Stefanie Lacks has an idea: the eastern entrance of the Church Hill Train Tunnel should be a memorial park.
Stefanie remembers the first time that she came upon the tunnel, following a path through the wood under Chimborazo Park. “My initial reaction was one of intrigue, but it was quickly followed by a feeling of sadness,” she says, “It was sad to me that it was buried there beneath vines and brush.”
“Once I learned of not only the dead that remain entombed in the tunnel but the countless others lost in the tunnel’s construction, I thought it appalling that a more proper memorial didn’t exist and that the site had been left for the earth to reclaim.”
To get momentum and gauge interest, she has started a petition and hopes to collect 5,000 signatures.
“If and when I reach 5,000 signatures, I will take the issue to the CSX corporation, ” Stefanie explains, “Hopefully then they’ll see that the citizens of Church Hill and Richmond have an affinity for their city’s history.” The land is still owned by CSX, and directly abuts unused land owned by the city.
By clearing a portion of the overgrown and unruly woods, installing concrete stairs that lead from the top of the hill to the tunnel entrance, placement of benches and markers that tell the dark story of Church Hill Tunnel, this area could be a park and a memorial of sorts – giving residents of Church Hill and Richmond a chance to learn of this incident and to remember who still remains within the tunnel.
When completed in December of 1873, the Church Hill train tunnel was of one of the longest in the United States. After completion of the riverfront viaduct in 1901, though, traffic through the tunnel fell, and it was closed completely after the discovery of several weak spots in 1915.
While undergoing repair towards bringing the tunnel back online, 190 feet of the tunnel collapsed on October 2, 1925, trapping Chesapeake and Ohio locomotive number 231 and the ten flat cars it was pulling. At least 4 men died that day. The locomotive’s fireman Benjamin Franklin Mosby escaped alive out of the east entrance to the tunnel but succumbed to injuries soon afterward. The body of engineer Tom Mason was located during the rescue effort, though at least 2 workers’ bodies were not recovered.
However, there has always been a suspicion that more — perhaps many more — were entombed in the tunnel. Griggs doubts there are more than 100, as some have claimed over the years, but he finds it “certainly plausible” more than two are buried there.
“Because if you were an African-American from Georgia … and you came here for a job, your family never expected to see you again,” he said. “You could have walked in the tunnel and the tunnel collapsed … and nobody would have missed you.”
Less than 10 years ago, the western entrance by Jefferson Park was a ragged and leaking, surrounded by abandoned industrial buildings and parking lots. A move to reopen the tunnel there in 2006 never gained much traction and was stymied by the water in the hill. The spot has been cleaned up with renewal of the area, and received a historical marker in 2011.
I think that Stefanie is right: it is time to rethink about the tunnel in the woods.