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Sunday, June 10, 2012

Church Hill Tunnel collapse review

The Collapse of Richmond's Church Hill Tunnel, by Walter S. Griggs, Jr. (2011 History Press) 125 pages, index, illustrations, map - $19.99 (paper)

Most folks know that besides Civil War history, trains are my other big interest. Growing up in Richmond, when my Dad wasn't taking me to battlefields, we were going to railroad spots. One of my favorite was a spot where we were not going to see a train (in fact we were far more likely to witness a crime there back then, although the area has been cleaned up some of late, but I still wouldn't go there unarmed). I refer to the old Chesapeake & Ohio Railway tunnel running under Church Hill from Shockoe Bottom to Fulton Yard near Rocketts Landing.

The C&O had an issue with Richmond's topography - standing right in the path of their mainline heading eastward out of downtown was Church Hill. Less than a decade after the Evacuation Fire, workers began boring a tunnel through Church Hill - almost literally right under Patrick Henry's St. John's Church - to get to Richmond's docks on the other side. Several times the tunnel collapsed, but eventually it was completed and placed in service. However, it was replaced by a viaduct along the city's riverfront as C&O officials decided to extend the line to Newport News and Hampton Roads. Post-WWI rail traffic however required the reopening of the tunnel. On October 2, 1925, a work train was sent into the tunnel which required considerable shoring up before traffic could return to it. The train never left the tunnel - it remains there to this day, possibly with some of the work crew. After rescue efforts proved unsuccessful, C&O ordered the tunnel sealed off and filled in to prevent further collapses and damage resulting to the neighborhoods above. But the disaster drew national attention and was perhaps the biggest event in the city's history since the Civil War.

The story is a fascinating one; the book, eh, not so much...

As a Richmond native I was quite familiar with the old C&O tunnel under Church Hill. My Dad had taken me to the entrance (western one) several times and recounted the story. He had worked briefly with several folks who had worked on the rescue/recovery efforts.

Intrigued by hearing his recounting of the story of the day in October 1925 when the tunnel collapsed on the work train and crew inside, I wanted to know more. But there was no BOOK on the topic - a glaring hole in both Richmond's history (the collapse was arguably the worst natural disaster to strike the city since the Theater fire of 1811) and local railroad history.

When I learned that a book had finally come out on the topic I poured over it eagerly. The Collapse of Richmond's Church Hill Tunnel, by VCU Professor Walter S. Griggs, Jr., (History Press, 2011) looks at an important episode of Richmond's post-Civil War history. However it didn't fulfill my expectations, for several reasons. First, there is NO MAP. I am a map guy - a book can never have too many maps. There is but one map in this book, on page 100 no less, and it is a VERY shoddily-reproduced one that shows not the location of the tunnel in relation to the rest of the city but instead the location of the rescue shafts dropped into the tunnel after the collapse. A reader not familiar with Richmond's geography would be absolutely lost as to where the tunnel is located and why it was even needed, due to the local topography. This is a glaring omission that should never have been allowed to happen.

Second, it is poorly written and edited (something that seems to plague many of these History Press works, in addition to poor graphic quality). There is much repetition by the author, and too much first-person usage by him in the text as well. Despite being very well researched, Griggs gets bogged down in inane details in spots while glossing over other important details that are left unexplored. Despite interviewing witnesses and participants over a period of 50 years, the apparent depth of this research does not come through in the text.

But Griggs' work is not without merit. As noted above, it is quite well researched. After the collapse occurs, Griggs devotes a chapter to each successive day of the rescue efforts - a much more understandable and readable approach than combining all into one or two chapters (although some of the resulting "chapters" are literally one or two paragraphs). And needless to say the book fills a void in Richmond history. Griggs even tackles the popular story of the "tunnel vampire" - most authors, if they even mentioned such at all, would likely have only in passing mentioned the birth of that legend arising from the tunnel disaster.

At 120 pages, Collapse is a quick read (I read it in a single afternoon). But sans maps it can't really be deemed a "field guide" (although most folks know NOT to venture around that area, especially the east portal). The length is typical, though, of similar works by the History Press.

This is one of those books that crosses subject lines and would appeal to several audiences: Richmond history folks, railroad buffs - C&O folks in particular, and those with an interest in engineering history as well (although details on the actual structure of the tunnel itself are sparse, despite the author's harping on the unstable composition of Church Hill).

While Griggs has at least given interested audiences a book to turn to for more information, the definitive work on the subject of the Church Hill Tunnel remains to be written.

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