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East End News

A proposal for the Church Hill Tunnel

Photo: VT Underground

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.”

Photo by
Photo by Stefanie Lacks (2014)

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.

The parcel owned by CSX
The parcel owned by CSX

From the petition:

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.

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Route of the Church Hill Tunnel
Route of the Church Hill Tunnel [via]

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.”

Recovery efforts after the collapse
Recovery efforts after the collapse

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Western entrance (2006)
Western entrance (2006)

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.

Walter Griggs’ definitive telling of the story, The Collapse of Richmond’s Church Hill Tunnel, was published in late 2011, and local filmmakers are working to fund a documentary about the tunnel.

I think that Stefanie is right: it is time to rethink about the tunnel in the woods.

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25 comments

Chimbo 04/21/2014 at 9:49 AM

I believe the land adjacent to the tunnel is owned by 3 or 4 private owners in addition to CSX. And last time using this land was discussed with Parks and Rec, they didnt have money to acquire it and the city wasnt interested in giving any real compensation to the land owners for use of their land.

Good luck with your movement.

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Andrew 04/21/2014 at 4:50 PM

A Richmond band, The J.O.B. recorded an americana rock concept album of the 1925 tunnel collapse onto the train a few years ago. 10 songs from different perspectives of the event, very powerful. It is on iTunes at https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/231-two-thirty-one/id366751357 The cd cover art is also the only photograph of the actual train engine, Locomotive 231.

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Kathleen Sanders 04/21/2014 at 7:51 PM

I think this is a fabulous idea. I signed your petition and shared it on my Facebook page. Please keep us updated on your progress and what those interested can do to help. I had an experience several years ago with a hidden treasure turned into a county park – it can happen.

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Resident of CH 04/22/2014 at 7:32 AM

Yes, CHIMBO you are correct. The land issue as to do with an entrance that would be off of 29th St. where it dead ends into Chimbo Playground Park. However, access from the East from the dog park area and the stairs is only a matter of public determination and sweat labor.

We did get the City permission to try that but lacked community resolve, volunteers and interest to do so.

Maybe now is the time – let me know if you have folks in Chimbo area that want to go forward with the concept and I can share the past plans and contacts.

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Chimbo 04/22/2014 at 8:05 AM

actually, according to land plats, the public land ends at the stairwell up to short 32nd street. Everything beyond that is private property. I would check with the land owners first.

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katzenjaammer 04/22/2014 at 9:39 AM

I think the tunnel is an historic site and this would be a nice addition to the neighborhood. But it raises some concerns, like, who’s meant to pay for grading the hill, installing the stairs, benches, lighting and upkeep? Ouch, that’s going to be expensive, And just from a liability standpoint, if I were CSX I’d say no way. That tunnel is a public safety hazard and that’s why it’s blocked off.

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Lynn 04/22/2014 at 12:36 PM

Perhaps those of you most involved could review what is happening with the Blue Ridge Tunnel in Afton, VA, and get some ideas for approaching a solution from their efforts? They also faced issues of multiple owners, easements, and liability. The mission of the Claudius Crozet Blue Ridge Tunnel Foundation is the restoration, preservation, and interpretation of the Blue Ridge Tunnel, a long-abandoned historic railroad tunnel located in Central Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. http://blueridgetunnel.org/

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Chimbo 04/22/2014 at 1:59 PM

And keep us updated. Many of us will lend our support when and where appropriate.

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chpn 04/23/2014 at 8:09 AM

HOLMBERG: Petition to clean up dangerous eastern portal of infamous Church Hill Tunnel
http://wtvr.com/2014/04/23/holmberg-church-hill-tunnel-petition/

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Frank Pichel 04/23/2014 at 8:34 AM

I like the idea of cutting a primitive ‘nature trail’ to the site without stairs or lights or even much signage. Let’s maintain the wildness and adventure and mystery. A machete, a shovel, and a couple hours of labor is all that’s needed for that approach. I’ll do the work if someone gives me the permission. 🙂

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Stefanie 04/23/2014 at 11:33 AM

I love the support that this idea has already drawn! Certainly this campaign is indeed in it’s infancy. As I continue to gain signatures on the petition and raise funds that can be used in the “revitalization” of the eastern entrance of the tunnel, I will reach out to those who can help to work on the more critical details of what this project would take should it be given a green light by the owners of the property.

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