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'The Tunnel' unites tales of Irish diggers, enslaved railroad builders and restoration
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'The Tunnel' unites tales of Irish diggers, enslaved railroad builders and restoration

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Blue Ridge Tunnel

“The Tunnel” tells the story of the Blue Ridge Tunnel, which was completed in 1858. Eight years in the making, the documentary film will premiere Wednesday with free streaming on YouTube. It also can be seen at 9:30 p.m. March 23 on VPM PBS in Charlottesville, Richmond and Harrisonburg.

Since Nelson County reopened the Blue Ridge Tunnel to the public in November, more than 30,000 visitors have taken the opportunity to walk back in time. A new documentary is giving armchair travelers an opportunity to do the same.

“The Tunnel,” directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Paul Wagner and produced by Ellen Casey Wagner for American Focus, will premiere on YouTube on Wednesday — St. Patrick’s Day — to pay homage to the Irish workers who dug and blasted the tunnel out of solid rock. At 9:30 p.m. March 23, the broadcast version will air on VPM PBS.

Eight years in the making, the film tells two stories. It traces the laborious construction of the tunnel beneath Rockfish Gap, an engineering feat designed by Claudius Crozet, in the 1850s and the careful restoration effort from 2002 to 2021 that made it available to a curious and adventurous public. It became “a passion project” for the Wagners, who were rewarded for their decision not to rush the filmmaking process with a chance to tell the story of both “the creation and re-creation of the Blue Ridge Tunnel.”

“The history is kind of embedded in the contemporary story,” Paul Wagner said. “It did pay off in a way, in storytelling terms, to stay with it for eight years.”

The tunnel itself took about 800 people eight backbreaking years to create, from 1850 to 1858, because the Irish teams toiled in an era before dynamite. Workers had to pound star drills into solid rock and then fill the resulting holes with volatile black powder and fuses. Once the powder detonated, the blast filled the work area with heavy debris that had to be cleared away.

“That’s why it took eight years,” Wagner said. “They were only going about 20 feet a month.”

Cave-ins and unpredictable blasts caused heartbreaking, career-ending injuries, and some men and boys were killed on the job, Wagner said.

The Irish workers were grateful for their jobs, but workplace deaths often were followed by work stoppages by rattled survivors. Wagner said that Crozet hired local enslaved African Americans with railroad-building experience to take on the task.

Renting out enslaved workers was a common practice at the time, but Wagner said the owners made it clear that their workers would haul away debris after blasting, but nothing else. The owners refused to allow enslaved men to take part in the dangerous blasting process itself — not out of altruistic concern for the workers’ safety, but rather to protect their own financial investments.

“It’s just so revealing of the way slavery worked as an institution,” Wagner said. “It helps you see just how twisted it really was.”

When the Blue Ridge Tunnel was completed, it was North America’s longest railroad tunnel. It was closed in 1944, and CSX Transportation donated it to Nelson County in 2007. The tunnel continued to fascinate as an archaeological site, an engineering wonder and a testament to people who poured about a decade of toil and dedication into the project, only to move on after it was finished.

Although some of the Irish workers stayed after the tunnel was completed, most moved on to new railroad projects in Kentucky, Ohio and other places. Wagner learned more about the men’s local presence from Clann Mhor, a nonprofit group focusing on the history of the Blue Ridge Railroad, and he was reminded of some of the stories preserved in letters that he used in his “Out of Ireland” documentary. In that 1995 film, actor Liam Neeson read a letter written by an Irish man who worked on railroad bridges and tunnels. For many, following the work was a lonely undertaking.

Walking the length of the restored tunnel takes about half an hour, and Wagner said it offers a new way to savor the history and natural beauty of Nelson County.

“You go out in the morning to walk the tunnel, and then you can go to one of the breweries or wineries and have a wonderful Saturday in Nelson County,” he said.

When Wagner started working on “The Tunnel,” he thought the film might help promote the reopened Blue Ridge Tunnel as a local attraction. He was editing the film when the tunnel reopened last year, so “the tunnel is kind of promoting the film,” Wagner said with a chuckle.

The YouTube streaming is free. To see the trailer before Wednesday’s premiere, go to youtube.com/watch?v=maYZkHej0PM.

If seeing the film inspires you to visit the Blue Ridge Tunnel, go to nelsoncounty.com first to familiarize yourself with directions and details, and keep a few safety tips in mind:

» Bring flashlights, wear masks and maintain a distance of 6 feet from other visitors. If the parking lots are full, keeping proper distance won’t be easy, so come back another time. The rule of thumb is that if the parking lot is full, so is the site.

» The trail is open from sunrise to sunset. Limited parking is available at both the West Trailhead at 483 Three Notched Mountain Highway in Waynesboro and the East Trailhead at 215 Afton Depot Lane in Afton, but there is no RV or overnight camping.

» Be sure to take any trash you generate back with you, but do not take anything else. Leave rocks and plants where they are.

» Smoking is not allowed inside the tunnel. If you smoke near the tunnel or on the site, be sure to take cigarette butts and smoking materials back with you.

» Mountain bikes are allowed only on roads, and walkers need to stay on designated trails. Golf carts, all-terrain vehicles and other rides are not allowed; neither are drones.

» Easier access for visitors with mobility challenges or accessibility needs is available at the East Trailhead in Afton; that’s also the best entry point for visitors who want a less strenuous workout. The trail there is fully ADA accessible; the West Trailhead is not.

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