MELISSA BLOCK, host:

In Richmond, Virginia, the Church Hill Tunnel has a deadly mystique. It was troubled from the start. Twelve workers lost their lives building the C&O Railway Tunnel, which opened in 1873. It was closed in 1902. Then in 1925, workers started restoring the tunnel to handle additional freight. On October 2 of that year the tunnel collapsed on a work train, killing at least three workers.

The tunnel was filled with sand and sealed off. Now some 80 years later there's a plan a dig down and excavate that train. Here to tell us about it is Mark Holmberg. He's a staff writer with the Richmond Times Dispatch. And Mark, do you think it's fair to say you are obsessed with this tunnel?

Mr. MARK HOLMBERG (Richmond Times Dispatch): Fascinated, maybe not obsessed. But it's a great Richmond legend and I think I'm among many who are really interested in what's down there and maybe getting a look at what really happened.

BLOCK: Well, you tried to get down there. You sneaked into at least part of the tunnel eight years ago. How far did you get and what did you see there?

Mr. HOLMBERG: Well, we crawled in about 500 feet. We had a caver with us and a photographer. And the fill was real close to the ceiling so we were belly crawling. The ceiling's kind of leaking like a sauna and there's cracks in it and it just felt like it could come down at any minute. We only got about 500 feet and we ran into a cave in, but it was almost filled with water at that end and that's the high end of the tunnel.

BLOCK: Did you see the train itself?

Mr. HOLMBERG: Oh, no, no. We were, like I say, just 500 feet in and the train was about probably 3,000 feet further on. Nobody's seen that train since 1925.

BLOCK: What happened back in October of 1925?

Mr. HOLMBERG: Well, they were widening the tunnel just a little bit. That was a very important tunnel to Richmond and a fascinating piece of history. It was built right after the Civil War and it was Richmond's lifeline to the ocean, but it was narrow in there and it was very, very shifty soil and the tunnel leaked. It was a problem. C&O closed it in 1902 with great relief. But the tunnel was so important, they tried to widen it for the larger freight cars and that's what they were doing. They had a work train in there when it collapsed.

BLOCK: How did it collapse?

Mr. HOLMBERG: Just came right in. It started with some, a few bricks and then boom, there it was.

BLOCK: Now the body of the engineer of that work train, Thomas Mason, his body was recovered after eight days, but I've read that the body of a black laborer, Richard Lewis, never was.

Mr. HOLMBERG: That's correct. They spent eight days digging down to get engineer Mason and it was quite a job. His son waited out there the whole time and I got a chance to talk to him a few years back. He, you know, he really believed his father was going to crawl out of that hole after eight days.

But Richard Lewis's family never saw the body of their loved one. I talked to a niece, Pinky Lemon, and you know, that might say a little bit about the racial dynamics of the time, but his body was left there and they're unsure exactly how many, there might be one or two more. They're not really sure because back then it was kind of a day labor kind of a job. There wasn't like a master list that they could check to see who was in and who was out. I think they went mainly by, you know, who came saying that their loved one was missing.

BLOCK: What is the idea now with this plan to go in 80 years after the collapse and try to extract this train?

Mr. HOLMBERG: Well this, you know, it's just an amazing legend and everybody's interested in it. So they want to poke around, see what's down there. I mean we've got a pretty good idea where the train is, which way it's facing. You know, clearly it's been under water all this time.

So 81 years later, what's down there? The wooden flat car is probably gone. Any bones? You know, have they decayed? Pretty close, probably. The metal of 231, what's that like? So they're going to drill down on July 10, that's the plan anyway, an excavation contractor is going to drill down ten to 12 spy holes down into the ground and lower a video camera and look.

BLOCK: Well, it must be a tantalizing thing to know that it's there, not that far down, in some kind of shape?

Mr. HOLMBERG: Yeah, and it tantalizes a lot of people and there's a tremendous amount of mystery surrounding the thing. There's rumors there's gold buried down there. There's 25 bodies down there that everybody hush hushed about. You know, there's the idea that the train is just sitting there on the track, you know, just as pretty as you please. You know, and there's people that have that vision in their mind that it's dry and looking good down there.

But the fact is that it was filled to the top with sand and it acts like a great big sewer for this Church Hill, which is an extremely historic part of this great city.

BLOCK: Would there be people there saying let it be, don't go down, don't touch it?

Mr. HOLMBERG: Well, my buddy Walter Griggs with Virginia Commonwealth University is one of those and we were talking about that yesterday. He says, you know, if they pull that train out of that tunnel, he says, you know, we don't have a legend anymore. You know, there's no mystery anymore. It's all over, you know? It's just hole in the ground.

And he's right about that. You know, there's something to be said for leaving these mysteries alone, you know? Leaving this tomb alone. It's sacred ground in a sense. You know, we have a penchant for solving all of life's mysteries and exposing legends and often time, legends are much bigger when they're not exposed.

BLOCK: Mark Holmberg, good to talk with you. Thanks so much.

Mr. HOLMBERG: Thanks so much for having me.

BLOCK: Mark Holberg, with the Richmond Times Dispatch, talking about plans to excavate the Church Hill tunnel in Richmond, Virginia. It's been sealed off for 80 years.

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