BLUE RIDGE TUNNEL
French immigrant Claudius Crozet (1789 – 1864) designed the Blue Ridge Tunnel and was its chief engineer. He was a graduate of the École Polytechnique in Paris and served as an artillery officer during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Among his many accomplishments, he was a professor of engineering at the U. S. Military Academy in West Point, N. Y. He was also a founder of the Virginia Military Institute and first president of the Board of Visitors.¹
Crozet served three times as chief engineer for the state of Virginia and its Board of Public Works. During his first two tenures (1823 -1831 and 1838 -1843), he recommended that the state invest in railroads instead of continuous repairs on existing canals or construction of new ones. State officials finally recognized the wisdom of his advice and rehired him in 1849 to build the Blue Ridge Railroad.²
The chief engineer began, with the help of assistant engineers, by surveying a route between Mechum’s River in Albemarle County on the east side of Rockfish Gap to Waynesboro on the west side. His resulting plan included three tunnels, man-made embankments across deep hollows with numerous culverts in Albemarle County, and the almost one-mile-long Blue Ridge Tunnel between Nelson and Augusta Counties.³
Crozet predicted that the Blue Ridge Tunnel would be finished by 1853, but the unexpected hardness of the rock, especially greenstone on the east side, turned out to be an almost unbeatable opponent. Indeed, he referred to hard rock 90 times in letters he wrote to the Board of Public Works between 1849 and 1858.⁴ Nonetheless, Irish immigrant laborers perforated the tunnel on December 29, 1856, meeting within inches of his carefully engineered alignment.⁵
Sixteen long months passed before laborers could finish blasting, laying tracks, and lining sections of the Blue Ridge Tunnel with bricks. Meanwhile, local citizens—most from Augusta County—petitioned the Board of Public Works three times in 1857, insisting that the Virginia Central Railroad finish the passage. Disgusted by criticism of his management, Crozet found employment elsewhere in December 1857. He formally resigned in January 1858.⁶
Perforation Announcement, Baltimore Sun, Jan 1857
East Portal, 1909
The Blue Ridge Tunnel opened to traffic three months later on April 13, 1858. At the time, it was the longest railroad tunnel in North America. Though Claudius Crozet was not among the dignitaries who rode the first train through the passage, his professional expertise and visionary leadership were essential to the Blue Ridge Railroad and other lines built across Virginia in the 1840s and 1850s.
Robert F. Hunter and Edwin L. Dooley, Claudius Crozet: French Engineer in America, 1790 – 1864. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1989, 17, 125-126.
Ibid, 29-30, 103, 140.
Claudius Crozet to the President and Directors of the Blue Ridge Railroad, November 30, 1849, Blue Ridge Railroad Papers, Library of Virginia.
Mary E. Lyons, Thankless Business: Claudius Crozet and the Blue Ridge Railroad – Selected Letters, forthcoming 2017.
Blue Ridge Tunnel payroll, December 1856, Blue Ridge Railroad Papers, Library of Virginia.
Lyons, Thankless Business, 374-380, 395; Claudius Crozet to the Board of Public Works, January 1, 1858.
Blue Ridge Railroad
The Blue Ridge Mountains and Alleghany Mountains were a natural barrier for passenger and freight traffic between Richmond and the Ohio River, then the western border of the state. Members of the Virginia legislature who had invested in turnpikes and canals needed convincing that railroads could do a better job of crossing those 423 miles.
When steam engines improved in the 1840s, the state of Virginia bought stock in the privately owned Louisa Railroad. Private investors, though, were unwilling to take on the expensive task of traversing the mountainous terrain at Rockfish Gap. As a result, the legislature approved critical public funding for the 17-mile-long Blue Ridge Railroad in March 1849.
In February 1850, the General Assembly changed the name of the Louisa Railroad to the Virginia Central. This new entity would build west from Ivy (then Woodville) in Albemarle County and connect with the eastern terminus of the Blue Ridge Railroad at Mechum’s River, also in Albemarle County. Simultaneously, the Virginia Central would lay tracks from Staunton to Waynesboro while building farther west to Covington in Alleghany County. Meantime, the Covington and Ohio Railroad would begin at the Ohio River and meet with the Virginia Central in Covington.
Despite many negotiations concerning shared costs, the Virginia Central assumed control of the Blue Ridge Railroad after the line opened in April 1858. But state budget cuts beginning in 1855 slowed construction to the Ohio River and the 1861 – 1865 Civil War halted it altogether. The Virginia Central merged with the Covington and Ohio in 1868 to become the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway. In 1873, the route between Richmond and the Ohio River was completed at last.¹
West Portal 1917
East Portals – Old and New, circa 1950
In 1944, the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway replaced the 86-year-old Blue Ridge Tunnel with an adjacent tunnel at a slightly lower elevation on a curved alignment that could accommodate larger locomotives. Somewhat parallel to the old passage, the newer tunnel is still in daily operation, as is the 100-feet-long Little Rock Tunnel in Albemarle County. The old Blue Ridge Tunnel has not hosted traffic since then.
VA Central Railroad Map – West of Blue Ridge
Mary E. Lyons, The Virginia Blue Ridge Railroad, Charleston, S. C.: The History Press, 119-122.
Contractors and Laborers
Claudius Crozet advertised nationally for contractors’ bids on the Blue Ridge Tunnel in July 1849. Though seven contractors answered the call, he unfortunately chose the cheapest bidder, a New Yorker named John Rutter. The chief engineer then issued advertisements for construction of two shorter tunnels in September 1849. East to west, these were the Greenwood and Brooksville Tunnels in Albemarle County.¹
Ad for contractors, receipt from Baltimore Sun, 1849
Irish immigrants John Kelly and John Larguey, partners in Kelly and Company, answered the advertisements and signed a contract for the Greenwood and Brooksville Tunnels in December 1849. Both had worked for years as contractors on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in Maryland. They brought with them a number of Irish immigrant laborers—and their extended families—from the Baltimore and Ohio construction. The majority was from County Cork, Ireland, one of the hardest hit areas during that country’s Great Hunger of 1845 – 1852.²
After John Rutter failed to show up for the Blue Ridge Tunnel construction, Kelly and Company signed a contract in February 1850 to build the passage. Of the approximately 30 contractors involved with the Blue Ridge Railroad, John Kelly and John Larguey shouldered the greatest burden, as did their workers.³
The grueling work of blasting three tunnels with only hand tools and black gunpowder in those pre-dynamite days was underway by March 1850. The rate of progress in the tunnel varied from year to year. In 1851, the Irish labor force blasted from 19 feet a month on the east side to 72 feet on the west. The men paid a heavy toll. At least 14 Irish died in the tunnel from blasts or rock falls. Scores more died, as did their family members, of infectious diseases, especially during the 1854 cholera epidemic.⁴
Manpower Report 1855
None of the many hundreds of Irish men and 65 boys employed on the Blue Ridge Railroad could have accomplished their brutal work without the labor of wives, daughters, sisters, aunts, and grandmothers. The women gave birth in impossibly primitive conditions, swept shanty floors, gathered firewood, drew water from the springs, cooked, and sent their menfolk off to blasting every morning, not knowing if they would see their loved one’s mangled corpse by the end of the day.⁵
Two enslaved men died from a runaway railcar accident on the Blue Ridge Railroad line in April 1854. A third died in a handcar accident the following month. These men were among the 50 or so slaves hired by Claudius Crozet to toil along the line. They cleared flooded ditches, repaired grades, helped build culverts, split stone into ballast, spread ballast, and otherwise readied the Blue Ridge Railroad for traffic. In 1854, thirty-three black men labored at the Blue Ridge Tunnel. The contract for their enforced work specified that they could not be allowed near the dangerous blasting. Instead, they involuntarily labored as blacksmiths or floorers who cleared rock debris from the passage after explosions.⁶
Claudius Crozet to the President and Directors of the Blue Ridge Railroad, July 12, 1849, September 10, 1849, and October 5, 1849, Blue Ridge Railroad Papers, Library of Virginia.
Mary E. Lyons, The Blue Ridge Tunnel: A Remarkable Engineering Feat in Antebellum Virginia, Charleston, S. C.: The History Press, 2014, 13-14, 23.
John Kelly to John B. Floyd, November 15, 1850, Blue Ridge Railroad Papers, Library of Virginia; Lyons, Thankless Business: Claudius Crozet and the Blue Ridge Railroad – Selected Letters, forthcoming 2017, 402.
Claudius Crozet to the President and Directors of the Board of Public Works, January 15, 1851, Blue Ridge Railroad Papers, Library of Virginia; Lyons, The Virginia Blue Ridge Railroad, Charleston, S. C.: The History Press, 88-91, 145.
Lyons, The Blue Ridge Tunnel, 31-32.
Claudius Crozet to the Board of Public Works, April 29, 1854; William Sclater to John Maupin, May 26, 1854; and “Contract for the hire of negroes,” January 5, 1854, Blue Ridge Railroad Papers, Library of Virginia.