Going through a tunnel
Plus, the state of the newsletter
This one’s a little navel-gazey, so skip it if that’s not your thing. If you’ve read a single issue or listened to a single podcast episode, thank you. I’ll keep doing this as long as it keeps me sane.
Hiking through a tunnel with kids
On Dec. 29, 1856, laborers broke through the western side of a mountain in the Blue Ridge. It had taken about 6 years for a crew of Irish immigrants and enslaved Black workers to bore through nearly a mile of rock using black gunpowder and hand tools.
The goal of the publicly funded project was to help complete a rail line from Richmond to the Ohio River. By blasting through the ridge, commuter and freight trains could eventually make that trip in a matter of hours instead of days.
Here’s how The Baltimore Sun announced the completion of the digging phase:
THE BLUE RIDGE TUNNEL — On Monday morning last, at an early hour, the workmen in the western end of the Blue Ridge Tunnel perforated a hole about two inches in circumference, through the mountain, and in the language of General Gordon, “daylight now shines through the Blue Ridge.” This event caused great joy on the part of the workmen, and every one of them immediately laid down their tools to spend the rest of the day in a frolic. The draft at the perforation is strong enough to extinguish a light on the eastern side.
I’ve seen that daylight and I’ve felt that draft. My family and I recently walked the Blue Ridge Tunnel Trail, a public path that passes through the now-deactivated train tunnel.
There are no electric lights installed in the tunnel. At the midpoint, both ends of the tunnel appear as faint points of light. My brave daughter, 7, asked a few times to turn off our lamp and “go pitch black.” I gripped her hand and walked in near-total darkness for as long as I could stand (not very long).
Our kids shouted to hear their echoes. They made ghost sounds and tried to spook my parents and in-laws. We found a baby bat nestled in a crevasse. We stopped a few times to see the changing surface of the tunnel: the hard greenstone that exhausted the workers all those years ago, softer patches of sandstone, rough concrete reinforcement, and bricks that glittered with what might have been quartz.
How do we talk about the people who worked and died in here? It’s the same question that came up as we drove through cotton fields and past plantations on the way up from South Carolina. Irish “floorers,” who cleared debris after blasts in the tunnel, started out making 75 cents a day — a figure that rose to $1.12 1/2 after a strike in 1853. Slavers stole the entire wages of the enslaved men they leased to the project. A historic marker on the way into the tunnel told us that 3 Black workers and 190 Irish workers died from disease, infection, and accidents on the job.
The Blue Ridge Tunnel was the longest tunnel in the U.S. at the time of its completion. Remarkably, when the workers did break through the other side of the mountain, they came within inches of engineer Claudius Crozet’s precise alignment, according to the Claudius Crozet Blue Ridge Tunnel Foundation. The tunnel was a feat of engineering and a feat of collective will.
When I hiked the tunnel with my family, we passed through it once and rested in the sunlight before turning around. On the way back, the air cooled and the wind shifted directions until it blew straight through the tunnel, sharp and relentless. I felt it in my bones, and it was like being visited by ghosts.
State of the newsletter
It’s been a little while since I wrote a post about newslettering, so here’s that.
I use a website called Substack to publish the blog and podcast and distribute them via email. I get some basic statistics on how many people have subscribed. Here’s a graph showing subscriber growth from Day 1:
Brutal South has 1,297 subscribers, including 141 paying subscribers (plus 10 comps for friends and family). (By the way, here are the perks of becoming a paid subscriber if you’re interested!)
Maybe you’re curious about the money. Substack tells me I make a gross annualized revenue of $7,920 from paid subscriptions, although I’m not positive how that figure is calculated. Substack takes a cut of 10% from that, and the payment processing company Stripe takes another 2.9% plus 30 cents per transaction.
All in all, it’s fulfilling work and a good side hustle. I’m doing better than when I last opened the ledger book in July 2020.
These were my top 5 most popular posts this year:
Not now sweetie, Daddy’s cyberbullying the governor (Aug. 18). This one was a rant I’d been composing in my head for 4 years. It’s always nice when my sliver of South Carolina-specific political memory comes in handy.
Blueprint for a race panic (Aug. 25). This was another South Carolina-specific one, but it had to do with a national phenomenon: The GOP’s fixation on the made-up problem of “critical race theory” being taught to impressionable, young (it must be said, white) schoolchildren. In order to report this story, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request and raised money to get public records from the state superintendent’s office.
If I wanted to destroy public schools, I’m not sure what I’d do differently (Dec. 1): I swear I am trying to make this newsletter more of a regional / national concern, but the posts that get the most response seem to be the ones specifically about South Carolina schools.
Pieties of the pro-death right (Sept. 15). I spent way too much time snooping around in anti-vax / anti-mask Facebook groups for this one. My favorite gem was this video of South Carolina state Rep. Lin Bennett telling a room full of the faithful, “Go out and get yourself persecuted.”
Thank you for reading, and thank you again if you have supported my work financially. You have been so generous with your time, your feedback, your careful reading, and your critiques. It really means the world.
Cool things incoming
In case you missed it, I sent out a special year-end podcast episode for paid subscribers last week. In it, my friend Michael Baumann of The Ringer joins me for our annual round-up of rare Wikipedia gems. I posted a clip here.
I’ve recorded a new song under my musical alias The Camellias that will be out soon via a Comfort Monk compilation. The title is “The Same Man,” and it’s a departure in style. I started by recording a long, repetitive riff on electric guitar with an electromagnetic sustainer called a Sound Stone (basically the same thing as an eBow, if you’ve messed with one of those). Can’t wait for you to hear the rest. My wife’s only comment was “That was trippy.”
I’ll also have a piece of short fiction out Jan. 5 in the Charleston City Paper’s annual Lit Issue. It’s about possums, because of course it is. I’ll share the link when it’s published.