19th Century Virginia Tunnel A Relic Of American Ingenuity

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In Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, there's a long-abandoned tunnel. The Crozet Tunnel was completed in the late 1800s and at the time was the longest rail tunnel in the world, nearly a mile long. In the 1940s, the tunnel was decommissioned. Now, it's experiencing a comeback of sorts.


In Virginia, there is a cold, damp relic of American ingenuity called the Crozet Tunnel. It was built in the 1850s for the Blue Ridge railroad. For a time, it was the longest tunnel in America, nearly a mile long, under Afton Mountain. Well, today, it's abandoned. But for years, local officials wanted to turn it into a walking path. Well, now it looks like that'll happen.

Reporter Eric Mennel visited the tunnel before it's a change.

ERIC MENNEL, BYLINE: The entrance to the Crozet Tunnel looks like a setting out of "The Lord of the Rings." The stone archway is about 20 feet tall by 16 feet wide. Clouds form below the arch because of the cooler temperature inside. And it's covered with algae and graffiti. One says: Find Your Happy Place. Not sure who would do that here. Stay Away. Yeah, just stay away. OK, that seems more appropriate.


MENNEL: Did you hear something in the tunnel?

CALEB HATFIELD: Yeah. It was an invitation.

MENNEL: All right, here we go.


MENNEL: That's my friend and co-spelunker, Caleb Hatfield.

The Crozet Tunnel was Virginia's first major attempt to build through the Blue Ridge Mountains. For a nation expanding, this was to be a gateway to the West.

HATFIELD: The pathway has turned to just rubble. The walls have turned to concrete on one side.

MENNEL: Less than 100 yards into the tunnel, the natural light disappears and we're left with only our headlamps and two small flashlights.

All right, so we've come upon a wall.

HATFIELD: It looks kind of like something you'd see in a World War II movie. The Nazis have dug an underground bunker and this is like the security access point, with one two-foot-by-two-foot round tube.

MENNEL: A drainage pipe, to be exact. When the tunnel was decommissioned in the 1940s, there was a plan to store natural gas inside. But that never happened. Now, the 16-foot long pipe is all that separates wanderers from the main cavern of the tunnel.

It's not entirely inviting. But this is what we came here to do.

HATFIELD: Yeah. All right man, here we go. Oh wow, a rush of wind.

MENNEL: Dude, I'm not feeling good about this.

HATFIELD: Oh, it's fine.


HATFIELD: Look at the (unintelligible)


MENNEL: And that's what it sounds like when you get water inside your recorder. Luckily, that's the only thing that died inside the pipe. And my cell phone had a recording app, so we trekked on.

All right. Let's keep going.

The belly of the tunnel is absolutely astonishing. Blasted rock along the sides and ceiling glistens, as if spattered with diamonds. The tunnel was built on the backs of Irish immigrants and slaves. Some died during construction. With such intense echoes, you're never really sure if it's your own voice bouncing back or theirs. But that didn't keep Caleb and me from having a little fun.

We're just going to yell as loud as we can in the middle of this mountain and see what it sounds like. One, two, three.


MENNEL: That was pretty cool.

HATFIELD: Yeah, I like that.


MENNEL: We made our way towards the exit, through more pipes and more water. It was an amazing experience, feeling both totally isolated from the world and connected to all the tunnelers that had come before us. But it's an experience that won't be available for much longer.

Nelson County, the county in Virginia where one entrance to the tunnel sits, plans to build a parking lot nearby and a safer trail that will, eventually, go through the entirety of the tunnel. And while much of the danger will disappear, and the echoes become muddled together, you can't help but think that nature will somehow find a way to keep tunnelers on their toes.

For NPR News, I'm Eric Mennel.


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