The Church Hill Tunnel; Two Portals a World Apart

The western end is an attractive backdrop for a trim, brick patio. The opening 4,000 feet east hides beneath jagged terrain and tangled thickets. These are the portals of the Church Hill Tunnel, ten blocks distant but a world apart.

There is a train buried under Richmond’s Church Hill neighborhood–the steam engine Locomotive 231 and ten flatcars. There are probably two men buried there, too, Richard Mosby and H. Smith. Rescuers were never able to locate the bodies of the African American laborers, and they were presumed buried alive when a 190-foot section of the tunnel collapsed while dozens of workmen were trying to shore up the derelict tunnel for a return to active service. That was October 2, 1925.

Nearly nine decades later, the only accessible vestiges of the Church Hill Tunnel demonstrate the stark difference between a landmark preserved and one abandoned.

Church Hill Tunnel      Church Hill Tunnel 1

The railroad tunnel was problematic from the get go, killing at least nine men, and possibly more, during its construction and operation from the 1880s to 1925. After that last, fatal cave-in–there had been a number of smaller ones prior–Chesapeake and Ohio officials conceded that the tunnel was too costly. They filled portions with sand and sealed both ends with concrete–train, laborers and all. They remain there to this day.

Walter S. Griggs, Jr., a Richmond professor, chronicled the tunnel’s tumultuous history in detail in his 2011 book, The Collapse of Richmond’s Church Hill Tunnel.

Over the years, urban explorers have braved profound dangers to access the tunnel’s interior. Today the eastern portal is tough to find, accessible only via a steep ravine cluttered with ages of crumbled brickwork and domestic refuse. A lush jungle of growth shrouds the approach to the entrance. The long tube leading to the sealed portal amplifies sound that would normally be drowned by the ambient noise of a city. Faint gusts of wind, the chirping of birds and a gurgling brook all seem to come alive at the edge of the underworld.

I ventured no farther than the broken chain-link fence at the tunnel’s mouth; to do so would have been illegal. The fence, out of repair as it was, clearly placed the tube off limits. But even if I had been willing to risk a ticket–the sealed concrete plug is evidently 150 yards in–I would have needed waders. Water trickles gingerly from the tunnel on its way to the James River, following the gentle slope of what was once a railroad bed.

 Church Hill Tunnel 2

The old railroad bed

The stream spilling through the ravine beneath E. Grace Street has nursed prolific plant life, among it vines and briers that conspire to trip up modern-day intruders who venture to this forgotten site. Birds and, no doubt, raccoons and possums thrive in this micro-habitat; they have ample cover and food, their oasis is surrounded on all sides by an old city.

It’s hard to imagine that this is the place where, on that fateful day in 1925, all hell broke loose. Men spilled from the tunnel entrance, having run thousands of feet in near darkness. The tunnel collapsed and completely sealed the western end. The workers were thankful to have escaped, relieved they hadn’t been buried alive. This is where Benjamin Mosby stumbled into daylight. He was Locomotive 231’s fireman and had been scalded so badly by the crippled engine’s steam, was in so much pain that he couldn’t bear for anyone to touch him. He died several hours later.

This is the end of the tunnel where, fifteen years ago, Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Mark Holmberg and two companions took an opportunity presented by the breached concrete plug to slink inside. He found the interior clogged with fill: granite rocks, sand and rotting railroad ties. The water level in the tunnel, which slopes downward going to the west, rose as he crept in–suggesting that at some point down the line water filled the tunnel floor to ceiling. 500 feet in Holmberg encountered a cave-in and could go no farther.

On the other side of town, the western portal stands just 50 feet or so from where the tunnel’s arched ceiling gave way in 1925. Like the eastern entrance nearly a mile opposite, the western portal had been neglected and forgotten for quite some time, abandoned like whole downtown blocks as people and manufacturers moved away. Vegetation grew wild and thick over the plugged portal at the base of a hillside just under Cedar Street.

         Church Hill Tunnel 4      Church Hill Tunnel 3

The western end was well on its way to being as shrouded and inaccessible as the other portal nearly a mile away. That is, until developers refurbishing the adjacent warehouses realized the fabled tunnel was an asset to their plans for redevelopment. They cleared the brush, landscaped the old approach.

Church Hill Tunnel 5

The old right-of-way, from above the tunnel

Residents of the chic new condominiums sip drinks and catch up on a little reading in the shadow of the stately masonry. This is one spot where city and C&O officials launched a frantic rescue effort (they also tried to rescue the buried men from above and from the east). Holmberg’s supposition that the tunnel is completely flooded seems accurate; water seeps from the top of the arch where the neat stonework meets the plug. Moss grows fat and happy, nursed by the water that dribbles through small cracks. A shiny historical marker a couple hundred feet away on 18th Street succinctly recounts the disaster and tells of the train and men buried inside.

Church Hill Tunnel 6

In 2006, the Virginia Historical Society partnered with railroad owner and history buff Pete Claussen to look at the possibility of exhuming the doomed locomotive. They drilled a couple boreholes in Jefferson Park only to discover the tunnel filled with murky water. When the price tag for exhuming Locomotive 231 climbed to $5 million, the effort lost steam. Besides, many said, that tunnel is a sealed tomb, and it would be sensible just to leave well enough alone. The tunnel has exacted enough already. There’s no need to add to the lengthy record of an undertaking that stands as one of Richmond’s costliest disasters.

Some folks are calling for the other side of the Church Hill Tunnel to be rescued from obscurity, too. That only one side of the tunnel is preserved–and on private property, no less–is a disservice to the men who offered their lives and effort in the service of this doomed venture. For now, though, the two ends of the Church Hill Tunnel stand in stark contrast, as night and day, as a monument to an epoch that Richmonders would prefer to forget and honor at the same time.

About Ben Swenson

Ben lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. He is writing a book on places of historic value that have been forgotten and are being reclaimed by nature. Abandoned Country is a companion blog to that project. You can contact him at benswenson@cox.net
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15 Responses to The Church Hill Tunnel; Two Portals a World Apart

  1. Walter Griggs says:

    Thank you for mentioning my book. If I can help you in any way, please let me know.

    Walter

    • Richard Corliss says:

      I would like to find the Eastern end of the Church Hill Tunnel. I and my wife thoroughly enjoyed Mr Griggs book about the tunnel. How can I see the other entrance? I believe that it is near Chimborazo Park and the next hill. Thanks!
      Richard Corliss

    • Dana U. Bagby says:

      After having read your book, Dr. Griggs, my 33-year-long fascination with the tunnel rebounded with renewed vigor as never before. For this, I thank you.

      There is a certain brick structure that I wholeheartedly believe to be in danger of eventual collapse. The house, which sits on the northwest corner of Marshall and 22nd Streets, sits squarely above the void left by the earh that filled the tunnel. This massive, three-layered brick structure, in its advanced state of lean, as well as noticeably depressed ground and trees around it leaning at its exact northerly angle, is sure to go into this void. The question in my mind is when. Were this house not showing evidence of movement over the space of the last five-months, I would not be overly concerned. Instead, I would look at it as a quirky anomaly. But moving, it is. No one seems overly concerned, though.

      Your report of the damage, and possibly further cave-ins, caused by the 1920s-era steam shovels used to dig into the hillside, is enough to make one wonder what the resulting damage of a massive structure falling into this void would be. Fissures, cave-ins, slides, tunnel-plugs exploding, flooding, ele trical and gas emergencies, and loss-of-life, to be sure.

      -Dana U. Bagby

    • Nick Morris says:

      Just purchased your book on amazon. I have a few questions for you regarding researching railroad history if would be willing to answer. Do you have an email address I could contact you at?

  2. Dana U. Bagby says:

    Mr. Swenson, I do appreciate your writings on this subject, as it lets me know that I am not alone in my fascination. Because of this, I am starting on your other articles, as well.

    • Ben Swenson says:

      Thanks for the comment and for reading. Yes it’s a bit strange but I suppose there have to be some of us who are blessed (cursed?) with this odd fascination.

  3. Brad says:

    I know how to start to excavate the 4-4-0 locomotive.

  4. Corey M. Fauconier says:

    I hope my correspondence finds you in good health and spirits. I am a history buff and I have been reading about this story for some time. I used to work down the block from the site which has been preserved. I think we should be working on the other side now. From the pictures, it looks a hot mess.

  5. Fred Grommers says:

    So whats stopping somebody from drilling holes in the west end of the plug, and simply letting the water drain out?

    • Dana U. Bagby says:

      That is such a good question. Thankfully, no one has. I tend to believe that the water is the only thing holding it up from further collapse. Not sure this makes any sense, but were the water removed, there’s a lot of wet clay that’ll do that gravity thing. And a lot of buildings that’d follow.

  6. Adam says:

    Hello Ja,

    I am the producer for the Churchhill documentary you were asking about. We are in the final stages of post production right now. Hopefully we will have a documentary to share with you and the city of Richmond by Christmas this year. It really is an amazing story and we are very excited we get to share it with everyone.

  7. Bob Harrison says:

    Hi, folks… My name is Bob Harrison… I was first turned on to the tunnel in the late 60s when a fellow artist friend, Richard Bland, had discovered the eastern portal… Over the years I would on occasion poke around down there behind the corrugated box company…

    In 1996, I had this dream that involved Bruce Springsteen whose band “Steelmill” I had booked in the 60s… In this dream I mentioned that I had written a song about a a collapse tunnel in Richmond… That woke me up and I wrote “Church Hill Tunnel” on a slip of paper, went back to sleep and in the morning saw the note and began making phone calls which…

    …led me to Walter Griggs and over the next several months, with his help on the details, I wrote and recorded an 11 minute, 33 verse song entitled “The Legend of the Church Hill Tunnel”…

    That was just the start… Four years later I organized a memorial of the 75th anniversary of the collapse which came off very well… We had about 75 to 100 people there and many remembered the collapse… One, Pinky Lemon, was the niece of one of the black laborers who is buried in the tunnel… His name was Richard and he was the family “dentist” which meant that he had a way with the kids when it was time to pull teeth…

    Just wanted to weigh in with my 2 cents…

    Bob Harrison @ bobnpvine@gamil.com

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