A Walk In the Woods

I am revising my opinion of friendly woodcutters.

This afternoon, I was out in the woods by Afton, VA looking for an abandoned railroad tunnel from the 1850s. My plan was to photograph the tunnel entrance, so Will Thomas could use the image in his new book. When it was completed in 1858, the Blue Ridge Tunnel was the longest train tunnel in the United States.

When I agreed to take the photograph I thought I knew where the tunnel was.

Wikipedia had a lat/long value for the tunnel which I happily plugged into my iPhone and got directions. Once I got off the interstate, I found what appeared to be the Frontage Road indicated on Google Maps (although AT&T lost me at several points so the Google API was spotty at best once I actually got out there). The road was in bad repair and covered in leaves, although it had been paved at one point.

I parked my car in a motel parking lot across the street and headed into the woods. After about 15 minutes it became apparent that I was not heading towards the location. I doubled back and came across an older man in work pants and a sweatshirt sitting on the back of his truck, which was piled with firewood.

He took one look at me (long sleeve tee-shirt, jeans, fleece vest and camera bag) and asked “You looking for the tunnel?”

I said yes, and he proceeded to explain that I was on the wrong side of the mountain. I had to get back in my car, drive to the railway overpass, find the trail that ran into the woods and then follow the railroad tracks (at least, that’s what I think he said, his directions were rather convoluted and referenced small differences in a geography I had yet to experience).

I did as he suggested, found the trail and headed off again. I soon found myself walking along suspiciously pristine railroad tracks, but my GPS said I was now headed in the right direction. Then I saw the tunnel: a sheer, concrete slab with a perfect arch cut into it, complete with trademark U.S. Government art-deco typeface etched into the surface, proclaiming “Blue Ridge Tunnel, 1942-1944.”


I took a few shots (just in case), but by this point it was 4pm, and the sun was getting close to the mountain range, so I decided to go home.

As I prepared to merge onto the interstate, I saw the laughably small sign indicating the real Frontage Rd., Rt. 212, and made a quick right. The road was gravel, but well maintained and I drove until I found a gate.

I thought about heading down on foot, but realized the light would be terrible by the time I found the tunnel. Luckily, I didn’t try.

When I got home, I went online to see if I could figure out what had happened. Apparently, Wikipedia gave me the coordinates for the modern tunnel (built during WWII to handle the increased rail traffic) even though the article was about the nineteenth-century construction. The article claimed the new tunnel was built in parallel with the old one, but I certainly didn’t see any antebellum construction nearby.

Finally, I looked at Google Earth and I think I have found the old tunnel, about 200m south by southwest of the new tunnel. As far as I can tell, the easiest way to reach it will be off that Frontage Road and far, far away from the trail suggested to me in the woods. I’m heading back tomorrow to see if I’m right.

Either way, I’m pretty sure the woodcutter was wrong.


The story continues in my next post, “Into the woods we go (again).”


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