Nice & Curious Questions

Edwin S. Clay III and Patricia Bangs


Tunnel Vision:

Blasting through Rock, Burrowing under the Bay


There’s a reason John Henry became a legend. When the steel-driving man engaged in his famous contest with a steam-powered drill, he was working on a tunnel. Specifically, the Big Bend Tunnel in Talcott, W.Va. The project was part of a 19th-century effort to expand the railroad west across Virginia from the Atlantic. In one tall tale, the six-foot former slave (who may never have existed), won the contest against the drill, but keeled over dead from exhaustion.


In the mid-19th-century, before the steam shovel, jack hammers and other modern construction machines, it took hundreds of men with picks, shovels, mules and wagons to dig a railroad tunnel. Tunnels were necessary in the mountains of western Virginia because of physics. The steeper an incline, the harder it was for an engine to pull a load of cars. It had to overcome more friction. Without tunnels, railroads had to buy more powerful engines, use shorter trains or put extra engines on through mountainous terrain. It wasn’t cost efficient in the long run.


Before the Civil War, the Virginia Central Railroad was the first to use railroad tunnels, built at state expense, to cross the Blue Ridge at Rockfish Gap. The company later became part of the more well-known Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad.


The most infamous railroad tunnel in Virginia was the Church Hill Tunnel in Richmond, built in the 1870s when coal trains needed access to the James River. A viaduct replaced the tunnel in 1901, but it was reopened in 1925. In October of the same year, the tunnel collapsed on a work train, killing an engineer and at least two additional employees. According to a Richmond Times-Dispatch news story at the time, during the attempted rescue “more than 75,000 persons visited the scene during the day, many of them remaining from early morning until late last night.” The tunnel was sealed in 1926 and never used again. (See Richmond Then and Now.)


While railroad tunnels were the Old Dominion’s first civil engineering feats, it is their vehicular cousins that now bring accolades to the Commonwealth. When the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel opened in 1964, it was declared “one of the seven man-made wonders of the world” in a global competition. The combination bridge-tunnel project connects the Norfolk and Virginia Beach area with Virginia’s Eastern Shore. It has since been bumped off the list by the Channel Tunnel, nicknamed the Chunnel, which is the 31-mile tunnel between Great Britain and France. (See Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel History.)


But of the 50 longest road tunnels in the U.S., Virginia has eight, topped only by Pennsylvania. The longest Virginia tunnel is the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel at 7,479 feet, followed by the Thimble Shoal Tunnel, a part of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel project. (One mile = 5,280 feet.) It measures 5,734 feet. The next longest is the Chesapeake Channel Tunnel at 5,423 feet, also a part of the tunnel-bridge project, but completed in 1999. (Road Tunnels in the U.S.)


Perhaps the most unusual tunnel project was the East River Mountain Tunnel, completed in 1973. It straddles the Virginia-West Virginia state lines, with the boundary actually within the tunnel. The tunnel carries I-77 between Rocky Gap, Va., and Bluefield, W.Va., through East River Mountain. Prior to its construction, the trip over the mountain was arduous and sometimes dangerous on a twisting highway with no guardrails. At 5,412 feet, it is the third longest tunnel in the state and the seventh longest twin highway tunnel in the U.S.


Groundbreaking took place on August 12, 1969. At the ceremony, the governors of both states pushed a plunger that created an explosion with red, white and blue smoke. For the next five years, crews from each state bored four tunnels from opposite sides of the mountain, finally meeting each other in the middle. As with many such projects, there were unforeseen obstacles. Sinkholes appeared because of caves under the mountain, and once the tunnel dropped two feet. Deer continued to disturb stakes on the top of the mountain that marked where digging was taking place. Finally, the workers imported lion manure to stop the foraging creatures from interrupting construction. The tunnel finally opened in 1974. Forty-nine percent of it sits in the Commonwealth and the other 51 percent belongs to West Virginia. (See Bland County History Archives.)


Virginia’s other tunnels have idiosyncrasies as well. According to a trucking journal, "Land Line Magazine," when the westbound tunnel facility of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel was built in 1957, it accommodated the height of trucks of that era. It is just not tall enough for some modern truck designs. The eastbound tunnel was built 15 years later and has no such problem. Thus, taller trucks can travel eastbound to Virginia Beach, but have to return by an alternate route. Some trucks try to sneak through by lowering their suspension (called air dumps) and cause traffic jams when sensors detect them. They have to be turned around before entering the tunnel. The General Assembly, in an effort to stop the practice, just raised the fine from $85 to $500 and adds three points to a truck driver’s record if they try to sneak through.


Most of the Commonwealth’s other major tunnels are located in the Newport News-Norfolk-Portsmouth area because the U.S. Navy, which has a large presence there, prefers tunnels to bridges over the wide waterways. They are considered less vulnerable to enemy or terrorist attacks. These include the Monitor Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel, which connects Newport News with Suffolk, opened in 1992, and the Downtown Tunnel and the Midtown Tunnel that connect Norfolk and Portsmouth under the Elizabeth River. The Downtown Tunnel opened in 1952 and the Midtown Tunnel 10 years later.


The final major Virginia tunnel is the exception. It is the 4,229-foot Big Walker Mountain Tunnel, located 20 miles south of its larger East Mountain Tunnel cousin near Bland, Va. John Henry may have lost his life hammering out a tunnel, but that didn’t deter those who followed. Virginia stretched much farther west in Henry’s day.


As the lyrics to the famous folk song go, “Some say he's from Georgia/Some say he’s from Alabam/ But it’s wrote on the rock at the Big Ben Tunnel/ That he’s an East Virginia Man/ That he’s an East Virginia Man.”


Next: Down the Drain or Waste Not, Want Not: Wastewater Treatment in Virginia


-- August 23, 2005












About "Nice & Curious"


In 1691, a group of English wits, calling themselves the Athenian Society, founded a publication entitled, "The Athenian Gazette or Causical Mercury, Resolving All the Most Nice and Curious Questions proposed by the Ingenious." The editors accepted questions posed by readers on any and all topics, and sought the most ingenious answers.


Inspired by their example, Edwin S. Clay III, president of the Virginia Library Association and Director of the Fairfax County Public Library, created an occasional column on Virginia facts that may require "ingenious answers" of the type favored by those 17th-century wags.


If you have a query, e-mail him at


Fairfax County Public Library staff Patricia Bangs, Lois Kirkpatrick and MaryAnn Sheehan assist in the writing, editing and research of the column.