Contractors and Laborers

Claudius Crozet advertised nationally for contractors’ bids on the Blue Ridge Tunnel in July 1849. Though seven contractors answered the call, he unfortunately chose the cheapest bidder, a New Yorker named John Rutter. The chief engineer then issued advertisements for construction of two shorter tunnels in September 1849. East to west, these were the Greenwood and Brooksville Tunnels in Albemarle County.1

Ad for contractors, receipt from Baltimore Sun, 1849

Ad for contractors, receipt from Baltimore Sun, 1849

Irish immigrants John Kelly and John Larguey, partners in Kelly and Company, answered the advertisements and signed a contract for the Greenwood and Brooksville Tunnels in December 1849. Both had worked for years as contractors on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in Maryland. They brought with them a number of Irish immigrant laborers—and their extended families—from the Baltimore and Ohio construction. The majority was from County Cork, Ireland, one of the hardest hit areas during that country’s Great Hunger of 1845 – 1852.2

After John Rutter failed to show up for the Blue Ridge Tunnel construction, Kelly and Company signed a contract in February 1850 to build the passage. Of the approximately 30 contractors involved with the Blue Ridge Railroad, John Kelly and John Larguey shouldered the greatest burden, as did their workers.3

The grueling work of blasting three tunnels with only hand tools and black gunpowder in those pre-dynamite days was underway by March 1850. The rate of progress in the tunnel varied from year to year. In 1851, the Irish labor force blasted from 19 feet a month on the east side to 72 feet on the west. The men paid a heavy toll. At least 14 Irish died in the tunnel from blasts or rock falls. Scores more died, as did their family members, of infectious diseases, especially during the 1854 cholera epidemic.4

Manpower Report 1855

Manpower Report 1855

East Portal, 1909

East Portal, 1909

None of the many hundreds of Irish men and 65 boys employed on the Blue Ridge Railroad could have accomplished their brutal work without the labor of wives, daughters, sisters, aunts, and grandmothers. The women gave birth in impossibly primitive conditions, swept shanty floors, gathered firewood, drew water from the springs, cooked, and sent their menfolk off to blasting every morning, not knowing if they would see their loved one’s mangled corpse by the end of the day.5

Two enslaved men died from a runaway railcar accident on the Blue Ridge Railroad line in April 1854. A third died in a handcar accident the following month. These men were among the 50 or so slaves hired by Claudius Crozet to toil along the line. They cleared flooded ditches, repaired grades, helped build culverts, split stone into ballast, spread ballast, and otherwise readied the Blue Ridge Railroad for traffic. In 1854, thirty-three black men labored at the Blue Ridge Tunnel. The contract for their enforced work specified that they could not be allowed near the dangerous blasting. Instead, they involuntarily labored as blacksmiths or floorers who cleared rock debris from the passage after explosions.6

1Claudius Crozet to the President and Directors of the Blue Ridge Railroad, July 12, 1849, September 10, 1849, and October 5, 1849, Blue Ridge Railroad Papers, Library of Virginia.
2Mary E. Lyons, The Blue Ridge Tunnel: A Remarkable Engineering Feat in Antebellum Virginia, Charleston, S. C.: The History Press, 2014, 13-14, 23.
3John Kelly to John B. Floyd, November 15, 1850, Blue Ridge Railroad Papers, Library of Virginia; Lyons, Thankless Business: Claudius Crozet and the Blue Ridge Railroad – Selected Letters, forthcoming 2017, 402.
4Claudius Crozet to the President and Directors of the Board of Public Works, January 15, 1851, Blue Ridge Railroad Papers, Library of Virginia; Lyons, The Virginia Blue Ridge Railroad, Charleston, S. C.: The History Press, 88-91, 145.
5Lyons, The Blue Ridge Tunnel, 31-32.
6Claudius Crozet to the Board of Public Works, April 29, 1854; William Sclater to John Maupin, May 26, 1854; and “Contract for the hire of negroes,” January 5, 1854, Blue Ridge Railroad Papers, Library of Virginia.