The 1925 collapse of a train tunnel beneath Church Hill is the subject of a documentary currently in production here in RVA. The Church Hill Tunnel Collapse Documentary focuses on the 1925 disaster itself, as well as its present-day ramifications.
The 1925 collapse of a train tunnel beneath Church Hill is the subject of a documentary currently in production here in RVA. The Church Hill Tunnel Collapse Documentary focuses on the 1925 disaster itself, as well as its present-day ramifications. With two entrances about a mile apart from each other, one in Shockoe Bottom just under Cedar Street and another to the east beneath East Grace Street, this tunnel still affects the people of Church Hill today with its looming threat of more cave-ins. Director Ryan Pace and producer Adam Bova hope to capture the history of the tunnel and the destruction that went with it in a different and more humanistic light than it has previously been depicted.
The idea of making a documentary with the focus on the Church Hill tunnel and its 1925 collapse began with Pace. In grade school, Pace had a history teacher who was a local history enthusiast. Pace’s class met around the western entrance of the tunnel, which is where the original collapse occurred, and learned the history of what happened there. Pace was immediately intrigued, and the story stuck with him all the way until he started his thesis project at Regent University. At that point, he teamed up with Adam Bova, and although both have since graduated, they are still working to finish the documentary centered on the history of the tunnel. The film will include recreations of scenes that occurred during the collapse, as well as interviews of people with personal connections to the tunnel, including professor Walter Griggs, author of The Collapse of Richmond’s Church Hill Tunnel.
The collapse of the tunnel on which The Church Hill Tunnel Collapse Documentary is centered happened on October 2, 1925. Built in the 1870s, the tunnel had proven troublesome and dangerous during its construction, mainly due to the soft clay soil it had been constructed through. Groundwater seepage and other safety concerns plagued the tunnel during its years of active use, which continued until 1901. After over 20 years of abandonment, the railroad began attempts to restore it due to increased traffic, and it was during these renovation attempts that the collapse occurred.
Around half a dozen men were working within the tunnel at the time of the collapse. Despite a rescue effort which lasted for days, two men are known to still be buried within the tunnel, including the conductor of a work train that was trapped within the tunnel during the cave-in. Today, the ground beneath the tunnel remains unstable, and continues to pose a threat to residents of the area. Since 1925, a few other collapses have occurred. “A tennis court was damaged in a smaller collapse in the 1980s,” Bova says. It has also been said that houses have been claimed by the tunnel.
In the face of this disaster, the community came together. Once the son of the train conductor lost in the 1925 accident learned what had happened, he waited in vain outside the entrance of the tunnel for his father’s return. During his vigil, the local community showed its love and support by bringing him food and taking him to restaurants, as well as simply giving him company and comfort in his time of need.
Race relations in 1925 Richmond were much different than they are today, but at least on a temporary basis, the disaster seemed to help the city overcome the racial divisions present at the time. Because the whole community was affected by the disaster, many people of all races would come together and pray as a group in front of the tunnel. As Bova says, they even came together and held hands around the entrance. By telling this story in their documentary, Bova and Pace hope to help bring the present-day local community together without another tragic incident having to occur.
The documentary also communicates the point that something needs to be done about making remains of the tunnel excavation more stable today, before more incidents occur. The tunnel was only filled with sand after the 1925 collapse, and the collapse of the tennis court in the 1980s demonstrates the relative instability of this filler material. The archway which seals off the western entrance of the tunnel is also in jeopardy; this was discovered when a Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter went there one day with a camera person to film. A former bricklayer, he noticed that the bricks which make up the archway are deteriorating. It is said that once these bricks have cracked, nothing can be done to correct the damage of the arch. There are even houses in the area being affected by the deteriorating tunnel today. At least one Richmond local states that their house is visibly crooked because of the tunnel which runs beneath it, and is slightly fearful about what may happen to it in the future.
The Church Hill Tunnel Collapse Documentary should have a final running time of between 30 and 45 minutes, and is scheduled for release this fall–on October 2, 2014, the 89th anniversary of the collapse. Pace and Bova hope to make it the first of a series of documentaries centered on the history of Richmond. Their wish is that by making these, the city of Richmond can become a bit more knowledgeable about the histories which many locals have not known about for so long.