Far beneath Skyline Drive in Rockfish Gap lies an engineering marvel—the Blue Ridge Tunnel.
In 1850, Irish workers with hand drills, picks, and black powder began drilling through the mountain. Following the design of French engineer Claude Crozet, they progressed through the mountain at the rate of two feet a day.
The project was a joint venture relying on both public funds and private enterprise. The railroad company was to lay the track on both sides of the mountain while the state did the stretch that included the tunnel. Groups of workers drilled from both ends toward the middle, and when they met, they were only half an inch off true center! This feat resolved years of speculation—and wagers—about the possibility of such precise planning.
Plagued by construction problems, strikes, a cholera epidemic, and financial difficulties, the builders took eight years to complete the 1,273-foot long, brick-lined tunnel. But the railroad company, eager to reap the profits of a transmountain route, hadn’t waited for the state to finish it. After the company completed its stretches of track on both sides of the mountain, it built a temporary track through Rockfish Gap. Workers laying track had to contend with stubborn rock and build trestles across six deep ravines. But only seven months elapsed between the start of the project and the first train…
The railroad used the temporary track at Rockfish Gap from 1854 until Crozet’s tunnel was opened about four years later. This tunnel linked the Valley with eastern Virginia for nearly a century before it was replaced by one with greater vertical clearance for larger locomotives. This newer Blue Ridge Tunnel has carried the railroad under the southern end of Skyline Drive since 1943.
From Shenandoah Secrets: The Story of the Park’s Hidden Past, by Carolyn and Jack Reeder.