THE TUNNEL: A Documentary Film About the Creation, and Re-Creation, of the Blue Ridge Railroad Tunnel

Posted 06/10/14 by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in America's Trails

American Focus, Inc. is producing a documentary film about the Blue Ridge Tunnel, a 19th-century railroad tunnel located in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Crozet, Va. Directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Paul Wagner, the film will have a dual purpose: to document an important and fascinating chapter in Virginia history, and to provide a case study of how local preservationists work together to save and celebrate their places and their stories.

The Blue Ridge Tunnel, recognized today as a National Civil Engineering Landmark, was designed by the renowned engineer Claudius Crozet; when it opened in 1858 it was, at nearly one mile in length, the longest tunnel in America.

It was constructed between 1850 and 1858 by the contractor Kelly & Larguey who hired Irish immigrant workers and some enslaved African-Americans. The lease agreement with the local landowners stipulated that the slaves could not be worked near the dangerous explosives inside the tunnel, and most worked as blacksmiths, smith helpers and haulers. The Irish workers labored six days a week, sometimes three shifts a day, inside the dark tunnel.

At any one time, more than 300 laborers from Ireland lived in shantytowns at either end of the Tunnel. Harsh conditions in the work camps and the dangers of digging the tunnel with only hand drills and black powder—in an era before the invention of dynamite—led to the death of over 100 Irish men and women. Once completed, the Tunnel eliminated the Blue Ridge Mountain barrier to the west, connecting central Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley for 86 years, before being replaced by a larger modern tunnel in 1944.

The design and digging of the Blue Ridge Tunnel is one of the great, untold stories in Virginia history, but the film will also serve as a case study in local historic preservation.

More than 150 years after it was built, a team of local preservationists, historians, archaeologists, government officials and civic leaders in Albemarle, Nelson and Augusta Counties are working to preserve the abandoned Tunnel structure, re-open it as part of a recreational “rail-trail” project and develop it as an important Virginia cultural heritage site. The documentary film will include interviews with several of these citizen stakeholders and follow their efforts to preserve the Tunnel, documenting the challenges and, hopefully, the successes.

Some of the key participants include:

  • Clann Mhór, a volunteer organization that is researching the lives of the Irish immigrants and slave laborers who worked on the tunnel. Mhór is particularly interested in seeing the Tunnel presented as a cultural heritage site.
  • Claudius Crozet Blue Ridge Tunnel Foundation, the principal nonprofit group that is raising funds for the tunnel restoration and coordinating the preservation effort, with representatives from Nelson, Albemarle, and Augusta Counties.

The story of their efforts provides a perspective on historic preservation today and the commitment to preserving landscapes that have broader cultural and historical significance, as well as its connection to local sustainability, in support of economic development, recreation, environmental protection and cultural identity.

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