Richmond's Buried Train
The Death and Possible Resurrection of Church Hill Tunnel's Locomotive 231
In 1925, a tunnel collapsed on a work train in Richmond, Virginia, killing at least three men. Rather than digging out the tunnel, the railroad filled it in and sealed up the ends, entombing Locomotive 231. Today, eighty-one years later, a private effort to explore the tunnel and possibly excavate and retrieve the engine is under way.
Above left: After the collapse, the roof of the adjacent surviving tunnel was shored up; above center: Removing debris after the collapse; above right: In a rescue effort, a shaft was dug from above to a point in the tunnel where the engineer Tom Mason and other workers might have been. Photographs by Foster. Read more about the tunnel's history.
Excavating Locomotive 231
Can the train be excavated? That is the hope of H. P. "Pete" Claussen, chairman and CEO of Gulf and Ohio Railway in Knoxville, Tennessee. In a June press conference with Richmond's mayor, L. Douglas Wilder, Claussen announced his intention, with the mayor's blessing, to excavate the train buried in the Church Hill tunnel. The process involved drilling a number of holes through the soil in Jefferson Park and down through the area of the tunnel where experts speculate the engine of the train rests. Cameras were sent down the holes in hopes of recording the condition of the train and its exact location. Claussen has hired contractor Wesley Blankenship of H. W. Blankenship & Sons to conduct this initial survey work. (H. W. Blankenship & Sons Inc., 3021 Warboro Rd., Midlothian, Virginia 23112, 804.744.3893)
The results of this feasibility study will determine whether Claussen, who initiated the project and would fund the excavation, will proceed with the effort. For information on the process of excavation, contact information is available at www.gulfandohio.com.
The train and the mystery surrounding the collapse of the tunnel in 1925 have been the sources of numerous urban legends in Richmond. One of the most common misconceptions is the rumor that the train was carrying passengers—many of whom are still buried in their untimely grave below Jefferson Park. We know from historical records and reporting at the time that this was not the case. The train was being used to widen the tunnel. Workers were standing on flatbed cars to reach the tunnel ceiling and cart out the resulting debris. In fact, many survivors of the cave-in crawled under these flatbed cars to safety.
The Role of the Virginia Historical Society
The Virginia Historical Society is interested in this project in much the same way as inquisitive citizens following the story in our local, statewide, and even national media. Unearthing Locomotive 231 would provide us with information to understand this moment in Richmond's history—who is still buried with the train? What condition is the train in? What more can we learn about that tragic day from a modern archaeological effort? Should the project proceed, and in the event that the locomotive is in proper condition, the VHS is interested in using this artifact as a tool to tell the story not only of the collapse of the Church Hill tunnel, but also of the significance of the railroad in Virginia and specifically that part of downtown Richmond.
Dr. Charles F. Bryan, Jr., our president and CEO, expressed the hope that, should the train be unearthed, it could become part of our collections, which are to be used for the education and enjoyment of all Virginians, of the present and future generations. If the opportunity presents itself, we would be happy to accept that responsibility of stewardship of this historic artifact. Any human remains unearthed in this process would be treated with dignity and respect and afforded the proper burial and ceremony they were denied so many years ago.
Although the VHS did not initiate this project and is not providing any funding for it, we invite you to visit this page for updates on the Church Hill Tunnel. We will make information available to our constituents as it is provided to us by Mr. Claussen. For more information on the story of the tunnel's collapse and the history of the train in Virginia, please visit our research library. To order photos relating to this event from our collection, please click here.
In 1925 efforts to clean and widen a railroad tunnel underneath what is now Jefferson Park in the Union Hill Historic District in Richmond, Virginia, ended in a disaster that claimed the lives of at least three people. Completed in 1873, the 4,000-foot tunnel, constructed by the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway Company, extended from 18th and Marshall streets to a point near 30th and Grace streets. By 1925 the fifty-two-year-old tunnel needed to be widened to accomodate larger trains. On October 2 more than 200 day laborers, mostly African American, were at work on the tunnel when a 100- to 200-foot section of its ceiling gave way under Jefferson Park and crashed down near its western end. Also there at the time was a work train, Locomotive 231, with ten empty flatcars attached to it. Shortly before the collapse, Engineer Thomas J. Mason brought the flatcars into the tunnel for workmen to use as a platform to reach its high walls and ceiling. With earth and bricks falling all around them, many of the workers ran toward the eastern end of the tunnel. Others escaped by crawling under the flatcars. Mason never left the locomotive. He died when the train's boiler exploded. Fireman Benjamin F. Mosby, tending the boiler at the time of the collapse, managed to find his way out but died later that night from burns suffered in the explosion. The third known fatality that day was Richard Lewis, one of the workers. His body was never found. Thomas Mason's body was recovered on October 10, eight days after the collapse. By then rescue efforts had ceased. In 1926 the tunnel was filled with sand and sealed at both ends, entombing Locomotive 231.
Related media links:
• NPR: Town Targets Mystery Trains Secrets