The Cave of Death.
In 1875, the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway completed a 4000-foot tunnel that ran through Church Hill. It connected nicely with Park Siding, a junction of C&O tracks near the intersection of Brown and Fifteenth Street in the Shockoe Valley. This area formerly lay between Clay and Leigh Streets, now covered by the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike.
Unfortunately, the tunnel was dug through soil, not bedrock, which presented problems. Church Hill is composed of blue marl clay, which expands when wet and contracts when dry. Combined with a tendency for the tunnel to collect groundwater from 70 feet above, the result was a maintenance headache for C&O. They ditched using it in favor of the James River Viaduct, when the latter was completed in 1901.
It stayed out of sight, but not out of mind, until 1925, when C&O was looking to expand rail capacity. They turned to the tunnel to address the problem, but it didn’t go well.
On October 2, 1925, about 3:30 P.M. the tunnel collapsed while a work train and several gangs of laborers were inside. Two white men and two Negroes lost their lives. Fireman Benjamin F. Mosby, who was fatally injured was on of the first of the wounded to make his way to the surface. The body of Tom Mason, engineer, was dug out the night of October 11. The bodies of the two Negro laborers who were believed to have perished in the tunnel were never found. (Richmond Public Library — Richmond Times Dispatch, 1947)
Only two others made it out alive. The State Corporation Commission ordered the tunnel sealed — bodies and train still inside — and it’s stayed that way ever since.
Both the tunnel portals are still available to view, although it is far easier to see the Western portal at Eighteenth & East Marshall. It’s formally contained with the Atrium Lofts property, but you can get a look from the street or the parking lot.
The Eastern Portal requires a little more work. You can get there via rough trails from either Thirty-first Street or the playground at Twenty-ninth. However, before you jump up and race over there, pause for a moment to use the noodle you were born with.
As seen from the photos above, the area around the portal is wet and muddy, and the tunnel itself is full of deep sandy water. Richmond journalist Mark Holmberg has documented some of the issues with getting there, comparing the mud to quicksand. Use care, expect to get dirty, and watch your step.
Above all, don’t try to qualify for a Darwin Award and enter the tunnel, because no one’s going to hear you if that goes south. Besides, it is a tomb; let the dead rest in peace.
(Church Hill Tunnel is part of the Atlas RVA Project)
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