I wonder if Claudius Crozet, the engineer posed with a technically-challenging project in 1849 to bore a mile-long hole through a Virginia mountain to help open the railroad to the American West, doubted his abilities to complete the project successfully? Even though years earlier he had triumphantly completed other great nineteenth century civil engineering projects, like his once state-of-the-art 230-mile Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike, I ponder whether he ever doubted his abilities for such great achievements?
I wonder if the complexity and risks of each new custom project weighed heavily on his brilliant mind? If it did, he worked through it all! Soon I would get the chance to work through a challenging project of my own: building the signage system for Crozet’s world-famous tunnel.
Both Crozet’s tunnel and the mountainous toll road built from 1831-1850 became crucial transportation lines in the American Civil War. Maybe my signs could help future generations remember Claudius and his amazing public works projects.
OPPORTUNITY BLOWS HER HORN
Abandoned for many years, the tunnel laid eerily void of activity alongside the updated tunnel which took its place in 1944 until chatter about restoration began in 2001 when Nelson County planners saw potential as a public greenway and rail trail. In the summer of 2019 I was presented the opportunity to bid on fabricating signage for Crozet’s landmark tunnel for Fielder’s Choice Enterprises (FCE), Inc., one of the Caton Companies, via referrals from two former friends in the industry who were now retired and looking after me!
Initially, I was positive that I could handle the scope of work which included providing two large wood entry signs, two large wood informational kiosks, four interpretive signs, and various traffic signs, safety signs, and bollards. But after over-thinking it all, I hesitated to respond and filed the opportunity in a stack of other potential projects until early 2020.
My company’s work-in-progress list was shortening in December, 2019, so I contacted Mark Zimmerman, project manager with FCE to see if he was still interested in signage quotes for the tunnel job. After finding out he had yet to make a decision on the signs, I asked my wife if I should tackle such a large-scale job considering that I am usually a one-man operation, and this would require help.
Understanding previous successes tackling similar projects since the 1990’s, she very encouragingly helped me decide to give it a shot. So just weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country, I bid the job and was soon awarded the contract to build all the signage for the third and final phase of the Blue Ridge Tunnel restoration on Afton Mountain! What a blessing this project soon became as my usual education and hospitality customers put upcoming orders on hold as the COVID crisis crept in!
HUGE CHALLENGE AHEAD
I spent a full week designing the detailed shop drawings which showed FCE, Nelson County, and Woolpert, Inc., the A&E firm who designed the overall tunnel renovation project, exactly what I would be providing. Once these were approved, I ordered the materials for the project.
Obtaining western red cedar boards from northwestern Canada during a pandemic where international borders were closed was a huge challenge. Everyone was out of stock, or only had a few boards left of the quality required. To get my hands on enough clear, all-heart vertical grain material, I had to piece together shipments from three different distributors across the US to get what I needed.
I had to construct four large three-inch thick cedar panels, even though I am mostly accustomed to working with inch-and-a-half thick material. The two kiosk panels were so large and heavy that I had to design and build them in two sections so they could be successfully delivered and installed. I purchased the treated yellow pine posts from Virginia Frame Builders and secured the paint from Burk’s Paint & Wallcovering, two of my sign customers and quality established Augusta County-based building material suppliers.
HARD WORK PAYS OFF
Augusta Sign Company has successfully operated as a one-man shop since reopening full-time operations in 2015, occasionally utilizing the services of a part-time sub-contractor if needed for installations. I was fortunate to have been able to assemble a great team of installers who assisted me for several weeks in the final stages of installation in June, 2020.
Digging 21 holes, often through gravel beds of an ancient railroad track, was no easy task. I must admit I have never been in better shape since those 3 weeks of extreme manual labor over the summer when we installed all the signage! Eight of the holes had to be almost five feet deep to accomodate the tall 8X8 wood posts. That meant a whole lot of intense digging into a variety of Virginia soils across several miles of terrain, and in 90-100 degree humid Virginia weather.
Participating in this challenging experience provided personal insight into how healthy those nineteenth-century railroad workers must have been after years of manual labor! We just can’t quite get to that level of physical activity in these days of computers and television, but I got a small taste of it, even though I was sometimes able to utilize a mechanical post hole digger. I’m glad I took on the project and I’m very satisfied when seeing the finished signage up there on Afton Mountain.
The park is currently closed as the contractor finishes up the final touches, and the east and west entry signs are currently covered in tarps. Soon the park will begin to open and the tarps will come down. I hope many people will enjoy my labors of 2020 and visit the park for many years to come… even after I’m dead and gone!
I hope you visit this unique part of Virginia’s history. My wife and I can’t wait to ride our bikes through the tunnel…as long as we have a set of strong batteries in our headlamps to make it through!!
Mark Hackley is owner of Augusta Sign Company. 540-943-9818