What good fortune for us that Claudius Crozet chose to live in Virginia and for Waynesboro to benefit from his many talents. They called him “genius,” “Pathfinder of the Blue Ridge Mountain” and Thomas Jefferson proclaimed him to be “the best mathematician in the U.S.”
Benoit Claudius Crozet was born in 1789 in Villefranche, France. He received his civil engineering degree from Ecole Polytechnique and his military training at the Military Academy in Metz, France. He was graduated as a second lieutenant in artillery and was an engineer and bridge builder for Napoleon Bonaparte. While serving in the war, he became a prisoner of war outside Moscow, Russia. He was housed with a Russian nobleman and learned Russian well enough to write a textbook in that language.
After the war, he married and immigrated to America in 1816. He took a position at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, NY, teaching math and engineering. He wrote a textbook on descriptive geometry, a copy of which he gifted to Thomas Jefferson. While at West Point, Crozet introduced the blackboard as an instructional tool. He also designed several of the buildings on the campus.
Wanting to leave the more remote area of West Point, Crozet wrote to Jefferson requesting a professorship at the new University of Virginia. Unfortunately, the buildings were not complete and Jefferson was not yet hiring staff. Crozet had also become friends with Robert E. Lee who recommended him for a position as engineer and surveyor for the newly founded Virginia Board of Public Works. He was hired as the chief engineer in 1823. During that time, he mapped the whole state that ran from the Atlantic to the Ohio River and was the author of the first state map. In 1831, he also was the chief engineer for the layout of the Northwestern Turnpike (now Route 50) that runs from Winchester to Parkersburg.
One of the founders of the Virginia Military Institute, Crozet became the President of the Board of Visitors and was the architect of the academic program and military organization. He was instrumental in introducing descriptive geometry as part of the mathematic curriculum. He taught at VMI from 1839 to 1845.
The Virginia Board of Public Works wanted him to return as chief engineer, but they were hung up on the canals that Crozet accurately saw as an impractical way of connecting the Ohio to the Chesapeake Bay. Railroads were becoming the best way to transport goods and tunnels were a more practical way to get through the Blue Ridge Mountains. The four tunnels and a cut-through were finally agreed upon and work was begun in 1850. The greatest feat was the Afton Tunnel, which, when completed in 1856, was the longest tunnel in the world. Starting at each end and using shovels, pick axes and black powder, the break through occurred on Christmas Day, 1856, just 6 inches off perfect alignment.
We know that Crozet visited Waynesboro many times and stayed at Mayor Wilson’s Inn, a “first class hotel”, on Main Street. While finishing up the work on the Blue Ridge Railroad project, Crozet came to the rescue of another major endeavor. Essential to the progress of the railroads was crossing the South River in Waynesboro. R S Walker and Waynesboro contractor Hugh Gallaher were commissioned to build an iron truss bridge. The trusses were made in Richmond, Virginia and transported to Waynesboro for assemblage using the temporary railroad tracks over the mountain. It was the first iron bridge cast in Virginia. With many problems affecting the progress, Crozet took over the project and it was completed by the time the tunnel was opened.
From 1859 until his death in 1864 at the age of 75, Col. Claudius Crozet served as principal of the Richmond Academy. He was buried in an iron casket at Shockoe Hill Cemetery in Richmond where he rested peacefully until 1939 when the Board of Visitors of VMI decided that their hero should come home. With permission granted, he was re-interred in front of Preston Library on Founder’s Day, November 11, 1942. On December 2, 1948, a small granite monument was erected.
In July 2006, Crozet was again disinterred to move him closer to a hall named in his honor. While out of the ground, his remains were sent to the Smithsonian Institute for a forensic examination. Buried in a cast iron casket, he was found to be in almost perfect condition. He would spend eleven months with them. Colonel Crozet was laid to rest again in 2007 in a landscaped plaza across from Crozet Hall at Virginia Military Institute with a new monument dedicated to his achievements.
Originally called “Waylands Crossing” the town changed its name to Crozet in 1870 honoring this great man.
Colonel Claudius Crozet did more for the economy of Waynesboro and the Shenandoah Valley than any other person in the nineteenth century.
Courtesy of the Waynesboro Historic Commission and the Waynesboro Heritage Foundation