The Blue Ridge Railroad

The Blue Ridge Mountains and Alleghany Mountains were a natural barrier for passenger and freight traffic between Richmond and the Ohio River, then the western border of the state. Members of the Virginia legislature who had invested in turnpikes and canals needed convincing that railroads could do a better job of crossing those 423 miles.

When steam engines improved in the 1840s, the state of Virginia bought stock in the privately owned Louisa Railroad. Private investors, though, were unwilling to take on the expensive task of traversing the mountainous terrain at Rockfish Gap. As a result, the legislature approved critical public funding for the 17-mile-long Blue Ridge Railroad in March 1849.

In February 1850, the General Assembly changed the name of the Louisa Railroad to the Virginia Central. This new entity would build west from Ivy (then Woodville) in Albemarle County and connect with the eastern terminus of the Blue Ridge Railroad at Mechum’s River, also in Albemarle County. Simultaneously, the Virginia Central would lay tracks from Staunton to Waynesboro while building farther west to Covington in Alleghany County. Meantime, the Covington and Ohio Railroad would begin at the Ohio River and meet with the Virginia Central in Covington.

Despite many negotiations concerning shared costs, the Virginia Central assumed control of the Blue Ridge Railroad after the line opened in April 1858. But state budget cuts beginning in 1855 slowed construction to the Ohio River and the 1861 – 1865 Civil War halted it altogether. The Virginia Central merged with the Covington and Ohio in 1868 to become the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway. In 1873, the route between Richmond and the Ohio River was completed at last.1

West Portal 1917

West Portal 1917

In 1944, the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway replaced the 86-year-old Blue Ridge Tunnel with an adjacent tunnel at a slightly lower elevation on a curved alignment that could accommodate larger locomotives. Somewhat parallel to the old passage, the newer tunnel is still in daily operation, as is the 100-feet-long Little Rock Tunnel in Albemarle County. The old Blue Ridge Tunnel has not hosted traffic since then.

East Portals - Old and New, circa 1950

East Portals – Old and New, circa 1950

In the 1950s, a gas company leased the old tunnel for large-scale storage of propane. Two concrete bulkheads, or plugs, were constructed. One is 750 feet from the east portal. The other is 1,900 feet from the west portal. These barriers currently remain in place, though the storage plan was cancelled and the interior space never used.

VA Central Railroad Map west of Blue Ridge

VA Central Railroad Map – West of Blue Ridge

1 Mary E. Lyons, The Virginia Blue Ridge Railroad, Charleston, S. C.: The History Press, 119-122.