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150-Year-Old Tunnel Could Reopen for Hiking Trail

Wed July 20, 2005 - Southeast Edition
Earl Swift -The Virginian-Pilot



AFTON, VA (AP) It drills through the hard heart of Afton Mountain, four-fifths of a mile long, walls and ceiling hacked into a graceful, almost delicate arch. Its dark stone bears the scars of hand chisels and sledgehammers, and the black powder charges that blew both ends toward the middle.

An engineering miracle, people called it: When trains first passed through it in April 1858, this was the longest railroad tunnel in the world. Hundreds of feet of mountain pressed down upon it. Many men were buried around it.

And it was dug blind, its path figured on paper, a leap of faith in mathematics rare for the day — yet so fine was the calculation that when diggers from east and west “holed through,” their tunnel’s alignment was just inches from perfect.

The Blue Ridge Tunnel has lain abandoned for 61 years. Its eastern portal is hidden behind black raspberry and shoulder-high weeds, and blocked by an icy pool of thigh-high water. Its western end is tucked into a shadowy notch swathed in fern and moss and mist. It is difficult to find.

But maybe not for much longer: After years of dreaming, planning and negotiation, the tunnel is the centerpiece of a planned hiking and biking trail that would traverse the Blue Ridge between Charlottesville and Waynesboro.

The details are still as murky as the tunnel’s middle, where blind crayfish swim and the temperature is a cave-like 52 degrees, but the day may be coming when this 19th century marvel is well-known to modern adventurers.

Same goes for the man who built it.

That would be Claudius Crozet, a bona fide genius who lived the sort of big, brash life that one doesn’t often associate with civil engineering. Born in France, he worked for Napoleon, was a prisoner of the Russians and taught generals of both Union and Confederacy at West Point. He designed a popular protractor and was among the first proponents of classroom blackboards — by some accounts, the first.

He was a founder of the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) and the first president of its Board of Visitors. A uniform he devised is, with little modification, still worn by West Point and VMI cadets. As state engineer, he planned the route and designed bridges and aqueducts for the James River and Kanawha Canal, which in terms of time, money and calories may well rank as Virginia’s greatest public works project. Thomas Jefferson considered him the top mathematician in America.

His traces are scattered around central Virginia: a town, home to a famed pizza joint, bears his name a few miles west of Charlottesville; the canal aqueducts and towpath he oversaw are still in use, carrying trains; a prominent stone marks his grave beside VMI’s Preston Library; and a campus building is named for him.

But the most impressive memorial to the man is the tunnel, which tackled a barrier that had always slowed the way west.

“Engineers just go crazy over it,” said Suzanne Gandy, a marketing strategist in the Whitesell Group, a Roanoke landscape architecture firm that is leading the restoration drive. “If it weren’t for this tunnel, the products from Tidewater wouldn’t have made it past Charlottesville.”

Despite that significance, and a busy location — under Interstate 64’s Rockfish Gap interchange, where Skyline Drive, the Blue Ridge Parkway and U.S. 250 meet —Crozet’s masterpiece is all but invisible: Reaching its western portal requires a half-mile hike through forest and heavy brush, past dripping rock and into a perpetual green-gray gloom.

A wafer of mist hovers outside its mouth, which is faced with limestone, lined with brick and follows a catenary curve — an unexpected shape for such duty, its best-known example the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

The tunnel holds that form through roughly 800 ft. of shale so crumbly that Crozet had it shored with multiple courses of brick, and 3,500 ft. more of granite so hard that the digging sometimes made only inches a day. The walls are roughhewn and cavernous on these latter stretches, home to bats, interrupted now and then by cascading springwater.

The eastern portal, similarly unimproved, is punched into a cliff a little west of Afton village. In the riot of brush that crowds the mountain in summer, you can’t see it until you’re nearly in its shadow.

Calling this deceptively simple structure a miracle might seem hucksterish, but in its day it rose to the description: Tunneling was a new science in 1838, when Crozet first proposed the route under Rockfish Gap, and this project presented technical challenges far beyond the norm.

The first was the site. A standard technique of old was to sink shafts from the surface along a tunnel’s planned route, then dig the passage from one shaft to the next, adjusting the excavation’s course as needed. Sinking shafts at Rockfish was out of the question, however: The mountain was too big, the tunnel approximately 700 ft. beneath its peak.

So a century before the first computers, Crozet relied on number-crunching alone to plan a tube that climbed 56 ft. from eastern portal to west. Ramrod-straight, it would eliminate 14 mi. of track that otherwise would have to switchback and wriggle over the Blue Ridge.

His skills and faith in science were undiminished 11 years later, when the project finally got the go-ahead and he the job of steering it. Detail-driven, demanding, the 60-year-old Crozet hired an army of Irishmen, encamped them on both sides of the mountain and told them to dig.

Despite the challenges, and no shortage of doubters, the crews from east and west met nose-to-nose on Christmas Day, 1856.

“Crozet brought to that project a stick-to-itiveness, a tenacity,” said Col. Keith Gibson, head of the VMI Museum. “Crozet was determined to see daylight through that shaft one day.”

It had blown its $200,000 budget by more than double but went on to become a key link in the old Chesapeake and Ohio’s main line and saw 86 years of service before a larger tunnel opened beside it in 1944.

Its tracks removed, Crozet’s tunnel lay dormant for approximately a decade until the Richmond-based Bottled Gas Corp. tried to give it a second life as a storage facility for propane. The firm had a local construction outfit build two 14-ft.-thick walls across the tunnel, one of them 1,850 ft. from the western portal, the other 750 ft. from the eastern end.

The project was abandoned before it was finished, leaving approximately 1,700 ft. of tunnel linked to the outside world only through a 24-in. metal pipe in each wall. That didn’t dissuade a steady trickle of amateur explorers over the next several decades: Today, the blind crayfish share their pitch-dark quarters with ancient Schlitz cans.

Gandy was among the visitors: She crawled through the pipes and completed her first tunnel traverse in the early 1980s.

“It was completely surreal and mystical and one of the biggest thrills I’d ever had. Every time I passed over Afton Mountain, I’d relive it.”

A few years ago, she and colleague Gene Whitesell were involved in an urban revitalization project in nearby Waynesboro.

“We were looking, as marketing people do, at the unique characteristics and strengths of Waynesboro and the surrounding area,” Gandy said, “and I remembered my tunnel experience.”

Before long, the two had a plan for a trail incorporating the tunnel, secured the cooperation of the railroad CSX, the C&O’s descendant and won the enthusiastic backing of local government. The project has since attracted $625,000 in federal grants.

This fall, the Whitesell Group will begin drafting detailed plans for the tunnel’s restoration, which will be a tricky piece of work: Those 14-ft. walls must be removed, the ceiling and walls stabilized, a long approach built from the west. Whitesell hopes to start construction in 2007.

With its completion, hikers and bikers will swoop downhill from U.S. 250 to the western portal.

“It’s like something out of ’Raiders of the Lost Ark,’” Whitesell said, “the whole mystique of rounding that bend and all of a sudden seeing that gaping hole in the mountains: Everyone sort of stops about 100 yards from the tunnel entrance and sort of takes it in for a few seconds.”

Gandy said she’s thrilled the project will bring Crozet the celebrity he deserves and expose his handiwork to schoolchildren, engineers and historians. But she admits that she sometimes grows wistful at the prospect of sharing the tunnel with so many.

“My selfish side wants to keep it just the way it is. It is secret. It is magical.”