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. 

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