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Retired Professor Honored for Tunnel Restoration

tunnel underrock formation

The east portal of the Blue Ridge Tunnel, once blocked by debris from Hurricane Camille, has since been opened.—Photo courtesy Jack Looney.

On Friday, Nov. 20, the Blue Ridge Tunnel, a former railroad tunnel spanning Nelson and Augusta counties that’s been turned into a greenway through a rails-to-trails project, opened to the public.

Few trail users will realize it, but the tunnel has two ties to VMI. Col. Claudius Crozet, a member of VMI’s Board of Visitors in the 1840s, designed the structure, and recently retired Col. Gary Rogers, Ph.D., now professor emeritus of civil engineering, played a central role in the tunnel’s transformation over the past two decades from a dark, wet, and scary place to what it will be very soon: A destination for families and lovers of the outdoors.

What’s more, Nelson County, which now owns the tunnel, was recently honored with a national award, and Rogers and others who worked on the restoration project were likewise recognized. The Coalition for Recreational Trails, a group of national trails organizations, honored the Blue Ridge Tunnel in the construction and design category. Those who worked on the project were honored via a virtual ceremony Oct. 22 in lieu of the CRT’s usual awards ceremony in Washington, D.C.

For Rogers, the award caps off more than three decades of involvement with the tunnel. He first visited the site when he was in graduate school at Virginia Tech in the late 1980s studying geotechnical engineering, and because his dissertation was on the stability of portals in rock, the Blue Ridge Tunnel provided an excellent case study.

In the spring of 1993, Rogers accepted a semester-long appointment as a guest lecturer at VMI. Little did he know that he’d be hired full time that same year and stay for another 27 years, but that’s exactly what happened. Col. Jim Groves, Ph.D., department chair at the time, encouraged field trips for civil engineering classes, and with that support, Rogers found himself back at the tunnel, this time with cadets in tow.

“The Crozet Tunnel was one of the field trips because we could talk about rock, and getting the cadets to go underground was not a hard task,” Rogers recalled. “They loved it.”

Like cavers, cadets going through the tunnel would come out cold, wet, and happy. The tunnel had several feet of water in it near the eastern end thanks to a debris flow caused by Hurricane Camille in 1969. What’s more, the interior wasn’t even passable thanks to two massive concrete seals placed in the 1950s by a company that hoped to use the site to store pressurized gas. Cadets traversing the tunnel had to crawl through a pipe to bypass the blocked-off area.

By 2005, efforts to turn the tunnel into a rails-to-trails project had gathered steam, but safety concerns were paramount. That year and the next, Rogers prepared a 209-page feasibility report showing that, with proper attention to safety, and removal of the seals, the tunnel could be used by the public.

“Most of the tunnel is extremely stable,” he noted. Much of it, he added, is lined with brick.

“The brick, after all of these years, is still in very good shape,” Rogers commented.

As part of his work, Rogers visited other abandoned railroad tunnels, including one in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, and concluded that the Blue Ridge Tunnel was actually in much better condition than its counterparts.

“Both of those tunnels are in far worse shape and have a lot more stability problems than this one does,” said Rogers.

Begun in 1849 as part of an effort to link railroads on the eastern and western sides of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the 4,273-foot-long tunnel was under construction for almost a decade before the first train ran through it in 1858. By 1944, though, locomotives were too wide to fit through the 16-foot tunnel, and the structure was abandoned after the railroad built a new, wider tunnel nearby.

“It becomes one of the oldest accessible public structures in the country,” he noted. Rails-to-trails initiatives, he added, have been wildly popular across the country because railroad beds are mostly level, making them ideal for people of all ages and physical abilities. The occasional places where trains have to cross rivers and mountains make reworked railroad paths even more rewarding.

“People flock to the trestles and tunnels,” Rogers commented. “There’s not many.”

To learn more about the Blue Ridge Tunnel, visit the Nelson County, Virginia, website or the county’s Facebook page.

  • Mary Price VMI Communications and Marketing