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HOLMBERG: Petition to clean up dangerous eastern portal of infamous Church Hill Tunnel

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) – Even though the 1925 collapse of the infamous Church Hill train tunnel is one of Richmond’s most intriguing legends and mysteries, it’s only been recently that any part of the tunnel has been commemorated with a historic marker.

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That marker is on a sidewalk about 100 yards from the entry to the western portal of the tunnel that collapsed as a crew worked on it to increase the size of traffic.

Several people were killed, including the conductor and fireman of the work train.

Stefanie Lacks of Henrico County says the eastern portal is a shameful and dangerous mess, hidden in an East End ravine, that should be turned into a historic park.

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“It’s such an interesting, if not gruesome, piece of Richmond history,” she told me Tuesday. “And it looks like it’s been left for the earth to reclaim. It’s sad to me.”

The actual collapse occurred within 200 feet of the western portal, which can be seen by looking eastward beside the Atrium Lofts in the 500 block of N. 18th Street in Shockoe Bottom.

But the workers had to run some 4,000 feet, in the darkness, to escape out of the eastern portal, which can be found by driving east on E. Franklin Street past S. 29th Street, going down the hill to where the road takes a sharp bend to the right. If you park on the left just before that bend and tromp down that steep embankment, you can find the eastern portal.

Part of that tunnel is still open, and is very dangerous. It’s filled with water and quicksand like silt that could easily snag an explorer.

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“It is dangerous, you know as well as me,” Lacks said. “And it’s not stopping anybody now from going in there to check it out. So if we can turn it into a park, put some effort into it, it could be a safe place to go learn about the history .”

She’s started a petition drive here: http://www.tinyurl.com/churchhilltunnel

Lacks said it’s too late for the western portal off 18th Street. Even though there’s a  historic marker, it’s facing the wrong way, Lacks said, and the tunnel entrance itself is cordoned off away from the public inside the parking lot and locked gate of the Atrium Lofts apartments.

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And she’s right.

The best bet for preservation is now the eastern portal, where the men ran out in a panic, some of them reportedly wielding knives, ready to cut anything that got in their way.

The train’s fireman, Ben Mosby, was among those who ran out. He was so horribly burned some believe the vision of him fleeing the mouth of the tunnel was the origin of legend of Hollywood Cemetery’s vampire.

But any plan for a living history park site would require more than CSX Corp. to be involved. The city owns some land in that ravine, along with some private owners.

You can see the stakeholders by clicking on this map and carefully zooming in around the area between E. Franklin and E. Grace streets east of 29th Street. http://map.richmondgov.com/parcel/

Some cool Church Hill Tunnel links:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5519048

http://fdelaitre.perso.sfr.fr/Richmond.htm