The hill on which Richmond’s Jefferson Park is located offers scenic views of the downtown skyline, has an exercise trail, a playground, and is home to the once-lost whimsical statue named “Mr. Smedley.” However, buried deep under the park, unknown by many who bring their children to play on the train-shaped play structure, is a sealed train tunnel with a troubled history.
When the 4,000-foot-long Church Hill Tunnel was completed in 1873 it was one of the longest tunnels in the United States. But building the tunnel at this location—which involved channeling through soft clay and limestone—proved to be problematic from the start. At least nine men were killed by cave-ins at the tunnel from the beginning of its construction in the 1870s through its operation in 1925.
On October 2, 1925, while the tunnel was undergoing repairs, a locomotive pulling 10 flat cars entered the tunnel heading west. As it neared the western entrance, 190 feet of the tunnel collapsed, trapping the train and killing a number of workers.
Rescuers were unable to locate the bodies of at least two laborers, so when railroad officials decided that the tunnel had proven to be too costly, it—train and workers included—was sealed up with sand and concrete. The bodies remain there to this day.
The tunnel continued its history of instability when in 1962 another collapse consumed a house and killed yet another workman.
The sealed and neglected eastern end of the tunnel is difficult to find under the prolific growth of vegetation. As warehouses adjacent to the western end were remodeled by developers in the early 2000s, the area was cleared and landscaped. The sealed western wall, moss-covered and from which a constant dribble of water emerges, is now adjacent to a recreation area for condominium residents. A historical marker can be viewed at the roadside several hundred feet away.