Slave Labor on Virginia’s Blue Ridge Railroad
by Mary Lyons
Mary Lyons has previously written about similar subjects. Her book
Blue Ridge Tunnel, a Remarkable Engineering Feat in Antebellum Virginia
(available from C&OHS as BK-14-784) and the Virginia Blue Ridge
Railroad (available as BK-15-856) are now followed by this new volume.
The thrust of the book is the use of slave labor in building the line that
later became the Virginia Central, then C&O, and today’s CSX/Buckingham
Branch RR line between Mecham’s River Station to the east of the Blue
Ridge and Waynesboro in the west. This difficult stretch of road was
financed as the Blue Ridge Railroad by the Commonwealth of Virginia and
supervised by Claudius Crozet, the state’s “Principal Engineer.” Once open
it was operated by Virginia Central and ultimately purchased by C&O, Va.
Crossing the mountain required four tunnels, Little Rock, Greenwood,
Brookville, and Blue Ridge, one of which is still in use today. The major
construction was Blue Ridge Tunnel. It was the longest railroad tunnel in
the Americas when built and opened in 1858. C&O bypassed it with a new
tunnel in 1942 (the one still in use). The old tunnel is the focus of much
preservation activity at this time. It gets a lot of attention, even in TV
programs and has been recently digitally mapped by LiDAR.
In her first book about Blue Ridge Tunnel Mary Lyons detailed the
use of immigrant Irish laborers in its construction. In this new book she
gives an overall, detailed history of the part played by slaves in its
construction as well as the rest of the railroad’s building.
The book has some good engineering information, a great piece
about how bricks for lining the tunnels were made on the spot, and many
fine photos of the areas discussed, mainly as they appear today.
Of course, the major thrust of the book is a history of the slaves and
their work. Believe it or not, the author has uncovered the names and
something about most of the African-American people who worked on the
line. Lyons illustrates many of the documents she used in uncovering this
The book is both a social history telling how slaves were leased out
by owners to railroad contractors, and a construction/engineering history of
the line’s development over several years of construction. As such it is
unusual, almost unique, in railroad historical writing.
A couple of C&OHS collection photos are used in the book.
It is an interesting and important work but is not in the mainstream of
railroad history as we expect it. – This reviewer found it interesting and
gained a new understanding for this primordial element of C&O history.
Together with the authors two other books, mentioned above, this tells
about all about the Blue Ridge Railroad portion of C&O’s later Mountain
6x9 size, softbound, 160 pages, fully illustrated