After a dozen years of planning, VDOT has awarded Nelson County $750,000 to begin restoring what was once the world’s greatest railroad engineering effort: The Claudius Crozet Blue Ridge Tunnel.
“When it was built, it was the longest tunnel in the nation, and the longest mountain tunnel in the world,” said Allen Hale, a Nelson County Supervisor and chair of the public-private foundation that has advocated for restoration since 2001. The tunnel, named for the Frenchman who designed it, was a marvel of the age, a passage hewn through nearly a mile of rock by hundreds of Irish laborers and slaves working from both sides of Afton Mountain. Nitroglycerin explosives wouldn’t be available for another decade, Hale explained. The work was done with black powder and the brute force of hand drills. “You had to have two guys—one holding a bit and the other a sledgehammer,” he said.
The east and west efforts met on Christmas Day in 1858, their alignment only inches off. “It really was a brilliant engineering feat,” Hale said.
The tunnel was abandoned when a bigger one was completed in 1944. Reopening it as a walking and biking path won’t be nearly so arduous, Hale said. Nelson County already owns the entire right-of-way, which it purchased from CSX for $1 in 2006, and the county is working on securing easements on more land on the Augusta side of the mountain. The first phase of the project, covered by a grant from VDOT’s federal Transportation Alternatives Program and expected to be completed in four to six months, will consist of an access path from the old Afton Depot off Route 250 to the east entrance and 700 feet of tunnel trail.
Bigger tasks, also expected to be funded by VDOT, will come later. One will be restoring the crumbling brickwork that lines a few hundred feet of the west end. Also on the to-do list: knocking out twin concrete bulkheads installed in the 1950s in an attempt, later abandoned, to convert the center section of the tunnel to a natural gas storage site. Each is about 14 feet thick, passable only by narrow drainage culverts. “I’m told by the tunnel experts that it’s not an overwhelming task,” Hale said. The brickwork and blasting together could cost around $490,000.
Eventually, once easements are secured on the Augusta side of the tunnel, bikers and walkers will be able to travel between two trailheads through the full 4,264-foot-long passageway, unlit but for the openings at either end.
Until then, curious explorers will have to be kept out. The tunnel is currently off-limits, Hale said, but trespassers visit frequently, some leaving behind trash and graffiti, and the foundation is considering erecting gates to block off the areas under restoration.
Hale said he understands what draws people to Crozet’s masterwork.
“Anyone who sees this place realizes that it’s a really wonderful thing,” he said.