When the Blue Ridge Tunnel opened in 1858, its narrow 4,273′ passage through the mountains near Rockfish Gap created a corridor connecting Richmond to the Shenandoah Valley. Engineered by French civil engineer Claudius Crozet, it was a feat at the time, constructed in the most difficult stretch of the Virginia railroads—a very steep, craggy passage—and was the longest tunnel in the country. Now, the tunnel, an acclaimed Historic National Civil Engineering Landmark, is an echoey cavern beneath the Blue Ridge Parkway’s Skyline Drive, and a home to roosting bats and crumbling walls covered in graffiti. But after nearly 70 years of abandonment, new life is being breathed into the Blue Ridge Tunnel.
Clann Móhr, an nonprofit organization dedicated to studying the history of the 17-mile Blue Ridge Railroad, is working with the Claudius Crozet Blue Ridge Tunnel Foundation to have the tunnel listed on the National Register of Historic Places, shining a spotlight on not only the tunnel’s architectural grandeur, but the history surrounding its construction. This “Rails-to-Trails” project would reopen the historic tunnel near Afton Mountain to hikers and bikers, and put it on the map as a tourist attraction for both Nelson and Augusta counties.
If the Blue Ridge Tunnel is listed as a landmark, it will be the first tunnel listed in Virginia, said Clann Móhr’s Dan Burke, who is also a tunnel foundation board member. “The Blue Ridge Tunnel, while long abandoned, is still the epitome of [a] tremendous effort that took place in our state’s history. Sitting very quiet for too long, it has a wonderful story yet to tell.”
According to the tunnel foundation, the planning and design processes for the tunnel preservation have been completed, but the tunnel foundation is waiting on additional funding and the settlement of property easements. A formal application will be submitted to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources to be reviewed for a listing on the state register, and if it meets requirements it will then be sent to federal offices for review for that National Register of Historic Places, Burke said.
Clann Móhr’s efforts to educate the community have gone beyond the interested citizens who are a part of the tunnel foundation. Members of the organization have been auditing University of Virginia Professor Richard Collins’ architectural preservation class, and also educating his students about the history behind the Blue Ridge Railroad’s construction and builders, while the students piece together how they can help preserve and protect the tunnel.
Collins, who has taught preservation planning classes since 1975 and is a faculty member in the department of urban and environmental planning at UVA’s Architecture School, learned about the Blue Ridge Tunnel through the Virginia Endowment for the Humanities, which supported research on the tunnel. After meeting Clann Móhr members at a Rotunda event in 2011 he decided the Blue Ridge Tunnel would be the perfect project for his students to take on.
“I thought it would be an interesting topic to highlight cultural landscapes,” Collins said. “Not just the structure [and] engineering, but the story and narrative of the Irish workers and their sometime fellow workers, black slaves leased to [Claudius] Crozet from local owners.”
His students’ project included mapping technologies and 3D models of the tunnel site to address aspects of the planning process of preserving and protecting the tunnel as a landmark. His students even worked on the nomination application to have the tunnel listed on the historic register.
While Collins taught his students about preservation framework and how it relates to planning with legal and policy guidelines for the tunnel, Clann Móhr shared its cultural and historical research on the Blue Ridge Railroad with the students.
“I think the most valuable thing we learned from Clann Móhr is that a small group of people passionately interested in a place are an unstoppable force,” said Madeleine Hawks, an urban and environmental planning Master’s student. “I am impressed by their persistence and I hope that their research and planning transforms the tunnel soon so that others can enjoy the place and stories as much as they do.”
Claudius Crozet and his engineering accomplishments are well recognized in Central Virginia—from founding Virginia Military Institute to working with the state’s railroad—but the history surrounding the Irish workers and slaves who constructed Crozet’s railroad and tunnels is a bit hazy.
“While we have seen the books about the brilliant Claudius Crozet and have read the very dull reports about the railroad, our interest was in the many Irish immigrants and local slaves who actually did all the work in building the railroad up and through the mountains,” Burke said. “Our research interests have grown to include the local community that existed in this particular part of Central Virginia during the decade of the 1850s when the railroad construction took place.”
The organization has studied old courthouse records of local landowners who lived near the railroad in Albemarle, Nelson, and Augusta counties, as well as census records from Irish immigrants and other documents, such as railroad payroll ledgers. So far, Clann Móhr has collected the names of more than 1,900 workers and their families and 100 slaves who were involved in the railroad construction.
Efforts to bring the tunnel back to life are gaining more and more momentum. Two documentary filmmakers—The Stone Carvers director Paul Wagner and his wife Ellen—attended a tunnel presentation by the UVA students in December, and were so inspired by the preservation project and by Clann Móhr’s research that they have decided to pursue a film about the Blue Ridge Tunnel and the push to open it to the public as a hiking and heritage trail.
“This effort is obviously at the earliest planning stage, but as you can imagine, Clann Mhór is simply over the moon with the prospects,” Burke said.