AFTON — Nearly two decades after restoration efforts began, the Claudius Crozet Blue Ridge Tunnel Trail opened to the public on Saturday.
Pedestrians and bicyclists can now explore the 2.25-mile trail that passes through the restored railroad tunnel, which lies over 700 feet below the Blue Ridge Mountains at Rockfish Gap. The nearly mile-long tunnel was constructed between 1849 and 1859 and was designed by Claudius Crozet, namesake of the western Albemarle County community.
“It’s a beautiful day,” said Paul Collinge, a Claudius Crozet Blue Ridge Foundation board member. The foundation has worked with Nelson County to restore the tunnel and open it to the public.
Collinge has worked on the tunnel project for 10 years now. He sat at the eastern trailhead entrance in Afton on Saturday and greeted visitors as they trekked to and from the long, dark tunnel.
“I’m impressed with the number of families that have managed to show up,” Collinge said. “It’s the very first day it’s open, and it’s like they’ve been sitting here waiting with their bikes in the garage, and out they go.”
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Collinge said he couldn’t begin to tell how many visitors had already visited the trail by noon on Saturday, but it had been a lot.
Weyers Cave residents Virginia Pricket, Landon Jarvis and Dougie Ward arrived at the western trailhead in Augusta County around 10:30 a.m. Saturday morning. All three said their day of exploring the tunnel had been great.
“The best part was all the little mini waterfalls inside the cave,” 10-year-old Ward said.
The tunnel holds year-round temperatures of 50 degrees. Leslie Williams, who was visiting the trail from Charlottesville, said the cool temperatures were her favorite part about the tunnel.
“It’s a perfect place to come on a hot, sunny day,” Williams said.
The railroad tunnel, designed and engineered by French immigrant Claudius Crozet, a former artillery officer in Napoleon’s army, was actually constructed by Irish immigrants and enslaved African American laborers. It opened to railroad traffic on April 13, 1858. At the time of its opening, it was the longest railroad tunnel in North America.
Rail traffic through the tunnel ceased in 1944 when larger engines could not fit through the tunnel. Another tunnel was built next to the Blue Ridge tunnel and is still used today by the CSX Railroad. Restoration efforts on the original tunnel began in 2001. In 2007, CSX donated the abandoned tunnel to Nelson County.
Charlottesville-based author Mary E. Lyons has written four books about the history of the Blue Ridge Tunnel — “The Blue Ridge Tunnel: A Remarkable Engineering Feat in Antebellum Virginia,” “Slave Labor on Virginia’s Blue Ridge Railroad,” “The Virginia Blue Ridge Railroad and Crozet and the Blue Ridge Railroads: Collective Letters.”
Inspired by her own family history, the Irish-American author began researching the tunnel in 2009.
“When I heard that Irish laborers had built the tunnel, it reminded me of my Irish grandfather,” Lyons said.
Although Lyons considers the tunnel to be a sacred place because “at least 15 Irish men were blown to bits in there,” she still pushed hard for the tunnel to open to the public hoping it would help unify the community.
“We just need a beautiful day and a beautiful place to go. It doesn’t matter if you’re red or blue, this is an American story. I think it’s great that in these divisive times, we’ve got something to bring us together,” Lyons said.
Cyclist Celia Sease said the trail was great but warned it could be a little dangerous for bikers. The crushed stone path makes the trail a little slippery, and she recommended bikers start on the eastern end of the trail. She also warned of the need for carrying a light when biking through the tunnel.
“A lot of people don’t have very good lighting, and you can’t see them, so you can easily run into them. You’ve got to constantly be slowing down and trying to get around them,” Sease said.
Because of ecological concerns, there are currently no plans to light the tunnel. Visitors who venture any distance at all into the tunnel must bring a light source such as a headlamp or flashlight to help them see while walking or cycling through the long passage.
The trail is open daily from sunrise to sunset. Visitors are required to follow COVID-19 guidelines and are encouraged to wear face masks while keeping six feet between themselves and other visitors. No large groups are allowed.
The tunnel trail can be accessed from two different points. The eastern entrance is located at 215 Afton Depot Lane in Nelson County, and the western entrance is located at 483 Three Notched Mountain Highway, in Augusta County, just east of Waynesboro. Parking lots are available at both ends of the trail. There are no amenities on the trail.