorney Bruce Tyler, who lives and works in Afton, has spoken out against the proposal at meetings. A lone voice, Tyler says his concern revolves almost solely around the position of the trailhead.

"I'm all for the project; I just don't want any buses," he says. Standing where he thinks the trailhead will be located, it's easy to see his concern. The old rail bed– eyed by planners as part of the trail system– is his driveway.

First item on the agenda is acquiring the land from the railroad. CSX has helped by writing a letter of intent to donate the tunnel. That will constitute the 20 percent "local matching funds" required under T-21.

While Augusta and Nelson are the counties at the portals, the trails proposed on the eastern side fall largely in Albemarle County, which has been a leader in designing Greenway trails. With Albemarle officially endorsing the project, the tri-county collective has the makings of a coherent network.


But what about safety? Even when Crozet himself toured the tunnel in 1857 with a geology class from UVA, "Daylight did not shine through the Blue Ridge," according to a 1951 story in Virginia Cavalcade. The cavity runs for such a long distance encased by its black granite that towards the center, even with the aid of a dozen lamps, the students were barely able to make each other out.

Ten feet inside, without the aid of artificial light, each gingerly planted step feels ominously like the last. All perspective quickly disappears in the darkness, sounds bounce off the walls with strange reverberations, and flashlight beams reveal a few brown bats curled up tightly in the crevices.

Protecting this ambience has captured the imagination of all parties involved. Speaking to representatives from Nelson County, the Whitesell Group and Albemarle's Mahon each reiterated that they do not want the cavern lit up like the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. That's understandable except when one thinks of perceived and real threats from unsavory characters possibly lurking in the middle of this almost mile-long passage.

Four-fifths of a mile is roughly the distance from the east end of the Downtown Mall to Starr Hill. Now consider that you are 400 feet below ground and several miles away from civilization; for earth-bound trekkers, it's a stone's throw from heaven, but for other more car-oriented travelers, it might be a frightening proposition to explore this deep vein into the earth's belly.

Violent crimes in natural areas are rare, but when they occur, they usually send seismic shock waves.

In August, 1998, after hiking along the nearby Appalachian Trail, a 22-year-old Austrian traveler named Rita Haider decided to spend the night in a tent in Waynesboro's Loth Spring Park, a popular stopping point for hikers. During the night, she was attacked and stabbed multiple times by a homeless man. Fortunately, she survived.

A year earlier, Darrell David Rice of Columbia, Maryland, attacked a Canadian visitor biking in the Shenandoah National Park. Now imprisoned for that crime, he awaits a federal trial in Charlottesville for allegedly killing two female hikers in the same vicinity in 1996.

All proponents of the tunnel's plans quickly claim that Greenways systems decrease crimes rather than encourage them, and that avid trail users are the best protection, not just for the trail but for each other. FBI statistics show that a person is more likely to be the victim of a crime in a parking lot or garage, on the street, or inside of his/her own home than in a park, field, or on a playground.

Even better news in tunnel safety is that there's already a much longer trail tunnel being used quite successfully in Washington State. The 2.3-mile Snoqualmie Tunnel, open to hikers and bikers since 1994, has become a mecca for tourists, but not for crime, according to a 2001 study by the Rails to Trails Conservancy, a non-profit group that advocates conversion of unused railroads into recreational trails. All the while, according to the report, the Snoqualmie Tunnel is "perpetually pitch black, cold and damp."

The Whitesell Group's Akers says that possible safety options include a round-the-clock maintenance and patrol unit, gated entranceways that can be lowered at dusk, and vehicular access. Suggestions for ambient illumination include runway lights along the ground that would cast light upward to keep the pathway visible without scaring away the bats.

All conversations and meetings at this point remain in the preliminary stages they will begin in earnest when the money arrives from VDOT in early January.


According to a faded Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper clipping, in 1976, a crew from the American Society of Civil Engineers clambered over weed and vine to visit and celebrate Crozet's handiwork as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. Other sites on this prestigious list include the Roosevelt Dam, the Erie Canal, and the Mormon Tabernacle.

"Crozet's example of character, persistence, and professional competence is worthy of emulation by succeeding generations of engineers," the society announced. "His use of novel methods of drainage and ventilation during construction of the tunnel was a contribution to the development of the civil engineering profession." That's how Claudius became known as the unofficial "father" of VDOT.

Keeping this monument hidden in a frame of lush greenery, inaccessible to history buffs and walkers, seems like the worst kind of insult, so perhaps this recreational conversion won't have Claudius Crozet rolling over in his grave. After all, celebration of his talents is part of the plan. Keeping the tunnel's historical integrity intact now moves forward on the list of priorities. But to what extent, nobody knows.

Maureen Corum, Director of Tourism for Nelson County, notes that from today, it will probably take five to seven years to complete the planned trails and tunnel re-opening... almost the same amount of time it took Crozet to build the tunnel.



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