Tunnelings Hidden Language

Jay takes us underground as he explores the historic Blue Ridge Tunnel and stories blasted from rock.

MUSIC “Call Me” begins…

JAY: I am standing inside a tunnel that’s 700 feet below Interstate 64, a major thoroughfare tucked into the Blue Ridge Mountains outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. Because I’m a half-mile from daylight in either direction, I rely upon a headlamp and a 180-degree, 600 lumens flashlight to better irradiate the exposed rock before me as I look for traces of the past.

When the Blue Ridge Ridge tunnel first opened to locomotives in April of 1858, the 4,237-foot distance made it the longest tunnel in America and one of the longest tunnels in the entire world. It served freight and passenger trains until World War II, when a newer and larger tunnel was constructed adjacent to the original.

For many decades, the original Blue Ridge Tunnel sat abandoned and mostly forgotten under Afton Mountain. The western entrance was flooded in knee-high water and the entire tunnel was sectioned by two massive, twelve-foot thick reinforced concrete bulkheads, the remnants of a Dixie Bottled Gas Corporation plan to store propane inside the sealed chamber. That project never fully developed, yet the concrete bulkheads remained, blotting out daylight and preventing anyone from passing through. 

But a $5.4 million, 19-year-long restoration of the tunnel opened as a linear rail trail at the end of 2020 and has drawn tens of thousands of people excited to see a dark, damp wonder of history.

Today, I walk this tunnel yet again, though with each trip, I learn how to better read the rock walls and brickwork. If I do this, maybe I can hear and see the stories that this tunnel has to tell. 


JAY: You’re listening to Hidden Language — a podcast about tuning into place, bodies, and time and discovering the unexpected ways their stories can be told. I’m Jay Varner.

SCOTT: And I’m Scott Lunsford. Today, Jay takes us underground as he explores the historic Blue Ridge Tunnel and stories blasted from rock.

Jay walks on a gravel trail

JAY: Each time I walk on the graveled trail, which runs about a mile from the parking lot to the eastern portal of the tunnel, I realize how little our society pauses to admire the infrastructure that glues us together. A modern CSX rail line runs parallel to my left. Though I’ve watched those modern freight trains pass, I rarely stop to think about the people it takes to operate this system–engineers, both the locomotive and the structural types, laborers, work crews, executives, lawyers. I never ask, Who makes this railroad run?

MUSIC “Another Brilliant Age” begins

Railroads were of course key to America’s development. In the 1840s, the United States continued to seek out ways to connect an unfathomably vast and ever-expanding country. Railroads were a clear investment in the future, proving faster than canals or stagecoaches. Virginia policymakers knew that building a railroad that crossed the state, all the way to the Ohio River, would equal profits. The Ohio River flowed into the Mississippi River, then a major commerce route for much of settled America. However, reaching the Ohio River by railroad would prove difficult: four railroad tunnels would need to be built through unforgiving and mountainous terrain. The largest tunnel would be in Rockfish Gap.

Designing and building this railroad would be no small undertaking but Virginia believed they had the perfect man: a tall, sturdy Frenchman named Claudius Crozet. Years earlier, in France, Crozet had served as an officer under Napoleon. Now, he was the chief engineer of the commonwealth of Virginia. News of his appointment to the Blue Ridge Tunnel project was widely reported in the press and fueled imaginations across America.

Engineers in Massachusetts paid close attention—if Virginia failed to build the Blue Ridge Tunnel, would they also fail at building the recently proposed four-mile tunnel through the Hoosac Mountains? And residents in New Orleans, especially those dependent upon tourism, kept up with the Blue Ridge Tunnel via newspaper reports; if Virginia reached the Ohio River, tourists could finally travel to the towns and cities they’d read about, including the Big Easy.

Even though Crozet wrongly predicted that the project would be finished by 1853, he did understand the substantial difficulties of this endeavor. Most of the predominantly Irish workers likely did not–at least, not at first.

Jay continues walking on the gravel trail.

The slope that I now walk beside housed a shantytown for Irish who had fled famine in their homeland. Their journey across the Atlantic took months, often spent in steerage. The luckiest slept on narrow beds, the rest on a floor soaked with seawater that had seeped through the ship’s bottom. All to reach America’s shore and the dream of a better life and opportunities. 

Crozet saw a different type of opportunity. He needed laborers who would accept low wages for work that promised to be dangerous and greuling. What better recruiting ground than the ports of Philadelphia and Baltimore, places teeming with recently arrived men desperate for work? 

When they arrived on Afton Mountain, the Irish collected flat fieldstones for foundations and scrap timber for walls. Empty barrels, tops and bottoms removed, served as chimneys. A 12×12 foot-wide shanty could hold six single men or perhaps two sets of parents and small children. At any given time, around 150 Irish lived on both the western and eastern slopes of the mountain. Those shanties are long gone, though some foundations and rock pilings still exist. Local college professors and students often excavate these former sites, sifting through dirt for rusted buttons, shards of porcelain, fragments of bone. Families of all shapes and sizes lived along this rise. But today, a sunny September morning, shows yet another trait of this mountain: Thick and dense overgrowth washes over the landscape, obscuring sites for any potential homestead.

Some of the Irish men worked alongside their sons. Around 50 boys are known to have worked in the tunnel, spending up to 16 hours a day inside. Did the youngest of those boys remember his home country? Did he remember the famine? Did he still carry memories of a place sieged by hunger and desperation? And was this situation–living in a cramped shanty on the side of mountain, spending sixteen hours inside a wet, dark tunnel–better than what he had fled in Ireland?

MUSIC “Realness” begins

The average daily wage was .75 cents for men and .55 cents for boys. That first year of construction, in 1850, for every mile of progress along the Blue Ridge Railroad, one Irish person died. All told, around 800 Irish worked in the tunnel. Thirteen of them died inside the tunnel, blown to bits in explosions, crushed under the weight of cave-ins, trampled by horses. 

Over fourteen-times as many died along the railroad line–cholera, pneumonia, unknown wasting diseases. Some are buried in Catholic cemeteries in the region; many are interred right here on the mountain, the exact spot of their graves long forgotten. To Crozet–to much of America–the Irish were expendable. Each day, more Irish arrived on American shores. 

The other laborers–slaves–were considered much more valuable. When tunnel construction started, a healthy male slave was valued at $1,200. 

Southern railroad companies in need of labor often sought out nearby plantation owners. Crozet paid ten or so slave-owning families to lend him men to build the tunnel and railroad, though it seems this occurred only in the first years of construction. By 1854, after many strikes by Irish workers demanding better working conditions and higher wages, Crozet sought out a workforce made entirely of slaves. However, by this point the work had proven so unquestionably dangerous that slaveholders forbid their property from undertaking dangerous work. This meant no tree-cutting, no climbing atop timbers, no setting off explosives. 

Jay: Approaching the eastern portal to the tunnel, I realize that I am about to walk straight through a mountain. Hard granite rock borders both sides of the trail at this point–Crozet’s laborers created what feels like a giant, rocky trench leading into a black mouth shaped like an upside down horseshoe. During the 1850s, most tunnels were built by drilling straight down from the mountaintop and then relying upon a system of ropes and pulleys to lower men and equipment to the tunnel floor. No drill then existed that would have reached 700-feet below the summit. The only approach the workers had was by blasting sideways into the mountain. I still see the evidence of their work outside the tunnel. Two-foot long scars, about an inch wide, cover the rocks. These are the scars left from the drill bits.

In her 2014 book The Blue Ridge Tunnel: A Remarkable Engineering Feat in Antebellum Virginia, historian Mary E. Lyons details the process far better than I could ever paraphrase:

“Two-man teams first created long cuts, or approaches, leading to the future portals. A driller balanced a steel rod on his shoulder and crouched down on the cleared mountainside. The tip, or bit, of the rod was star shaped. A striker stood behind the driller. While the driller twisted the rod, the striker pounded it into the rock with a sledgehammer. The hands and arms of both workers quivered with every blow.

“When the drill hole was read, a blaster wrapped loose gunpowder and a long fuse in slow-burning brown paper. He shoved the deadly package down the tube-shaped hole and lit the fuse while everyone ran. If a stray spark from the match landed on the gunpowder, the blaster was blown to bits of flesh and bone. Only a person desperate for wages would work such a job.”

Jay approaches the Eastern entrance on the gravel trail and water drips from the entrance

The eastern opening, like the tunnel itself, is sixteen-feet wide and twenty-feet tall. Water falls along the left side of the opening, pooling and running down the newly installed drainage ditch. During original construction, rain and snowmelt fed the mountain springs that continually leaked into the work area. Working inside the tunnel meant that you were likely soaked to your skin–which reminds me to untie my hoodie from around my waist and actually wear it. Water still drips, prolifically in spots, and the temperature is 55-degrees year-round.

At least this eastern entrance, made out of the granite, required no support or timbers. The rock simply held. The same couldn’t be said about the western entrance, containing flakey and rotten rock prone to cave-ins. Timbers had to be erected at that western portal just to hold up the tunnel until bricklayers arrived and got to work.

The deeper the men went into the mountain, the harder the rock became, and the slower the progress. Some months were marked by 18, 19, 20 feet of drilling. Here’s how long it takes to walk twenty feet inside this tunnel now.

Jay WALKS inside the tunnel for twenty feet

The work continued simultaneously on both the eastern and western sides of the tunnel. On December 29, 1856, a crowd of people–including Crozet and his other engineers–stood at about the same spot I am in now. A drill from the west side of the tunnel pierced the same hole as a drill on the east side. Though the opening was only two-inches wide, workers on both side saw flickers of light from whale oil lanterns and cheered.

A low RUMBLE starts in the tunnel.

And yet the construction was still far from complete. Three separate sections of the tunnel had to be lined with brick, made by a kiln built on the mountain. Some of those original bricks are still here. I trace my fingers across them and feel grit and dampness. And it is here, while pressing my hands against this brick wall, that I hear the approach of a modern freight in the adjacent tunnel. I close my eyes and hold both hands to the bricks, feeling the vibrations of the present carry me to the past. 

A modern freight train grows LOUDER and then fades…


JAY: You have been listening to Hidden Language. Music for this episode was provided by Daniel Birch, Jelsonic, and Kai Engle. Our theme music is by Jay Varner. 

For a list of episodes, transcripts, and show notes, be sure to visit hiddenlanguagepodcast.com. If you enjoy this podcast, please spread the word using whatever language you see best fit. . . .


The Blue Ridge Tunnel: A Remarkable Engineering Feat in Antebellum Virginia by Mary E. Hall

Claudius Crozet Blue Ridge Tunnel Foundation

Music was provided by the following artists through Freemusicarchive.org, with the respective Creative Commons licenses.

“Call Me” by Daniel Birch. CC BY 4.0

“Another Brilliant Age” by Jelsonic. CC BY 4.0

“Realness” by Kai Engel. CC BY 4.0

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