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Project underway to restore 'portal stones' at Blue Ridge Tunnel

A new project is underway to restore the original “portal stones” that once adorned the western entrance of the Blue Ridge Tunnel connecting Nelson County in the east to Augusta County in the west through the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The stones are essentially a large plaque honoring the men who designed and funded the project, which was the longest railroad tunnel in North America at the time of its completion in 1858. That plaque, however, broke upon its original installation.

In the 1970s, three decades after the tunnel was decommissioned, Francis Bruner, a retired civil engineer and Virginia Military Institute alumnus, saw the broken plaque and wanted to preserve it.

Bruner contacted VMI and the tunnel’s railway operator Chesapeake & Ohio Railway, a predecessor of CSX Transportation, about getting the plaque to the college for display and preservation.

VMI took possession of the stones and planned to do a dedication ceremony in the 1970s, but it never happened. The stones have sat in storage at the school since.

According to Dwayne Jones, director of Parks & Recreation in Waynesboro on the western side of the tunnel, VMI has agreed to return the portal stones back to the Blue Ridge Tunnel Foundation and Nelson County, which has owned the tunnel since the CSX railroad sold it in 2007.

“I had met with the folks from VMI and they had agreed to donate them back to Nelson County and the Crozet Tunnel Foundation in hopes that they will be restored for the public,” Jones said.

Jones said the cost to restore the stones would be $50,000.

According to Jones, the plaque is 7 feet by 6 feet and the foundation hopes that, in addition to having a structure built to hold the plaque pieces, there will also be some panels with information about the history of the portal stone project and who was involved.

“The plaque pieces were chiseled in the 1800s, so they’re old. We’ve had to talk about ways to transport them and what’s going to hold them,” Jones said.

Parks & Recreation plans to use mattresses to move the stone pieces, to keep them padded on their trip from VMI in Lexington.

The frame that will hold the pieces will be a welded metal picture frame that is strong enough to hold the stones.

Jones said that the tunnel has always been of interest for people in the community, so they’re hoping people will donate to the cause.

The project has been a year in the making but officially launched in March.

So far, the project has received $4,000 in donations.

“There are some things people can get if they donate a certain amount like an engraved brick and other things that will help us make this project a reality,” Jones said.

The foundation plans to have a formal dedication with VMI and county officials once the stone plaque is up.

Jones said that the process will take at least a year, if not more.

The tunnel reopened to pedestrians in 2020, and Jones said the foundation was instrumental in making that happen.

“We were instrumental in the early days, since 2011. We were pushing interest and helping with fundraising to assist Nelson County,” Jones, who is also a part of the foundation, said.

The tunnel originally opened to rail traffic in 1858. Claudius Crozet, who was also a founder of VMI, designed the tunnel, which was considered a feat at the time when boring through solid mountain rock was considered prohibitively expensive. Crozet’s original plans for the project included three tunnels and manmade embankments. He left the project in 1857 due to pushback over how long the project was taking. Nevertheless, he is honored today: The tunnel is often referred to colloquially as the Crozet Tunnel, and the village of Crozet in western Albemarle County is named after him.

Now a third honor, his name on the portal stones, will soon grace the tunnel he designed.

Other foundation projects include landscaping, improving accessibility and installing restrooms, shelters and educational signage around the tunnel.

“We’ve learned some different things about the tunnel. There’s water that moves to the tunnel, and we had to see where it was coming from. There’s all sorts of different little pieces and parts that the foundation works on,” Jones said.

According to Jones, more than 100,000 people visit the tunnel every year.

“This is a piece of history that we can return to the tunnel. They are waiting for us to put them back in their rightful place,” Jones said.


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