The Church Hill Tunnel Disaster -- Recalled Again
By Ed Lyon
Chesapeake and Ohio Historical Magazine,
Reprinted with permission
Just after the turn of the century, on June 5, 1901, Thomas Joseph Mason, 32, took as his bride Mary W. Woodson, an attractive 16-year-old brunette from Roanoke. They sere married at St. Peter's Cathedral in Richmond, Virginia just three days before their identical-date birthdays ehen they turned 33 and 17, respectively. While their wedding probably caused no great ripples in Richmond social circles, less than a quarter century later the name Mason would be a major news headliner in Virginia's still aristrocratic capital city.
Their marriage, which produced nine children (one died in infancy), ended 24 years later when Tom Mason (and three other men, perhaps more) lost his life as the result of one of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway's most bizarre and publicized accidents.
This famous disaster--the Church Hill tunnel cave-in--- was covered in a comprehensive four-part article by Walter E. Griggs, Jr. in the August-November 1971 editions of the C&O Historical Society's predecessor C&O Historical Newsletter. For the benefit of about 1,600-plus members who have joined the Society since 1971, the Church Hill story is repeated in this issue. The 1989 article contains updated data based on recent research plus numerous photos and maps which could not be used the 1971 series due to printing and budget limitations in effect at that time.
Opened on December 11, 1873 after a 22-month construction project costing $698,999, Church Hill tunnel was (at that time) a vital link in C&O's eastward extension from Richmond to Hampton Roads. A brief history of the tunnel up to the 1925 collapse and a post cave-in summary are presented here.
After the Civil War, Richmond--like Chicago in the traumatic period following the great 1871 fire--rose from the ashes of war and gradually regained its status as a commercial and industrial center. New buildings went up and smashed rail lines were put back into operation.
Interwoven with Richmond's rebuilding was the emergence of the fledgling but rapidly expanding Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad as a major rail system in the Alleghany Mountains and southeastern region.
C&O President Collis P. Huntington felt that the railroad might provide an important link in his "envisioned" coast-to-coast chain of railroads. Huntington also considered expansion eastward from Richmond since a connection with Tidewater Virginia was essential to the C&O's success. The move toward the east brought about the need for the construction of a tunnel under Richmond. With this need in mind, Huntington made plans to plead his case before the Richmond City Council.
To better understand Huntington's objectives, the topography of Richmond must be considered. Richmond, like Rome, is built on seven hills. Church Hill lies in the eastern section of the city, forming the eastern side of Shockoe Valley, which was a natural path from the James Rier to the north. The city's deep-water port on the James lies several miles below the fall line, to the east of Church Hill.
During Richmond's postwar reconstruction, C&O, as a preliminary step in its eastward expansion, began looking for a way to get a rail connection from its terminal at 17th and Broad Streets, west of Church Hill, to the port. Richmond businessmen wanted the line's wharves to be built near the city, but the only feasible surface route lay along the narrow and crowded strip between the James River and Church Hill. The only alternative was a costly tunnel, and Church Hill--site of the famed St. John's Church, where Patrick Henry uttered his famous Liberty or Death speech--stood in the way.
Undaunted by the hill's miocene clay and warnings by engineers and others that it was too unstable for tunneling, Huntinton sought financial aid from the city in order to build the tunnel. Huntington got the financial assistance he desired and obtained permission to dig the tunnel under Richmond.
Two alternatives were considered: a tunnel under Church Hill and a branch line track leaving the main line one mile from the city and passing over the hill to a point below Rocketts. Although the line across the hill was cheaper, the tunnel was finally selected because it interfered less with city street traffic, offered a better line for through business, and was above the highest known flood level on the James River.
In 1871 the Richmond City Council decided to build the tunnel at public expense and on December 23rd authorized a $300,000 bond issue to pay for it.
Meanwhile, the railroad built a marine terminal at Rocketts Landing, just below the east end of the proposed tunnel. The terminal included doubledecker docks where ships could be loaded from the top deck at high tide and from the bottom deck at low tide. These excellent docks, however, could not improve the shallow James River which prevented large ocean going vessels from coming to Richmond. Realizing that it was not economically feasible to deepen the James, the C&O in 1882 would establish its principal deepwater terminal at Newport News.
Ground breaking for the new tunnel took place on February 1, 1872 during a ceremony witnessed by about 100 persons. The tunnel, starting from a point near the intersection of 18th and Marshall Streets, just east of Shockoe Valley, would extend to an eastern end near Williamsburg Road below Chimborazo Park. Along its original route of 3,927 feet, the tunnel would pass under Jefferson Park and run almost parallel to a portion of Marshall Street viaduct.
The tunnel was planned by General Williams Carter Wickham and Colonel H. D. Whitcomb, chief engineer of the C&O. Construction was carried out by the contracting firm of Haggerty and Brannon. Working with the contractors were Whitcomb and Channing M. Bolton, division engineer in charge of the project.
About 500 men worked on the tunnel which featured a masonry arch and was built by the American system or "block system." This system, using block timbering where, instead of three pieces consisting of a cap and two legs, the pieces are multiplied to five or nine wooden voussoirs. The tunnel ends were laid in open trenches and these were filled after the masonry arches were set in place. The central sections were bored from inside the hill. Temporary timber arches were built to support the roof until the permanent masonry vaulting wsa installed. Workmen reached the central sections through three vertical shafts sunk at points along the route.
Church Hill tunnels was jinxed from the very beginning. No major excavations had ever been made in Richmond's hills. While the C&O was warned, as already noted, few if any persons fully realized the unstable nature of the three-layer clay until work began. The main body of the hill, the miocene clay, contained skulls and marine animal bones. This mass of clay, nearly 100 feet between the tunnel and the surface, began to slip. The resulting pressure caused the timber arches of the tunnel to sag.
The blue marl under Church Hill caused numerous cave-ins during construction. There were 10 or 12 serious accidents which took a number of lives, including one prominent construction manager. On January 24, 1873, near 24th Street, a section of ground above the tunnel abruptly dropped 20 feet, carrying several unoccupied houses with it. Cracking timbers in the tunnel below warned workers, who escaped unharmed.
The original planned completion date of October 1, 1873 could not be met due to another cave-in and a strike by C&O laborers. Finally, on December 11th, C&O locomotive No. 2, which had been built in Richmond and named the David Anderson, passed through the tunnel pulling one car. In his 1971 article, Mr. Griggs noted: "...The passage through the tunnel by the David Anderson marked the completion of one of the largest tunnels in the country--a tunnel bored through the most treacherous earth and with the greatest difficulty..."
After the tunnel was completed, it became an important link in the C&O's "gateway to the sea." The revenues accruing from its operation, however, proved to be a disappointment because of the shallow James River; therefore, the C&O carried out its decade-old master plan and extended its track to Newport News. The tunnel was rendered virtually obsolete when C&O's double-tracked 11,827-foot viaduct was completed in 1901 to bypass it (for more information on the viaduct, see "C&O Tracks Through Richmond," by William R. Vivian, July, 1987 issue).
Closed in 1902 following completion of the viaduct connecting the railroad's James River and Peninsula subdivisions, Church Hill tunnel was relegated to standby use (such as is 1912) and was kept in safe repair, or, at least what the C&O thought was safe.
In 1913 the city built a 241-foot extension onto the eastern end so that a section of Grace Street could be extended over it. During a routing inspection in 1915, it was discovered that some of the tunnel's masonry lining was unsafe. Supporting timbers were installed to prevent a new collapse, but this action put the tunnel out of service.
Church Hill tunnel, however, was not quite ready for total abandonment. In September, 1925 the decision was made to enlarge and reopen the tunnel. Some news accounts of that time claimed the railroad was just shoring up the tunnel to placate angry residents in the Jefferson Park area on the verge of panic because of the sinking ground. Other accounts said they were enlarging the tunnel to permit passage of larger equipment. An enlarged and strengthened tunnel could accommodate large locomotives and freight cars recently acquired by C&O, thus reducing traffic over the heavily used viaduct. Eastbound freight trains from the Piedmont Subdivision could use the tunnel and bypass Main Street Station on their way from Seventeenth Street Yard to Fulton Yard in the city's east end.
The dual work of enlarging and strengthening Church Hill tunnel, C&O decided, could best be accomplished by inserting large concrete rings into the tunnel which would enlarge it and render it secure.
Joing this unfolding drama now were two veteran railroad men earmarked for violent death: Engineer Tom Mason and his fireman, Ben F. Mosby. Mason's job was to use his train to haul out flat cars loaded with soil.
The Fateful Day
The morning of Friday, October 2, 1925 broke cool and rainy over Richmond, continuing a nasty weather pattern that had persisted for several days. The foul elements seemed to intensify a premonition of disaster that Mason's family believed he felt that fateful day.
The horrible events of October 2 were vividly recalled recently by engineer Mason's oldest surviving daughter, Mrs. Theresa Alley of Newport News. Still alert, sharp witted and fairly healthy at age 85, she remembers that day as though it happened yesterday.
"Pappa had a feeling something awful was going to happen that day," Mrs. Alley reminisced. "Leaving for work, he kissed Mamma tenderly but came back a few minutes later and said goodbye again. He also came over to my house in the Fulton area four times." Mrs. Alley, then 22, was married to her first husband, Claude Mulligan.
Compounding Tom Mason's worries was the fact that his 12 year old daughter, Mary, had gone into St. Luke's Hospital that morning for a tonsillectomy. Putting aside his nagging fears, this dedicated family man finally went on to work. There was one big consolation: he would have a new assignment with C&O the next day, something other than switching flat cars in and out of a danerous old tunnel he detested.
If ever an engineer deserved the best working conditions, it was Thomas Joseph Mason. The veteran was rounding out 44 years of service with the railroad, having started in 1881 when he was only 13.
Mason opened the throttle on locomotive No. 231, an American class A-5 4-4-0 (ex Chicago, Cincinnati & Louisville No. 54) built by Baldwin in 1903. He moved the cars through the east portal, crossed under Broad Street and braked his locomotive to a stop about 160 feet (not 80 to 100 feet as reported in most articles) from the west portal. The time was 3:30 p.m. On the train then were Mason; Mosby; A. S. Adams, flagman; Charles S. Kelso, barkeman; Gordon C. McFadden, yard conductor; and R. W. Poindexter, labor foreman.
The first warning of disaster came when some bricks fell from the tunnel roof, cutting wires and plunging the tunnel into darkness. "Watch out, Tom, she's a comin in," Mosby shouted. Seconds later, nearly 200 feet of the tunnel collapsed.
Badly scalded, Mosby joined Adams by crawling under the flat cars and managed to escape along with dozens of workers from the east portal. Mosby was horribly burned from his waist up, despite his heavy clothing. There was a deep cut over his right eye.
Concern for Wife
The fireman's amazing presence of mind in the moments that followed is one of the most fascinating aspects of the Church Hill disaster. "Some of you fellows phone my wife," he panted, when his request for a drink of water was heeded. "Tell her I was one of the men who got out. Tell her I'm no hurt bad and not to worry..." Although injured past all hope of recovery, Mosby did not cry out in pain when men had to hold his scalded arms in helping him up the bank. He was rushed by a taxi (that had brought a Richmond reporter to the disaster scene) to Grace Hospital but died seven hours later.
McFadden and Kelso suffered cuts and bruises from falling debris and Poindexter, likewise, was shaken up but all three scrambled to safety. Engineer Mason enjoyed no such good fortune. He was a burly man weighing over 200, and unlike his thin-framed fireman, could not slide out of the locomotive cab. He was pinned by debris and the reverse lever that lodged firmly across his chest.
George Raborg, a tunnel carpenter, said the fleeing workers frantically rushed to the east end and threatened to stab or run over anyone who got in their way. "...the confusion lasted a long time," Raborg recalled. "We were all scared. It was like being in a bottomless pit without knowing what had happened or what was going to happen..."
Immediately after the disaster, C&O officials checked the company roster and announced that Mason and two Negro laborers were still missing. Experienced railroad men felt, however, that many more workers were buried in the cave-in. They said that a new construction gang taken on that morning had not had their names added to the tunnel employment roster. Others insisted some persons entered the tunnel to seek employment just before the collapse.
The death toll, set at four, might have been higher had the tunnel cave-in occurred 20 minutes earlier, when children returning home from school passed over the immediate area of the collapse.
In the meantime, ridiculous, unfounded rumors about the disaster spread throughout the city; under-the-gun C&O managers tried to sort things out, deal with the media, and hope and pray that a sinking tunnel didn't take all of Jefferson Park and Church Hill with it. They could have easily used headache cures and nerve pills that didn't exist at the time. Mason's son-in-law, Claude Mulligan (not his young son, as erroneously reported in the Richmond newspapers) began a nine-day vigil at the cave-in site, hoping that Mason and others would be found alive. The Red Cross arrived along with police and firemen. Richmond prepared for the desperate rescue operation that was about to bein.
As railroad men, city officials, and curious residents converged on Jefferson Park, they saw a strange sight: under that portion of the park where the train was trapped, there were huge openings which went into the earth for distances of 30 feet or more. These openings, Mr. Griggs noted in the 1971 articles, resembled a giant cake that had been broken into by a family of hungry urchins. Even the concrete stairs on the south side of Jefferson Park had been twisted and broken by the sinking earth. Richmond Mayor J. Fulmer Bright ordered the Marshall Street viaduct closed for fear that its supports might have been damaged by the collapse.
Working under a four-part emergency guideline from the Virginia State Corporation Commission, C&O mustered a force of 300 men for round-the-clock operations at the west portal. They removed debris and put additional braces under the sagging tunnel. Very little work was done at the east portal due to escaping poison gas. A giant shovel was brought to the accident scent to relieve pressure from above the tunnel where rescuers were working. By Friday evening, however, more cracks appeared at Jefferson Park, forcing C&O to discontinue use of the shovel. Now the rescue force concentrated most of their efforts on three shafts being sunk down into the park on top of the locomotive, in front of it and behind it. As the shafts went down into the earth, Mayor Bright kept the viaduct closed, put city employees at the disposal of the C&O and forbade any classed to be held on the south side of Jefferson School to protect the children against a possible landslide.
As the weekend wore on, rumors and speculations were rampant, and impatient citizens demanded more action at the cave-in site than what they perceived the C&O was carrying out. Some historians believe that discontinuance of the shovel may have been a major factor. In response to this discontent, C&O officials used a one-paragraph statement which emphasized that the railroad was sparing no expense to reach the trapped engineer.
The digging went on. By Tuesday, four days after the cave-in, the middle shaft reached 42 feet. The work was painfully slow; only a limited amount of earth could be brought out of the shaft at a time.
Meanwhile, Tom Mason's family endured anguish and endless waiting. Mrs. Mason, then 41, ws on her way home after daughter Mary's tonsillectomy. She had a nursing baby and five other children at home to get dinner for. "If I had been on the viaduct (which in 1925 carried Marshall Street across Shockoe Valley) when it happened, I would have seen it," she recalled later. That was her route home to the east end. Son-in-law Mulligan brought the news.
Mrs. Mason went to the accident scene. "As fast as they would take a shovelful out, two more would fall in," she lamented. "Finally, they took me away." Before the cave-in episode ended, the engineer's wife would demand that the C&O do whatever was necessary and regardless of cost to retrieve his body, daughter Theresa Alley said.
In the meantime, daughter Mary, recuperating at St. Luke's Hospital, pulled a slick disappearing act. She donned her clothes almost immediately after her mother departed and slipped out under the guise of a visitor. Not yet aware of the cave-in, Mary boarded a street car and went to the home of her married sister, Theresa Mulligan, paying no attention to the other trolley passengers' complaints that they could smell ether.
"When the child came to my house, you could smell that ether everywhere," the older sister reminisced early this year. "The stuff would knock your darn head off," Mrs. Alley (then Mrs. Mulligan) went on. "It's a wonder the kid didn't die." Incredibly, Mary Mason suffered no ill effects from her little escapade.
The 12 year old youngster recalled later for Richmond reporters that her father before he left for work that morning had given her $5 and promised her a doll with long, curly hair as a reward for "being brave" during the tonsillectomy.
Mrs. Mason, who had worked from the age of 12 until her marriage at 16 rolling cigars by hand at a Richmond factory, courageously faced the staggering task of rearing her family alone. When she could leave the baby, whe worked as a practical nurse at a Richmond hospital. Later she married Bollig Auston (who passed away some years ago) and died on April 22, 1971. She is buried next to Mr. Mason at Mt. Calvary Cemetery in Richmond.
The younger daughter involved in the tonsillectomy, Mary Mason Pruitt, passed away in 1982. Mrs. Alley lives in Newport News, and residing with her is one of her 10 surviving children, Florence Crandol.
An ex-son-in-law of Mrs. Alley, Milton Crandol, recently calculated for the author that Mr. Mason has about 130 living relatives, i.e. children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. This figure does not include any surviving offspring from the families of his brothers and sister.
Thomas and Mary Mason Auston have one surviving son and two other surviving daughters: Ralph Mason and Tina Sustak of Richmond, and Nellie Stokes of El Monte, California.
Engineer's Body Found
Late Saturday, October 10, men digging the middle shaft came down on the coupling between the locomotive and the first car. They were about 57 feet underground. A man dropped through the flatcar floor and crawled under the tiny locomotive. He worked his way up into the cab--and found the decomposed body of Tom Mason. The engineer didn't have any chance whatsoever to jump clear before the sliding earth hit the reverse lever and drove it into his chest, pinning him to the seat. An acetylene torch was brought down the shaft to remove the jammed lever. Mason's body was finally free 24 hours later and on Sunday night, October 11, he was taken out of the tunnel.
An autopsy was not performed. Mason could have died from suffocation, scalding, or the blow of the reverse lever.
After several more days trying to find the laborers' bodies, C&O officials said the effort was futile and the work too dangerous and abandoned the search. The ill-fated locomotive No. 231 and cars were left in the tunnel as well. The railroad asserted they were not worth the $30,000 cost of getting them out of the tunnel.
An editorial in the Richmond News Leader said, "The train might not be seen for another geological epoch when men of a new civilization discover a relic of the 20th century in what once was the blue marl of Church Hill."
A few days after the disaster the State Corporation Commission attributed the cave-in to numerous factors, including lack of longitudinal braces for the tunnel walls, constant seepage of water into the tunnel, and undermining the original foundations during the enlargement project.
The C&O said, however, a Richmond building inspector, Henry Beck, had declared the tunnel safe just a few weeks before the cave-in.
The obituaries for Mason and Mosby were written in the hearts of Richmonders, Griggs wrote in the series-concluding 1971 article. Mosby was remembered for thinking of his wife before himself. When he emerged from the tunnel his first thought was to ask bystanders to inform his wife and daughter that he was okay. It was also pointed out that Mosby was "called" for the ill-fated trip at the last moment to replace another fireman who could not work that shift. Thomas Mason was remembered as a brave and very popular engineer who left a wife and eight children to mourn him. Large contingents of railroad men carrying their gold Hamilton watches attended both funerals which received extensive media coverage. It is ironic, noted Griggs, that Mosby was buried from old St. John's Church and Mason from St. Patrick's Church since both of these buildings were located virtually on top of the tunnel.
Early the following year the C&O sealed the face of west portal with concrete. It erected a similar barrier about 150 feet inside the east portal under Chimborazo Park. This kept out curious adults and youngsters who used the tunnel as an illegal shortcut after 1902 to get from the east side of Church Hill into the city. Had the entrance sealing not been applied, serious injuries and deaths almost certainly would have occurred. The trackage leading to the eastern end was used until recently as a transfer for cars being moved from the C&O to the Southern Railway. The author, Donald Traser, and Stuart Hallett, Jr. might well have been the last persons other than railroad employees to walk the quarter mile from the southern connector track to the east entrance before the track was removed in late January, 1989.
Church Hill tunnel is now in a state of decay and ruin and many Richmond residents are probably not aware of the tunnel's existence. Locating this ill-fated relic of pre-viaduct days isn't easy. The west portal, near 18th and Marshall Streets, is largely obscured by an old loading platform and debris at the end of an alley between Richmond Cold Storage and Rueger's Ice Plant. Water seeps constantly from its concrete seal, engraved with the year 1926. Old tires and other litter jut from a shallow, fetid pool at its base.
Reaching the east portal requires climbing up a steep embankment about 200 feet from Fulton Gas Works and then walking several hundred yards through a week-infested ravine. There is a short-cut available by utilizing a commercial warehouse entry much closer to east portal, but permission to use this route should be obtained. The writer does not recommend the former approach to novice hikers of those with foot or leg problems. The 30-foot embankment, just a few feet from the point where Southern Railway crosses Williamsburg Road, is dangerous, to say the least. Formerly passing over the embankment was C&O's recently demolished wooden trestle/girder bridge which branched off the Peninsula Subdivision. The structure was demolished between February and April, 1989. Until early 1989, rusted railroad tracks led up to within about 100 feet of the east portal.
The Church Hill tunnel collapse is regarded as one of the biggest news stories in Richmond's history. It gripped the imagination of residents and others. The author, deeply fascinated by this disaster, examined numerous newspaper clippings, articles in several railroad magazines, and one chapter pertaining to this event in a recent book of famous railroad disasters by Buena Vista, Virginia, resident Katie Letcher Lyle. The collapse of Church Hill tunnel continues to be a conversation piece among Richmond old timers, historians, engineers, and railroad buffs.
Like the famous bridge across the narrows in Tacoma, Washington nicknamed "Galloping Gertie," Church Hill tunnel was a naughty and evil lady cursed by many by loved by others.
There are still a few reminders of this tunnel cave-in. The discerning and patient explorer will find a few scars in Jefferson Park and along some of the nearby streets. And every now and then, a Richmond Times-Dispatch staff writer noted in 1985, the earth will sink a little in Jefferson and Chimborazo parks, bringing the memorable disaster back to mind.
Annual Report Relates Tunnel Problems
The following was extracted from an annual report by H.D. Whitcomb, C&O chief engineer.
...the tunnel and cut with all other expenditures attending the construction of the branch to the richmond wharves and docks, including land damages, wharves, docks, etc., had cost $1,107,810, according to the annual report of the treasurer, September 30, 1875 of which amount the Company received from the city of Richmond as a donation $300,000 of its bonds on which it realized, allowing for commission and discount, about $235,869 in cash. Even with this help, the work had cost the company more than double the expected expenditure.
It was not thought that the tunnel would give further trouble after it had been walled and arched with masonry and completed, but settlements of the hill continued disturbing the surface overhead and cracking the walls of buildings for which the company paid considerable sums in after years in settlements with the owners for damages sustained and prospective and in purchase of property.
The disturbance sometimes threatened entire collapse, which was prevented by prompt attention and repairs. The walls became warped to an extent that would have prevented the use of the tunnel for double track without doing a large amount of uncertain work.
The extra width intended for the second track became very useful in permitting the adjustments of the single track to the sinousities occasioned by pressure on the walls.
The management was never free from apprehension of the caving in of the tunnel, and the construction 20 years after of the steel viaduct..brought about a great relief from their fears."
The author gratefully acknowledges assistance by the following persons and agencies:
Mrs. Theresa Alley (daughter of engineer Tom Mason) --family photos and miscellaneous newspaper clippings.
M. Elisabeth Dementi, Dementi-Foster Studio, Richmond, VA--1925 photos of the tunnel cave-in.
Thomas W. Dixon, Jr.--photos and C&O engineering drawings.
State Library, Richmond--reproduction copies of 1925 Richmond newspapers.
Donald R.Traser--miscellaneous data and escort to Richmond locations described in this article.
William R. Vivian--miscellaneous data and back-issue research.