The Blue Ridge Tunnel: Unearthing the Past on the iPad

Books & Literature  •  Fellowships  •  History

Photo of Mary E. LyonsAfter more than three years of work unearthing the story behind the construction of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Tunnel, Mary Lyons decided to break with convention in sharing her findings and publish her book – Dark Passage: The Virginia Blue Ridge Tunnel (2012) – digitally.

Lyons spent part of the research time for Dark Passage as a VFH fellow in fall 2011. Based on the suggestions of other fellows, she chose to forgo tradition and go digital with her newest book. Unlike her nineteen previous books (four of which were produced during fellowships at VFH), which were published in conventional paper form, Dark Passage was released through the iTunes Store for reading on the iPad.

Image of Dark Passage book coverWith Dark Passage, Lyons recaptures the life of the tunnel and the experiences of the people who toiled for a decade to complete the project in 1858. She reveals the human story behind the tunnel’s construction through the lives of Irish immigrant miners, African Americans, and a French engineer who made the project possible.

Stretching through nearly a mile of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Augusta and Nelson counties, the tunnel was the longest railroad tunnel in the nation and was widely applauded as one of the longest in the world at the time of its completion. Yet disease outbreaks, accidents, and explosions around the construction area had claimed the lives of scores of Irish workers and their families, and several enslaved workers who were hired out from Albemarle County. Even for those who did survive, dangerous conditions were a part of daily life.

The tunnel was an impressive feat of engineering for its time and was drilled and blasted entirely by hand. It connected eastern and western Virginia nearly a century before being replaced in 1944 by a larger tunnel to transport materiel for World War II. The tunnel has since been abandoned and today is referred to as the Crozet Tunnel.

Lyons’ book itself re-opens the tunnel to a large audience of readers and lovers of history. Embracing the perks of a digital format, Dark Passage features image slideshows, traditional Irish music, and ninety enlargeable illustrations. With these added features, the iPad edition affords readers a richer, interactive reading experience.

Thanks to Lyons, readers have a novel way to read – and engage with – the history of the Blue Ridge Tunnel.

Eager to start reading?

The original edition of Dark Passage is available through the iTunes Store for reading on the iPad. The forthcoming extended edition will add illustrations, music, historical documents, and eight articles offering more detail on the lives of the laborers. A bonus media chapter features a 3D Timeline and an interactive map that traces eighty-five Irish families back to their origins in Ireland.

For those who prefer the traditional book format, Lyons is preparing a paper version of the extended edition. She will donate all profits from the paper book to the Crozet – Blue Ridge Tunnel Foundation.

To learn more about the history behind the tunnel, read Lyons’ article for the Clare Champion, a newspaper in County Clare, Ireland.