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Starting with the Church Hill tunnel collapse, a filmmaker is uncovering Virginia’s buried history

An old newspaper front page shares the story of the tunnel collapse as breaking news
Almost 100 years ago, the Church Hill Tunnel collapsed onto hundreds of workers. The train and possibly the remains of unrecovered workers are still buried under the cave-in. (Photo: Richmond Times Dispatch)

At the beginning of the 20th century, hundreds of workers spent months expanding an existing tunnel in Richmond’s Church Hill so more trains could bring supplies to the growing city. The old tunnel had collapsed several times since its construction in the 1870s before the project was abandoned, and tragically, it collapsed again on October 2, 1925 during its revival.

An estimated 200 workers escaped by crawling under the flat cars and climbing up the tunnel. There was a nine-day rescue effort to try to unbury the train and other trapped workers by digging down through Jefferson Park. At the end of the search, only the body of engineer Tom Mason was found. Benjamin F. Mosby, was severely scalded by steam from the locomotive’s boiler. He crawled out and reached the eastern entrance. However, he would eventually pass away that night in the hospital.

Additionally, six Black laborers were unaccounted for, although the missing number of men was scaled down to two. They were identified as day laborers Richard Lewis and “H. Smith.”

Brian Bullock, a local filmmaker and history enthusiast, loves the history that many of us unknowingly walk past every day here in Virginia, like the Church Hill Tunnel. He interviewed Ryan Pace, who directed “The Church Hill Tunnel Collapse Documentary,” a film about what went wrong on that day. 

He also reached out to secondary sources like Gary Mason, Tom’s grandson, to hear what his grandmother told him about the day.

“[Tom] was her first husband, and she loved him very much. He worked for the railroad and that day, he kissed her goodbye — he kissed her goodbye every day before heading off to work — he said he would see her later that day and he just never returned because of the tunnel,” Gary Mason said.

“They say that day, he went back and kissed her a second time. For some reason, this day in 1925, this was the maiden voyage that he was the engineer for — maybe he was feeling something odd about it,” Teresa Mason, Gary’s wife recalled. 

Tom’s 11-year-old son, Ralph, stood outside the tunnel for days watching for any sign that his father might be alive.

It’s been almost 100 years since the tragic collapse. And though plans to recover the train have been proposed, they haven’t come to fruition. Nor have the identities of the five Black laborers been uncovered, leaving their stories untold.

Pace told Bullock the tunnel collapse exposed the racial and class divide in the city, but also brought people of all types together in the search for the missing workers, albeit for a short time. Even after the rescue operation ended, there was a citywide effort to support and help the survivors.

It’s too late to undo the harm of the collapse, but Bullock says we can honor the victims and their families by learning about the tragedy and remembering their stories.

Bullock is working to bring more past events into present focus through “Hidden History with Brian Bullock.” The series is currently in development, and VPM is thrilled to travel with him to locations across the state to highlight not-so-well-known places and people to discover the remarkable stories behind the places we often pass by.

To learn more about the Church Hill Tunnel Collapse:

Check out Episode 2 of Hidden History about the Great Dismal Swamp and the nearby City of Suffolk!