Restored railroad tunnel built by Claudius Crozet opens to public
AFTON— Nearly two decades after restoration efforts began, the Claudius Crozet Blue Ridge Tunnel Trail is open to the public.
Pedestrians and bicyclists can now explore the 2.25-mile trail that passes through the restored railroad tunnel, which lies more than 700 feet below the Blue Ridge Mountains at Rockfish Gap.
The tunnel, which is nearly a mile long, was constructed between 1849 and 1859 and was designed by Claudius Crozet, namesake of the western Albemarle County community.
Paul Collinge, a
Claudius Crozet Blue Ridge Foundation board member, sat at the eastern trailhead entrance in Afton on Saturday and greeted visitors as they trekked to and from the long, dark tunnel.
“It’s a beautiful day,” said.
Collinge has worked on the project for 10 years.
His foundation has worked with Nelson County to restore the tunnel and open it to the public.
“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.”
Weyers Cave residents Virginia Pricket, Landon Jarvis and Dougie Ward arrived at the western trailhead in Augusta County about 10:30 a.m. that 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-yearold Dougie said.
The tunnel holds yearround 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 Crozet, a French immigrant who served as an artillery officer in Napoleon’s army, was 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 it 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.
Cyclist Celia Sease said the trail was great but warned that it could be a little dangerous for bikers. The crushed stone path makes the trail a little slippery, and she recommended that 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 6 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 at 215 Afton Depot Lane in Nelson, and the western entrance is at 483 Three Notched Mountain Highway in Augusta, just east of Waynesboro. Parking lots are available at both ends of the trail. There are no amenities on the trail.