Who would ever think of using a sooty, abandoned railroad tunnel as a research site and an educational tool? William & Mary Geology Professor Chuck Bailey and his crew of eager undergraduate research students, that’s who.

Based on research conducted by Bailey and his students, the nearly mile-long tunnel is now being used as an educational tool through public tours, a field guide, videos and more that help explain the geological history of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The project began a few years ago when Bailey learned that a historic tunnel between Crozet and Waynesboro, Virginia, was being reopened as a tourist attraction. Upon request from the Claudius Crozet Tunnel Foundation, Bailey and his students began conducting research on the geological structures within the tunnel. The results of that research were shared with scientific peers with the Virginia Field Conference and Geological Society of America.

A geology major from Woodbridge, Virginia, Nailah Johnson ’23 points out a fissure that permits ground water to filter through 700 feet of stone to gush out into the tunnel. (Photo by Bill Walker)

But the work didn’t stop there.

Bailey partnered with the Claudius Crozet Tunnel Foundation to devise a scheme to use the shaft to teach other students and then the public about the forces that had formed the convoluted geology of the Appalachian Mountains.

History of the tunnel

The tunnel was the brainchild of 19th-century railroad engineer Claudius Crozet who chose the Rockfish Gap as the best place to drill because it is the lowest gap in the mountain range for 150 miles and it also marks the place where the mountain range is the narrowest.

A French military officer and civil engineer, Crozet came to the United States following Napoleon’s defeat, and he was subsequently employed by the Commonwealth of Virginia to construct public works to strengthen transportation and the economy. Breaking through the mountains to provide a railway to the burgeoning farm land of the Shenandoah Valley was a state priority.

Crozet began the back-breaking work in 1850 with a crew of 800 immigrant Irishmen and 40 enslaved African-American workers, some 189 of whom died due to construction accidents and a cholera epidemic. In 1858 they completed the tunnel which at that time was the longest in the United States. It was hailed as a ground-breaking (literally) feat of civil engineering, which, at its maximum depth, lay some 720 feet below the crest of the Blue Ridge.  

During the Civil War, the tunnel was used to transport wheat from the “Breadbasket of the Confederacy” to Charlottesville, Richmond, and beyond, and Stonewall Jackson used the work to move his men quickly from the Shenandoah Valley to battles in the east. The work was used by the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad until 1940 when national defense requirements necessitated a wider tunnel.

Turning research into public education

About five years ago, workers from Nelson County government began to prepare the area for public visitation, constructing small parks and car lots, as well as trails to both the eastern and western ends of the tunnel. The interior had remained relatively stable, but some brick work has been added to secure fractured areas of the ceiling. Free-standing signs along the paths offer visitors places to pause their walks, catch their breath and learn about the engineering features and history of the structure, including the sacrifices that the African-Americans and Irishmen made.

Chuck Bailey
Standing on an outcrop of rock near the east end of the nearly mile-long tunnel, Professor of Geology Chuck Bailey describes the tectonic pressures that combined to create the various convoluted structures seen in the tunnel. (Photo by Bill Walker)

Now, the work of Bailey and his students has made the dark interior of the tunnel educational as well. Early on, the professor realized that a walk through the tunnel presented a visual cross-section of the sub-surface geologic structure of a typical part of the Appalachian Mountains, a range tortured over millennia by volcanism, plate tectonics, and water and wind erosion.

Now, his students have prepared a field guide (both as a brochure and in digital form) describing the geologic features of eight stops along the hike.

“To give but one example of the violent geological history on display in the tunnel, the first rock formations encountered while hiking from the east end are actually some of the oldest beds, which tectonic pressure heaved up and over on top of the youngest formations, which are encountered on the western end. Interpreting this convoluted history requires some nimble thinking,” Bailey told visitors on a tour of the tunnel in November.

William & Mary geology major Nailah Johnson ’23 elaborated on that theme by pointing out to visitors fissures in the stone that allowed gushing water to enter the tunnel and wash alongside the maintained walkway.

“You also need to note the unusual ‘boudins,’ or sausage-shaped formations that appear on the tunnel walls,” Johnson pointed out to the visitors by lamplight. “The Blue Ridge Tunnel may be the best place in the world to see these unusual formations formed by immense pressure because there are so many of them here.”

In the future, the geology department will develop electronic talks and videos accessible by cell phones at outcrops along the path of the tour. Buying and installing those stations is the goal of the Blue Ridge Tunnel Foundation and the Augusta County Historical Society that co-sponsored the walking tour of the tunnel and used it to raise funds for the project.

A person wearing cold weather attire speaks to people in front of a tunnel
The limestone facing blocks on the western end of the tunnel are explained by Braden Roundtree ’23, a geology student from Hampton, Virginia. All of the students who attended the event had worked on the tunnel project. (Photo by Bill Walker)

To accommodate a broader audience after the hike, the Waynesboro Public Library hosted an afternoon presentation by Bailey and his students that featured the “world premier” of a video presentation the students had prepared. More than 60 people formed a standing-room-only crowd that enjoyed learning more about the geology of the Blue Ridge and asked the students an extensive raft of questions about their findings.

The work that Bailey and his students have been able to do in the tunnel and beyond has been made possible through multiple funding sources. Last summer, Bailey worked with students on videos about the location as part of a project titled “Making Movies on Location,” supported through a grant from the Charles Center. Bailey also received a grant from Geological Society of America to support diversity in geochronology, which sponsored part of the research group’s work in the tunnel along with other efforts.

Some of the same W&M students who were involved in the November trip will help lead a geology field trip to the site again this month for about 30 other W&M students, as well as two new faculty members. Bailey expects the site to continue providing opportunities for W&M students and faculty alike to learn about the geological structures within the tunnel and potentially conduct new research.

“There are a lot of world-class structures there, so having other professional eyes on it will likely provide insight we haven’t seen,” Bailey said.