The Church Built by the Railroad's Builders
The group Clann Mhór is researching and documenting the story of the Irish immigrants who built the Blue Ridge Tunnel and St. Francis. This gothic building designed by T.J. Collins replaces the one they first constructed.
The unique green stone, quarried in Pennsylvania, is no longer used for building because it deteriorates rapidly.
Detail of the front entrance to St. Francis Catholic Church.
Clann Mhór [click to read] means Great Family in the Irish language. The name refers to all the Irish workers, their families, and enslaved African Americans—who labored one way or another on construction of the Blue Ridge Railroad and its four tunnels from 1850 through 1860. The longest of these is the Blue Ridge Tunnel on Afton Mountain, Virginia.
Many of them came to America to escape the great famine in Ireland. They lived in rough camps, made about a dollar a day, and their labors connected the Valley to the Eastern portion of Virginia. Today there are few traces of their camps, but their simple gravesites give silent testimony to the fact that they lived and died in our Blue Ridge.
The tunnel builders had no mechanical drills. They used a long metal bit that was struck with a hammer by a 'driver' and turned by a 'shaker,' just as you may picture from the 'John Henry' ballad. Black powder would be tamped into the hole with a steel rod and ignited to pulverize the stone. Laborers would then remove the loose rock by hand. It was hard dangerous work and it is estimated that some 200 people died during its construction.
Clann Mhór is a small, local research group based in Albemarle County, Virginia. They are raising money for research and to fund an archeological dig. The group also hopes to provide educational materials for our community and erect a memorial that honors the workers in the town of Crozet.
Learn more at Clann Mhór's Blog [click to read].