Church Hill Tunnel

 

east tunnel portal

inside the tunnel

railroad track

the wall, with Random for scale

 

A lone brick fell from the arched ceiling, crashing onto one of the ten railroad flatcars stopped in the tunnel below.

"Watch out, she's a-comin' in!" shouted the fireman in the locomotive.

At that moment in 1925, a Richmond legend was born... in a hail of falling brick and dirt from the tunnel ceiling, and an explosion of steam, smoke and scalding water from the locomotive.

The Church Hill Tunnel was built between 1871 and 1873, at a cost of 1.1 million dollars, several cave-ins, and over a dozen lives. The Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad needed to improve rail access to Richmond from the east, and a tunnel through Church Hill seemed like the best idea. At roughly 4000 feet long, this tunnel was at its completion one of the longest in the country. Passenger and freight cars ran through the tunnel until 1902, when the opening of the elevated railroad viaduct along the James River rendered the tunnel obsolete. C&O officials reportedly rejoiced when the tunnel was officially closed.

The celebrations didn't last long, for in 1925 C&O found itself in an uncomfortable situation. The railroad viaduct was at capacity, and they needed to run more trains through the city. The only option, unfortunately, was to re-open the Church Hill Tunnel. Before this could happen, engineers decided that the tunnel needed to be inspected and cleaned, with the brickwork reinforced and drainage ditches dug along the tunnel walls.

Unfortunately, the drainage ditches along the tunnel walls weakened the bottom of the arch, and without horizontal supports to brace the tunnel walls, the weight of the hillside above proved too much. The ceiling caved in on a work train that had come to a stop just inside the western entrance of the tunnel. The engineer was killed instantly, along with two black workmen. The fireman escaped, but later died of his injuries. Most of the workmen escaped out the eastern end of the tunnel - many had to crawl under the flatcars to keep from being crushed by the falling debris. The body of the engineer was later recovered by tunneling downward from Jefferson Park, but it was decided that the expense of removing the train or the rest of the bodies from the hillside would be too great. The tunnel was soon filled in and sealed up.

In 1998, reporter Mark Holmberg found a small hole in one of the walls blocking off the tunnel (it's since been sealed up, of course). His exploration and the resulting newspaper article makes for possibly the finest piece of journalism ever published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. This excellent article is available in the newspaper archives for a small fee.

Random and I made our own trip to the Church Hill Tunnel in late 2005. The western entrance is sealed up at the surface, but to our surprise, at the other entrance the tunnel went approximately 150 yards into the hillside before the eastern wall was encountered. It was very wet (waist-deep water), and interestingly, some of the railroad tracks and ties were still in place on the tunnel floor. It was awesome to be inside such a legendary tunnel... but at the same time terrifying, knowing as much as we did about its history.

 

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