November 29, 2005
Did you know the first railroad tunnel under Afton Mountain in Nelson County used to be the longest railroad tunnel in the United States?
Central Virginia is known for its picturesque beauty thanks to mountains and valleys, but its most famous internal improvement many may not know. A tunnel underneath Afton Mountain.
"This tunnel for a while was the longest railroad tunnel in the United States," said Rick Britton, a local historian.
The tunnel measuring 4,264 feet is the creation of Claudius Crozet. A Frenchman born in 1789, and product of the renown Ecole Polytechnic, the institution after which West Point was modeled.
"I wasn't really sure what to expect. It's my first time seeing it. It's nicer than I imagined. I mean, it's phenomenal," said Britton.
Crozet fought under Napolean's army as a Second Lieutenant of Engineers.
"What this really says is how amazingly well-trained that man was," said Britton.
In 1849, as Virginia's principal engineer, Crozet was called to supervise the drilling of a railroad tunnel through the Blue Ridge Mountains at Rockfish Gap. It took many years and hard work to break through the rolling hills.
"They weren't using dynamite. Dynamite hadn't been invented yet. They were using a little bit of black powder which isn't effective, but mostly this things was dug with pick-axes and shovels," explained Britton.
For the design of the massive Blue Ridge Tunnel, Crozet chose an elliptical shape 12 feet wide, and 17 feet tall. It was the perfect fit for railroad cars used back then, and still left room along the sides of the tracks for workers.
"When they got in the middle, toward the end of the project, they were only a few inches off center," said Britton.
On April 13, 1858, the first Virginia Central train pierced the hole at Rockfish Gap. Although taking five years longer than anticipated, the French engineer, despite cost overruns and constant abuse by the press, had produced a public work of lasting utility.
"It took the better part of nine years, and lives were lost in the construction of the tunnel. It took a pile of money; it cost way more than estimated originally," said Britton.
Nearly 150 years later, you can still see the markings where workers used drills to cut away the rock from mountain.
Perhaps, Crozet's greatest tribute is that his Blue Ridge Tunnel remained in use until 1944. Nelson County is working with the land's owner to open it as a hiking trail.