Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Abingdon Adventure - Day 3

After completing two iconic Virginia hikes, I was delighted when we had the opportunity to check off another. Like the previous trails, what they lacked in mileage was more than made up for in distinctiveness. Conveniently, the trail was located half-way between Abingdon, VA and the DC area, so it served as the perfect rest stop on our way home.

The trail was none other than the Blue Ridge Tunnel. The Blue Ridge Tunnel, as the name suggests, is a hike whose primary feature is that you make your way through a railway tunnel. But this isn't just any tunnel, it took 8 painstaking years to create and was completed in 1858. At that time, its length of 4,237 feet made it the longest tunnel in the United States. Because it predates dynamite and heavy machinery, it remains the longest tunnel in the US built using hand tools and black powder.

So this isn't just a hike through a tunnel; it's a hike through history.

The most stunning statistic I've read about the tunnel is this: 26 feet. That's the average number of feet per month that were excavated on each side. (In 1851, just 19 feet a month were blasted on the east side!). That seems glacial considering the hundreds of men working on the project.

This article from the Richmond Daily Dispatch summarized the state of affairs 3 years into the project:

The Blue Ridge tunnel

We have recently heard many inquiries made as to the condition and prospects of the Blue Ridge Tunnel, and the likelihood of its being completed within the present century. We are unable to give our readers any precise information on the subject. The rock at which Col. Crozet is tapping is not exactly as accessible as a "hollow beech tree." Its flinty heart refuses to be enforced or entreated. ... The contest between the iron and the rock is wearing out the iron, while the rock shows little sign of suffering. ... People complain that Col. Crozet does not go through the mountain. Col. Crozet, no doubt, would be glad to do so, but the mountain will not let him. To those who insist that Col. Crozet shall be removed, we reply that they would better undertake to remove the mountain, which seems to deserve it, on account of its in hospitable treatment of Col. Crozet and the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Who knew newspaper's of the 1850's could be so snarky? I'm impressed!

Success finally came late in 1856 when the two sides of the tunnel met and were mere inches off:

On Monday morning last, at an early hour, the workmen in the western end of the Blue Ridge Tunnel perforated hole, about two inches in circumference, through the mountain, and, in tho language of Gen. Gordon, "daylight now shines through the blue Ridge." This event caused great joy on the part of the workmen, and every one of them immediately laid down their tools to spend the rest of the day in a frolic.

So accurately had been all the calculations made by Col. Crozet, that the augur holes from both ends of the tunnel were only half an inch distant from each other, when they met, and the length of the tunnel as computed by measurement on the outside, over the top of the mountain, and as accurately measured inside, after the perforation, was less than six inches.

Even with this success, it would take nearly two more years for the tunnel to be opened.

We parked our car at the eastern trail head, and walked the .6 miles of flat terrain to the entrance of the tunnel. The sun was out and we had baby L in the stroller. Approaching the tunnel, the conditions dramatically changed as we found ourselves in the shade of the mountain and cold air pouring from the mouth of the tunnel. We took countless pics at the opening and then made our way inside.

We could see the light at the end of the tunnel, and as promised it was pitch black and quite chilly inside. It was also fairly busy, with many families taking advantage of the hike as a post Thanksgiving activity. So as ominous as the pitch black tunnel was, the mood remained jovial.

Shira and baby L, now out of her stroller an being snuggled by Shira, went as far into the tunnel as to be in total darkness. Shira then had her fill and returned to the sunshine outside. I went deeper, though I didn't make it as far as the western entrance.

Over all the experience was a worthy one and I highly recommend this hike. Hopefully we'll be back in the area in the future, minus an 8 week old, and I'll be able to convince Shira to walk the entire length of the tunnel.

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