Nestled between Libby Hill and Chimborazo park, in a section of town known as Sugar Bottom, down a steep drop off, through piles of trash, and in the middle of what can best be described as an urban swamp lies the eastern entrance (exit?) of the Church Hill Tunnel.
When last we spoke of the tunnel, we left at the opening in 1873. The tunnel had already killed ten people, and it was the bane of the C&O Railways line from western Virginia to Tidewater. The clay did not hold back the groundwater like the bedrock of Appalachia and the tunnel was frequently flooding. In 1901 the C&O built a new viaduct route along the James River (we’ll be looking at this later) and quickly abandoned the tunnel.
In 1925 the Viaduct route was running at capacity, and continuing demand for coal meant that coal had to get through Richmond. C&O decided to fix up the Church Hill Tunnel.
To address the water problems that the tunnel had previously experienced it was decided that ditches should be dug inside the tunnel. In October of 1925 Engine #231, a 4-4-0 steam engine entered the tunnel to continue repair work. The previously dug ditches had weakened the walls of the tunnel. Imagine, you are deep underground with nothing but weak lighting when you hear the thud of a brick. Next, you hear the fall of several bricks. Before you know it, the light completely cuts out and the tunnel begins collapsing around you, Two workers escaped by crawling under the 10 flat cars that were (and still are) buried in the collapse. Two more bodies were recovered, but two other men were not. Further attempts at rescue proved impossible, and the Virginia State Corporation ordered a stop to further rescue attempts.
An absolutely riveting account of the disaster and the tense recovery efforts can be found at Richmond Then and Now. Here is another chilling recount by Hazel Trice Edney with Samuel Jackson (not that one, but feel free to read it in his voice) in The Afro American newspaper in 1987. There had been talk about retrieving the train but the current state of the tunnel seems to be a continuing problem to the process and has caused several collapses in the Church Hill area. You can listen to a story from NPR’s archive.
One of the men who escaped the tunnel was one Benjamin F. Mosby. It was reported that he emerged with broken teeth and the horribly burned skin hanging off of his body. He died later at Grace Hospital and is buried in Hollywood Cemetery. Or at least that is what they want you to believe… more on that soon! (We’re talking vampires, folks!)
On a side note, I would like to point out that the Eastern Entrance stands in stark contrast to the Western Entrance. The Western Entrance is well manicured, gated, and locked off while the Eastern Entrance is a swampy trash heap that nature is slowly trying to reclaim. Despite their apparent differences they share a common trait: they are both inaccessible. One of the greatest things about the city that we live in is its rich history, and the tragedy of the Church Hill Tunnel collapse is a part of that history. I do not necessarily advocate for the removal of the train (which was actually proposed and explored in conjunction with The History Channel), but the current states of the existing sites does not seem wholly appropriate either. I hope to explore the Eastern Entrance further in the future.
Is there anything in RVA YOU’D like to know more about? Leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org! I’m always up for exploring our area. Even when it involves walking through your trash, apparently!