CROZET, Virginia — Past the law office of Bruce K. Tyler in Nelson County, a "no trespassing" sign sits on a wooden post at the beginning of a gravel trail. At first, it looks like nothing worth trespassing charges, but about 3,000 feet down the path sits the Crozet Blue Ridge Tunnel.
"This is definitely safe where we're going," district supervisor Allen Hale said. "But once you get to the tunnel and someone walks through here and gets all the way up they're going to want to go in."
The tunnel is currently closed to the public as it begins Phase II of its renovation to a walking trail. On Wednesday, about 30 people got a preview of the historic landmark from Hale and the Nature Foundation at Wintergreen.
Stretching 4,264 feet, the tunnel looms over Hale and his group as they begin their trek inside.
The tunnel was built around 1850 by French engineer Claudius Crozet through part of Rockfish Gap. Irish laborers and several dozen slaves dug through the greenstone averaging 26 feet per month according to the Blue Ridge Foundation. Many were killed in the process from explosions, falling rock, even disease that plagued the villages where the workers lived. Eventually, it closed in 1944 after a modern tunnel was built. Because of its history, the American Society of Civil Engineers dubbed it a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1976.
Now, the tunnel is intended to become a trail and tourist destination.
"The ultimate goal . is to have the tunnel open all the way through to the west side to the Blue Ridge Mountains and have a trail connection to (U.S.) 250 on the other side," Hale said.
Though the path to the site may be complete, the inside of the tunnel is not. Between the standing water and the giant wall left over from a botched propane-storage project from the 1950s, it still has quite a ways to go before it becomes the proposed path.
"It will be a terrific destination for people because at the time it was built it was the largest, longest rail-road tunnel in America . and the longest mountain tunnel in the world," Hale said.
The project has support from surrounding counties. The News & Advance reported in February 2015 that the city of Waynesboro approved $10,500 to purchase easements for the trail.
Augusta County, on the other side of the tunnel, has not yet offered support or money for the project.
"Augusta County did not because they just don't like the money being spent for trails," Hale said.
But Hale believes that anyone who sees it for themselves will get on board.
"It's certainly a historical engineering project and once it's opened I think we'll see economic benefits from tourism; people who come here just to go to the tunnel," Hale said. "It's of interest to railroad people, civil war people, VMI people because Crozet was associated with VMI."
Even before the restoration began, people were still curious to see it. On a website called RealCrozetVa.com, a July 2009 blog post gave instructions on how tourists could find the tunnel. Eventually, Nelson County officials commented and discouraged people from going out on their own until the project is finished.
June 17's tour was one of the biggest turnouts for a tour of the tunnel.
"We had a huge waiting list even that people couldn't all fit," youth and adult education intern Anna Payne said. "I enjoyed seeing everyone enjoy it so much."
Patty Brown of Wintergreen said that she was glad to finally see where the tunnel was.
"It was very interesting to see it," Brown said. "I just hope during my lifetime it will be completed so I can actually walk through there or hike through there or bike through there or something."
Brown said seeing so many people turnout for the walk hopefully puts pressure on Augusta County to put in their support.
"Hopefully this will raise awareness that this could be a real jewel to have in the community," Brown said.
According to The News & Advance archives, the $450,000 required for Phase II has already been raised and will require no local funding. No final price tag has been set for the completion of the project. Hale hopes to begin Phase II some time this year. The date for Phase III has yet to be set.
Information from: The News & Advance, http://www.newsadvance.com/