Upon rounding the corner after hiking six tenths of mile, guests are greeted by an oval shaped, rock covered opening spewing water from every crack. And looking into the dark abyss grants the viewer with a light at the end of the tunnel.
A historic marker for the Blue Ridge Tunnel issued by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources was unveiled to the public at the eastern trailhead parking lot on Thursday.
A crowd gathered in the grass outside the wooden office building there to listen to guest speakers and applaud the unveiling of the marker for the tunnel that opened for tourists in November of 2020.
“If you come here on a Saturday morning, you will see license plate tags from several states,” said Jerry West, director of Parks and Recreation for Nelson County.
Since the Blue Ridge Tunnel Trail opened in 2020, giving visitors the opportunity walk through the tunnel, it has accommodated more than 225,000 guests. The historic marker is more than just an honor for the tunnel itself. It is to honor the achievement of joining the eastern and western sides of the Blue Ridge Mountains, officials said on Thursday.
“The Blue Ridge Tunnel is significant for its engineering and for being the first railroad tunnel to connect Virginia’s Piedmont to the Shenandoah Valley,” Ken Rutherford, who sits on the Board of Historic Resources, said. Rutherford added that Nelson County is committed to preserving the Blue Ridge Tunnel for future generations and that the trail is a wonderful recreational amenity for county residents and visitors that will serve the public for years to come.
The Virginia Highway Markers program began is 1927 and has erected more than 2,600 markers across the commonwealth. The markers commemorate people, places and events. In order for a marker to be approved, the topic it covers must be of regional, state wide or national significance.
“The marker to the Blue Ridge Tunnel that we have here today certainly rises to the level of national importance,” Rutherford said.
Accomplished with merely hand tools and black powder, the 4,273-foot-long Blue Ridge Tunnel went under construction in 1849. Chief engineer Claudius Crozet — whom the Albemarle County town was named after — with a team of Irish immigrants and enslaved Black men, finished the tunnel to be used as a railroad in 1858. It is located beneath Rockfish Gap where Interstate 64, U.S. Route 250, Skyline Drive, the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Appalachian Trail converge.
The 2.25-mile-long trail was recognized as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1976 and in April of 2023 was listed as National Register of Historic Places.
To visit the trail and tunnel, parking is available at 215 Afton Depot Lane in Afton. The trail is free and open to the public. It is necessary to bring a light source before reaching the tunnel, as there are no lights inside to guide the way.