The story goes that everyone who could be spared went to the tunnel and dug frantically with any tools at hand. Now we are thinking of digging there again. I cannot fathom the reason, and there's a morbidity to the entire business that revives some old, though not entirely unpleasant, memories.
Mingled with my nostalgia for the city's Poe-haunted past is a sinking feeling: We are going to drag that past into the sunlight and, in the process, murder it.
My mother told of men and horses buried alive in 1925. In her retellings, it seemed the greatest tragedy in Richmond since the evacuation fire of 1865. The tunnel site became sacred ground in the little-boy lore of my neighborhood, two decades shy of being gentrified into Carytown. With each telling, our tale grew until we swore that just a few miles from where we lived, hundreds inside a train had died; dozens of horses had been crushed, screaming, as every living thing was scalded in steam. That story, not the facts, is what I carry with me every late summer, when the cicadas signal that long days are waning and the past seems to press in on us.
Long ago it was safe to leave a responsible child, or even me, unattended in a car. So while my dad finished business in the old Sunrise Produce warehouse on 18th Street, I'd stare at the western end of the tunnel, capped forever and stamped only with a year. We all knew what it meant. My recollections of those half-hours in dad's Pontiac Starchief always have the scene set in an eternal sunset, the type of moment when boundaries are thin between our world and whatever lies beyond it. Truth be told, it scared the hell out of me to sit in that car, waiting in the slanting light, looking at that sealed tunnel. And I loved every second of it. Beyond the weeds and garbage in that dead-end alley running beside the warehouse, I'd sense a home-grown mystery that rivaled rumors of bloody events at Blue Shingles mansion or the midnight wanderings of Hollywood Cemetery's thrice-buried vampire, W.W. Poole.
Now plans are afoot to pump out the water and pull out the train, along with skeletons of work-horses and at least one human, into the light of day. For what? I guess to memorialize the dead and injured, shore up Church Hill and perhaps allow tourists to gawk at a rust-pitted locomotive. Yet I'm mindful that Wordsworth wrote, "We murder to dissect," and I'm afraid that when we are done beneath Church Hill, all we will have left is a dangerous void that needs to be filled with dirt so buildings don't cave in.
But whatever comes out of that hole will kill one more bit of Richmond's uniqueness: our morbid history.
The ground beneath us is full of the dead, even where suburban cancer devours once-beautiful farmland around our city. When the abomination called Route 288 (may it crack, crumble and be lost in goldenrod) went through, Native American dead were unearthed. Old graveyards dot our subsoil. And then there are the unmarked graves of Civil War MIAs from both sides. Where we sip our coffee today and fret about interest rates, men dueled and slaves were flogged bloody. Say what you will about 21st-century logic as if this were an age of logic these events leave a stain. And we would do well not to try to pour on the bleach and rub it out.
Mom told me how proud Grandfather Bolton was of his city, one that seemed to have been bypassed by history after 1865. Our backwater fate left some long shadows, making Richmond so, well, Gothic and haunted when compared to utterly remade Southern cities like Charlotte. Compared to such tarted-up New Southern metroplexes, Richmond seems more like London. While I was in the U.K. last month, a friend who's a native gestured to a loading dock and said, "The Ripper took one right there." Now that's a city living easily with its ghosts, from bomb-pocked walls to bear-baiting pits. As in London, in certain parts of our town, if you pause long enough over your wireless laptop, you can almost taste the past and hear the ghosts rattle their chains.
Poe, the Richmonder most associated with premature burial, would have joined my grandfather in saying, "Let the dead stay buried." For the millions it takes to attempt this underground folly, I'd rather see a number of things done, including promoting our city's tourist lures better nationally. Then visitors, envious of our funky and mysterious town, could stand on 18th Street or in Sugar Bottom to gaze longingly at a mystery we should just let be. S
Joe Essid teaches English at the University of Richmond, dreams about Blue Shingles and has a friend who swears W.W. Poole made a pass at her.
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