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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.