Far beneath Skyline Drive in Rockfish Gap lies an engineering marvel—the 4,273-foot long Blue Ridge Tunnel, courtesy of Claudius Crozet.
In 1850, Irish workers, augmented by enslaved black men hired out by their owners to clear ruble from blasting, began drilling through the mountain with hand drills, picks, and black powder. Following the design of French engineer Claudius 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 less than one-half foot off planned center line! This feat resolved years of speculation—and wagers—about the possibility of such precise planning. The Blue Ridge Tunnel, was opened in 1858.
Plagued by construction problems, strikes, a cholera epidemic, and financial difficulties, the builders took eight years to complete the 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 the Crozet tunnel was opened about four years later. This tunnel linked the Valley with eastern Virginia for nearly a century before it was replaced by the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad with the current tunnel with greater vertical clearance for larger locomotives. The newer Blue Ridge Tunnel has carried rail traffic under the southern end of Skyline Drive since 1944.
From Shenandoah Secrets: The Story of the Park’s Hidden Past, by Carolyn and Jack Reeder.