The Virginia Military Institute
stands proudly and as a sentinel on the cliffs of East Lexington .
Overlooking Woods Creek in one direction and the cliffs of the Maury
River ninety degrees to the southwest. Since 1839 the Barracks has
been the home of the Old Dominions Citizen-Soldiers. Before that it
was the storage point and Arsenal for the arms of the western part
of the Commonwealth.
In 1834 legislation was passed in the General Assembly that would
establish a military school at the site. The students would protect
the arms stored there and at the same time be schooled in higher
education as well as in military training.
The Engineer for the State of Virginia, Colonel Claudius Crozet, a
graduate of Le Ecole Polytechnique and an officer under Napoleon was
elected to lead what was to be called the Board of Visitors. That
governing board of the Institute serves Virginia even today.
The Institute began to provide scientific training in engineering,
and teachers for the schools of Virginia as well as military
officers for the State and the nation.
The “Barracks” was the first building, enlarging the old Armory, it
was completed in 1850 and was burned in 1864 by the Union forces
under General David Hunter. Reconstructed almost immediately it
stands today on the original limestone foundation blocks of the
There are two main entrances into the barracks, the Jackson and the
Washington Arches. There are other ways to be admitted to this
place, some semi public and some secret ways, but these are the two
that all will remember when other memory grows dim.
In the cool, darkness of the Washington arch, where the Officer of
the Day is stationed in his ancient rooms, steps go down into the
limestone pavers, down under the very Arch, one and then two story’s
down, where the sounds and the lights of the surface no longer can
be discerned, this is the Trunk Room.
In the 1800’s and the early part of this century cadets arrived by
carriage and rail from all over the county and world, but most
generally from the South. They were immediately thrust into the
cadet uniform and subjected to the cadet discipline. Their trunks
and valises and the cloths of civilian life were sent to storage in
the cold, dry crypts of the Trunk Room beneath the massive arch that
had first admitted them to the Cadet Corp.
At the bottom of the stone steps a massive wooden door with great
wrought iron hinges and a huge lock secured the room against further
In the early 1940’s, my Father was the Commissary Manager of the
Institute, as a young lad and a favorite of the faculty and staff I
was allowed access to nearly everything on the Post. The gymnasiums
and the athletic equipment were almost my own, I was allowed to roam
the stacks of the library and the laboratory’s and classrooms at
will, even at the Museum I was allowed to lift and examine the many
treasures kept there. I was very careful never to abuse the trust
given to me.
The Trunk Room slowly, through the years, fell into disuse, the
cadets began arriving by other methods of transportation and
gradually not even the maintenance staff made visits. Early in the
decade the Superintendent of Buildings and Grounds, Colonel William
Couper, “Class of 04“ and the author of “100 Years at V. M. I.”
decided that much needed space must be at hand and on a summer day
decided to investigate. A certain 13 year-old kid was in the process
of roaming through the almost empty Barracks and was invited to
accompany him on his investigation.
Colonel Couper had found the long, unused key and unlocked the great
door, there was a string of single electric lights that supplied
only minimal illumination but Colonel Couper had the foresight to
also come prepared with a large flashlight. The room was about 40
feet to a side and had walls of massive limestone blocks, the
ceiling was oppressively low, scarcely over our heads a foot. The
far side of the room had what appeared to have been a arched doorway
in the long ago, it was now sealed with brick with the exception of
a foot square hole near the ceiling with steel bars prohibiting
entry but allowing a breeze of fresh air to come into the room!
Colonel Couper mused aloud about from where the fresh air could be
coming, He was a large man and much too wide to even dream of
getting through the vent hole, even if the bars were not there.
However he tugged at the bars and with only a minimum amount of
effort they came loose from the old sand mortar that had secured
them. He asked me if I would let him help me up to look into the
opening, I could see little other than a tunnel going further than
the flashlight could illuminate. I could see the floor on the other
side of the wall and felt I could easily go through and return,
after only a few seconds of thought Colonel Couper told me to go
ahead if I wanted but to be very careful and go no further into the
tunnel than a point from which I could still see the lights of the
Trunk Room vent.
It was easy for a thirteen year old to wiggle through the hole, I
admit I had some trepidation about going further into the tunnel but
I did it anyway. I came to several offshoots, other smaller tunnels
branching off in other directions only one of which contained
anything. That area did contain a number of large old black,
cast-iron pots with lids too heavy for me to lift, and so, I decided
to go no further. I easily wiggled back through the vent opening and
told Colonel Couper about what I had seen. We locked up and left, I
recall The Colonel saying, “We’d better not say anything about our
little adventure, Johnny, let’s just keep it our secret”.
In the years since then I have heard reports that the tunnel went
all the way to the cliffs above the river and was intended, and
used, as one of the secret passages to enter or leave the Institute.
I have my own suspicions, based on some activities I witnessed later
that year, that the tunnel may have contained a portion of the
treasure reported to have been hidden by the Confederacy when the
outcome of the War was no longer in doubt. When the reconstruction
of the Barracks from the fire and destruction of Hunter’s Raid was
in progress the further concealment of the treasures of the South
could have easily been possible, waiting for the time of need. I am
sure I will never know the complete story or perhaps it is not yet
John C. McCurdy
September 5, 1965