Forgotten Tunnels

Church Hill Tunnel, Richmond, VA, USA

Thanks to Dr. Walter S. Griggs, Mark Holmberg and Phil. O' Keefe for the information on this forgotten tunnel.

Entrance of the Church Hill Tunnel in 1925 during refurbishment works, a few days before the collapse. (P. O'Keefe Collection)



Location: Richmond, Virginia, USA.
Timespan: 1873 - 1925
Description: Chesapeake & Ohio railroad single track tunnel under Church Hill, Richmond. Length: 4000 ft approx. Closed and filled-in after its collapse during refurbishment works in 1925, killing 3 (4?) and engulfing a work train in complete with a 4-4-0 engine #231 and 10 flat cars.


1871 (December 23rd) - Richmond City Council votes a 300 000 USD grant to C&O RR in order to help building a train tunnel under Church Hill.
1872 (February 1st) - Start of digging.
1873 (December 11th) - Formal opening after multiple mishaps.
1902 - Last scheduled train through the tunnel, replaced by a viaduct on the James River.
1925 - C&O railroad plans to reopen the tunnel due to increase of traffic on the viaduct.
1925 (September) - Start of the rehabilitation works.
1925 (October 2nd) - Collapse of the tunnel near the western end as a work train goes through.
1925 (October 10th) - Rescue workers reach the buried locomotive and find the body of the engineer, Thomas J. Mason, dead at the throttle. 1926 - Tunnel is filled with sand (with the work train still inside) and both portals are plugged.
2000 (October 2nd) - Bob Harrison of Harpers Ferry, W.Va., is due to place a sign above the tunnel entrance on the 75th anniversary of the collapse to commemorate the event and the memory of the men who died inside.

Additional information

Church Hill Tunnel has been a nightmare for C&O management. After a 22-month long work - claiming 12 lives, multiple cave-ins (see list below) and 1.1 million USD spent (twice the orignal cost), the tunnel always needed constant attention and repairs. Abandonment in 1902 said to be a relief for the company.

In the fall of 1925, C&O decided to reopen the tunnel in order to handle some additional freight traffic. Rehabilitation works included cleaning, new drainage ditches and iron reinforcement rings. Tunnel collapse occured on October 2nd, 1925, as engineer Mason pulled his work train (a consist of ten flat cars) all the way from the eastern entrance till 100 feet from the western portal. Then some bricks fell from the tunnel roof and a major cave-in occured involving 100-200 feet of tunnel. 300+ workers ran for their lives towards the eastern portal, some of them crawling under the flat cars.

Interior view of the tunnel after the collapse, showing the end of one of the flatcars.

More than 300 men took part to the search and rescue operations. The locomotive was reached down from Jefferson Park on October 10th, in order to retrieve the body of the engineer Mason. Search for other missing men went on for a few days. Retrieving the engine and cars made no economic sense. For 75 years now, a full steam train - altogether with an unknown number of bodies - are lying embedded under Richmond historical center.

List of casualties on 1925/10/02:

C&O locomotive crew:
  • Thomas J. Mason - engineer.
  • Benjamin F. Mosby - fireman. Managed to escape but died the same day at 11:40p.m. at Grace Hospital.

    Tunnel workers:
  • R. Lewis.
  • H. Smith.
    Note: one of the tunnel workers may have survived and turned up later.

    List of subsidences/cave-ins:

    DateLocationCasualties / Damages
    1873, Jan. 14thEast Broad Street
    (Facing St. John Church)
    0 (?) / 1 house.
    1873, Dec. 11th26th Street1 (Xenophilius Frazier, tunnel worker) / none.
    1925, Oct. 2ndJefferson Park 3 (maybe 4) railroad and tunnel workers. / Tunnel collapsed on 200 feet.
    1962Jefferson Park0 / Portion of the park, near the buried train.
    198829th Street0 / 1 tennis court and 2 houses.
    1998East Marshall Street0 / 1 pharmacy building.

    Note: Most of Church Hill is built on blue marl - a kind of clay - making a soft ground prone to subsidence. It is likely that some of the damages reported in the area were not caused directly by the tunnel, but merely by the bad nature of the underground soil.

    Modern view of the tunnel entrance sealed. The concrete wall bears the mention "1926" on it. (P. O'Keefe collection).

    "Remember the Church Hill Tunnel
    Near a mile under Richmond.
    There's a story I want to tell you
    Of a train that'll never be found

    Brothers keep shovellin'
    Pickin' in the ground,
    Brothers, keep listening.
    For the train that's never been found."

    On-line resources:
    Richmond's Times-Dispatch on-line archives.
    Chesapeake & Ohio Historical Society Web Site.

    Return to Home Page.

    Created: 00/07/20
    Last modified: 00/09/27