Professor Griggs on why Richmond must revitalize the East entrance of the Church Hill Tunnel
VCU Professor, author, and local historian was one of the first signers of Stefanie Lacks’s Church Hill Tunnel petition.
VCU Business Professor Walter Griggs can recall in vivid detail how he first learned about the tragedy that struck the Church Hill Tunnel in 1925.
“When I was about five years old, my grandfather owned a grocery store,” Griggs told me. “We were in his truck delivering groceries one night and his car light shone on the western tunnel. And he said, ‘Walter, there are dead men in there.’ It was one of those childhood impressions that stuck with me.”
This early introduction to the history of the Church Hill tunnel engendered in Griggs a lifelong interest in the disused and long-since sealed passageway in Richmond’s East End.
Griggs has since written a book on the subject, The Collapse of Richmond’s Church Hill Tunnel, published in 2011. He speaks extensively on the subject, and even admitted to working the history of the tunnel into his business lectures from time to time.
Such devotion explains why Professor Griggs was one of the first people to sign Stefanie Lacks’ petition calling for a revitalization of the tunnel’s Eastern entrance.
“The East end of the tunnel is in a deplorable condition,” he said. “This was the scene of a real tragedy and now it’s overgrown with weeds. There is nothing marking the Eastern end.”
A tragedy that, due to the intervening years and multiple conflicting narratives, has often lost its human face. Indeed, when recounting the story, it becomes easier and easier to refer to workers as nameless victims.
Luckily, Griggs continues to do his part to make sure this doesn’t happen.
“I see it as a place where men entered the tunnel for the last time,” He said. “This is a place where people died. It was through that end of the tunnel that Tom Mason saw the last light of day. It was also where Ben Mosby ran out and told them to call his wife and tell her he was okay.”
Ben Mosby later succumbed to his injuries at Grace Hospital.
And yet despite this heartbreaking history, Griggs was quick to point out an interesting, unreported, and altogether inspiring fact about the 1925 collapse.
“There was a coming together of Richmonders, both black and white, at a time when that wasn’t the norm,” He said. “They stood together and prayed that they would find someone alive. There was this constant anticipation about possibly Tom Mason being alive. He was not, but for a week or so, Richmonders were hanging onto everything.”
This complicated and multifaceted history is precisely why Professor Griggs believes that the story of the tunnel has endured, and why even though the West entrance has been cleaned up, he is adamant that the East entrance deserves proper commemoration.
“Our last best chance,” the professor remarked, “is to honor and call attention to the other end.”
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I am certainly for respectful memorialization, but why not retrieve the bodies and make it into a working tunnel again?
The idea of extracting the train and the human remains was explored, but it was deemed too dangerous. The tunnel is full of water. Opening it increases the chances of further collapse.
As far as I know (Google it! Maybe I’m wrong!), they simply can’t. There have been multiple attempts over the years to retrieve the locomotive and the bodies, but the tunnel isn’t stable enough to do so safely. Plus, at this point, a train tunnel beneath Church Hill isn’t really necessary.
Professor Griggs was quite adamant during our interview that sealing up the tunnel completely should be the first step because the area is still dangerous.
Not entirely related but Professor Griggs was one of my favorite professors. You can tell he really loved Richmond and its history.
He was kinda weird, though.
Does anyone else get the sense that we go overboard on the memorializing around here?
I would love to see a real feasibility study. Tunneling technology has improved quite a bit in 100 years. Remember this conversation when there’s another push to increase the size of Route 5 or there are more complaints about downtown congestion.
Scott, tunneling technology has improved dramatically in the last 100 years, but no tunneling technology can get around the fact that the soil under Church Hill is terrible. It shrinks and swells depending on weather conditions and is just about the worst kind of soil you could try to tunnel through. I’m sure someone could probably come up with a way to tunnel through it safely, but the cost would be outrageous.
Jay: Your comment made my day. Email me sometime.