March 23, 2014
The Claudius Crozet Blue Ridge Tunnel was at one point the longest railroad tunnel in the world, according to experts. It was abandoned decades ago, but an effort to restore it is getting back on track.
A discussion about the tunnel's past and future took place at the Nelson Memorial Library on Saturday afternoon.
The tunnel was designed by Claudius Crozet and built by Irish laborers and African-American slaves in the 1850s. It was used to get from Central Virginia to the developing Western Frontier.
It was abandoned in 1944 when a larger one was built.
Those who know it best say many people in Central Virginia don't even know it exists.
"It hasn't been used and it really has grown up in the vegetation and some of the bricks have fallen in and it's not really available for public access at this time," said Allen Hale.
Hale, a Nelson County supervisor, also serves as president of the Claudius Crozet Blue Ridge Tunnel Foundation. The foundation hopes to reopen part of the historic tunnel to foot traffic this year.
Hale says the project was delayed after they received bids that exceeded the budget, but says they should be able to begin Phase One within the next several months.
"Phase One is going to connect the village of Afton with the east portal, and that's about 3,400 feet of trail which will follow the old rail road grade, and it will have a parking lot and it will have a handicap access and then the first 700 feet into the tunnel will be part of Phase One," he said.
Sunday's discussion at the library was part of The Big Read program at the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library. Library collection manager Meredith Dickens says the topic was selected because it ties in with this month's selected book, "True Grit."
"The trains that allowed the expansion out west allowed access from this area in the 19th century out to the frontier where the events of the book are taking place," said Dickens.
She says the restoration efforts have drawn a wide interest.
"It has railroad enthusiasts, history enthusiasts, people of Irish descent who moved here because they came to work on the railroad and the tunnel project, the African-American slaves who worked on the project, and naturalists -- anyone who wants to come out and explore this piece of history that is in our community," said Dickens.
Though it still hasn't been reopened to the public, Hale is confident it'll be a hidden piece of history treasured not only by the people in the area, but beyond.
"It'll really be a national recreational trail I think," said Hale.
Hale says he expects the full trail to be complete in about two or three years.
For more information about the project, click HERE.