August 2021

Blue Ridge Tunnel Vision

 

History and mystery in reopened tunnel

For almost a century, trains rumbled through the Blue Ridge Tunnel, which opened in 1858 and closed in 1944 upon completion of a new tunnel capable of accommodating larger trains.

Today, the tunnel is once again open to traffic, but the only wheels that roll through its cool, damp corridor belong to bikes and strollers.

On a sunny day in June, my party is in Afton, Va., at the mouth of the tunnel’s eastern entrance. I exchange my sunglasses for a headlamp, and 85 degrees for 55.We step into the dripping darkness, the light at the other end no bigger than a pinhole. Outside is bright and sunny. Inside is drizzle and darkness. I feel like I am in a planetarium.

East entrance PHOTO COURTESY AMANDA S. CREASEY

 

Since its opening in November 2020, the tunnel has attracted more than 50,000 visitors.

 

The experience is full of juxtapositions and paradoxes like this. The backbreaking physical labor of Irish immigrants and enslaved people, and the more bureaucratic efforts of dedicated county officials and advocates over the past two decades, have resulted in a place that stokes wonder and awe.

“The groups that enabled Nelson County’s Tunnel Project to be realized certainly different than the groups that initially constructed the tunnel, and the effort for both projects is certainly different. However, the project to restore the tunnel and establish the Blue Ridge Tunnel Trail was in many aspects equally challenging,” County Administrator Steve Carter says.

According to Maureen Kelley, Nelson County director of economic development and tourism, between its opening in November 2020 and June 2021, the tunnel had already attracted more than 50,000 visitors. And it’s no wonder: There’s something for everyone.

“It showcases an engineering wonder, with appeal to lovers of outdoor recreation, history enthusiasts and railroad buffs, wildlife watchers, heritage tourists and Virginia residents,” Kelley says.

West entrance PHOTO COURTESY AMANDA S. CREASEY

TIME TUNNEL

Mary Lyons, who has written several books about the tunnel, finds its combination of history and recreation unbeatable. Her first book about the tunnel, “The Blue Ridge Tunnel: A Remarkable Engineering Feat in Antebellum Virginia,” details the history of the tunnel’s construction. “What these men did by hand in the pre-dynamite age is truly astounding,” she says.

According to Lyons, still “the longest hand-drilled tunnel in North America,” the tunnel’s completion in the 1850s was a miraculous feat of engineering. She has transcribed more than 10,000 names from tunnel payrolls; 13 of those men lost their lives hand-drilling the tunnel.

The 4200-foot-long tunnel took longer to reopen than to construct—20 years, underscoring the remarkable engineering feat. Upon first seeing the tunnel in 2001, Carter was captivated “It was so remarkable. I was extremely motivated with the challenge of enabling this nationally significant structure to be reawakened and available to everyone to experience,” he says.

CHANGING LANDSCAPE

As I approach the western end of the tunnel, raw rock gives way to brick, dramatically altering the acoustics. Sounds become softer, muted. I imagine how many thousands of bricks each pair of hands must have laid. I imagine the men those hands belonged to.

And that is a word I keep hearing in the tunnel: “Imagine,” fellow visitors keep imploring each other.

Hand-laid brick along the walls of the west entrance PHOTO COURTESY AMANDA S. CREASEY

Claire Richardson, director of Nelson County Parks and Recreation, whose department manages and oversees the tunnel, imagines a future for the tunnel as ambitious as its engineers did.

“Imagine,” she says, “being able to ride your bike from Charlottesville all the way toWaynesboro and beyond by way of the Blue Ridge Tunnel Trail. Preliminary efforts are underway to connect the western trail toWaynesboro, and on the east, the Three Notched Trail would link Crozet and Charlottesville.” I imagine I will have to come back.

Two weeks later, on the summer solstice, I do. The tunnel has called me and my dogs, with my husband, back to its crepuscular cavern. We begin at the western entrance in Waynesboro, walking back through time as we delve deeper into the bowels of the mountain.

At the end of our hike, released into the fresh air and sunshine on the other end, we are free to go about our day — eat lunch at The River Burger Bar, stave off the 95-degree heat with custard from Kline’s Dairy Bar, take a nap.

What was at the end of the tunnel for the men who built it? Answers are everywhere — signs along the trail, payroll records, Lyons’ books — and nowhere. The walls of the tunnel echo not only of the voices of those of us passing through, but also of the untold hardships and challenges and labor of the men who built it.


For more information, visit blueridgetunnel.org.