Tunneling Through History

April 10, 2015

Tunneling Through History

The historical Claudius Crozet Blue Ridge Tunnel is a mile-long train tunnel that was built to allow trains to pass through the Afton Mountain at Rockfish Gap, a natural low point on the mountain in Central Virginia. The tunnel was constructed in the 1850s beneath about 700 feet of mountain, an incredible accomplishment at the time as contractors and laborers drilled and blasted the mountain using hand tools and black powder. No modern tunnel excavators (or ventilation equipment) were there to help. At a length of nearly one mile (4,273 linear ft.), it was the longest tunnel in the United States at the time of its completion in 1858. When workers who were working from both ends of the tunnel broke through the rock, the ensuing celebration lasted the rest of the day. The historic structure is a partial ellipse at 20 feet tall and 16 feet wide. It was abandoned in 1944 when a parallel tunnel was built to accommodate larger trains.

A group called the Claudius Crozet Blue Ridge Tunnel Foundation is crowdsourcing funds to rehabilitate the tunnel for use as a recreational trail (the tunnel will be closed to the public during construction). Wayne Nolde, one of the foundation’s directors gave a recent tour of the tunnel to explain the current condition of the tunnel and the rehabilitation effort. Given its location near the crossroads of Interstate 64, Route 250, The Blue Ridge Parkway, Skyline Drive, the Appalachian Trail and U.S. Bicycle Route 76, this repurposing makes a lot of sense as a way to marry history with modern use. The City of Waynesboro is also interested in connecting the tunnel to its existing trail along the South River in Waynesboro which will give it a connection to a larger trail network.

The Blue Ridge Tunnel was honored as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1976 – and efforts are currently underway to designate the tunnel on the National Register of Historic Places.

The foundation’s website offers a much more detailed description of the tunnel and the incredible history behind cutting a tunnel through a mountain in the 1800s using only hand tools and black powder. Please take a moment to dig a little deeper. Yes, bad pun intended!

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