30 December 2006

Crozet, Napoleon, a Tunnel, & Stonewall Jackson

Claudius Crozet was born on New Year’s Eve in 1789 in Villefranche, France. Crozet would lead a most interesting life eventually working as a soldier, engineer, educator, and railroad builder. He graduated from the Imperial Artillery School as a second lieutenant on June 9, 1809 where he had studied bridge building. Fighting under Napoleon Bonaparte, Crozet was taken as a POW during the French invasion of Russia in 1812. The young soldier wound up living with a Russian nobleman. The two became close and Crozet learned to speak Russian fluently, even writing a Russian textbook. Upon his release, Crozet was awarded France’s “Legion of Merit” which was presented to him personally by Napoleon.

Immigrating with his wife to America in 1816, Crozet became a professor of engineering at West Point, thanks in large measure to the recommendation of the Marquis de Lafayette. His contributions to West Point were considerable. In 1823, he became the Principal Engineer and Surveyor of Public Works for the Commonwealth of Virginia. But Crozet is most remembered here in Virginia for two very important accomplishments—both of which are connected to Stonewall Jackson. In 1839, Crozet explored and surveyed the Blue Ridge Mountains and decided that the most efficient way to allow rail travel across the Blue Ridge mountain range would be through a series of tunnels. The first tunnel, at Afton, was completed 150 years ago this year—on Christmas Day in 1856, when Irish workers tunneling from the east and west sides met.

The tunnel was open for rail traffic in 1858. Many of the Irish immigrant workers suffered an outbreak of cholera. As a boy, I heard local lore that yellow fever had also killed a number of Irishmen, along with some Chinese laborers, and that many of these men were buried on top of the mountain through which the tunnel runs. I, along with a friend of mine, attempted to locate the burial place in 1974, with no success. I did, however, successfully navigate through the tunnel several times. Of course, I was not the only person to have walked through the abandoned tunnel. At one time, it was considered one of the “rights of passage” into manhood by teenage boys who grew up in the area. My father did the same thing when he was a teenager (He unwittingly gave me the idea!), and Stonewall Jackson used the tunnel to march his “foot cavalry” to the east side of the Blue Ridge, befuddling his yankee pursuers.

Crozet had another connection to Jackson as Crozet was one of the founders of the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, where the future Confederate General served as "Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy." Crozet’s tunnel was an engineering marvel as it was completed several years prior to the invention of dynamite. At the time, it was the longest tunnel in the world at 4,273 feet. When workers broke through connecting east to west, they were only 6” off center. In comparison, the tunnel that finally replaced Crozet’s tunnel in 1944, though it was dug using modern techniques and machinery, was 4 feet off center. The new tunnel’s completion closed the Crozet tunnel’s 87 year use as a major artery linking eastern Virginia to the western part of the state. The town of Crozet, Virginia in western Albemarle County, is named after the Frenchman. Crozet died on January 29th, 1864.

(The first tunnel image is what the west side entrance looks like today. The second image is inside of the tunnel on the west side. Notice the small pipe. That pipe, and the solid concrete block wall it runs through, is about 12' long. There is an identical one on the east side. These were built during WWII with plans to store gas in the tunnel. I had to crawl through these pipes twice. The third tunnel image is what the east entrance looks like today and the fourth image is from the inside of the east side entrance. Much thanks to Mike Hutchison for use of the tunnel images - see: http://www.vtunderground.com/other/blueridge.htm)


mannie said...


Great post on the tunnel. How accessible is it today?

Is it on private property? I'd like to check it out this spring or summer,

Mannie Gentile

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks Mannie. It is posted with no trespassing signs, but if you will google the tunnel, it should lead you to the current owners and, perhaps, permission. As I mentioned in a previous post, there are current plans underway to turn the tunnel into a public bike path.