BEANERY ONLINE LITERARY MAGAZINE
THE GHOSTLY HOOSAC TUNNEL
“This ride into the tunnel is far from being a cheerful one. The fitful glare of the lamps upon the walls of the dripping cavern – the frightful noises that echo from the low roof, and the ghoul-like voices of the miners coming out of the gloom ahead, are not what would be called enlivening.” —The Hoosac Tunnel, Scribner’s, December 1870
The ridges of the Berkshire Mountains, located in the Deerfield Valley, stretch across western Massachusetts. The Hoosac Tunnel located in North Adams and known as “the Bloody Pit,” winds through the mountain base. I was fascinated by the many first-hand accounts of ghostly hauntings that surround the tunnel‘s construction. It provided a difficult and troubled challenge to the men who worked it.
Almost every tunnel bored through the mountains during the early 19th century posed problems particular to its location. Starting at the East Portal side, barely ten feet into the proposed Hoosac route, the specially made seventy-ton steam-driven boring machine cut a perfect hole . . . then stopped forever. The workers resorted to hand-drills and gunpowder, but couldn’t exceed sixty feet a month on either end of the tunnel. Boring on the West Portal side, drills hit soft rock, mica schist and water resulting in a soupy mixture referred to as “porridge” and prevented further penetration.
Thus a second tunnel was begun immediately to the right of the abandoned tunnel, using the new compressed-air Burleigh Drill invented by Charles Burleigh of Fitchburg, Massachusetts. This four drill contraption that could be pulled along the tracks as the men worked, in tandem with the introduction of Nitroglycerine explosives, finally resulted in the tunnel’s completion in 1875. Although only 4.82 miles long, the Hoosac took an unprecedented twenty-four years and millions of dollars to complete. The Nitro proved extremely dangerous, killing three men, one reportedly murdered by the other two, during the first explosions.
It bears explaining; mountain tunnels are not started at one end and cut straight through to the other side. Engineers first meticulously lay out “alignment towers,” or markers, that run up one side and down the other across the mountain’s ridges. Work crews bore and blast from both ends where they hopefully meet in the middle. Chief Civil Engineer, Benjamin D. Frost accomplished a marvelous feat; the tunnel alignment was so precisely calculated, it was kept on track within a half inch.
Extra support is provided to the tunnel’s sides and ceiling by adding timber and brick arches. Additionally, a “central shaft” is added and used to hoist rock and debris to the surface. Much like the mechanics of an out-door water well, the workmen were raised and lowered in large copper buckets to work the tunnel floor. The 1030 foot descent took about two minutes. Apparently oversized, the bucket held as many as a dozen men who jumped in together to be hauled to the surface.
Hoosac, a Native American word, means “a stony place” or alternately “forbidden.” Perhaps its naming was more accurate than imagined. Liberally dusted with 160 years of soot and grime that spewed from steam and diesel locomotives, the tunnel is fraught with dangerous conditions. Foot traffic is not encouraged! Yet the curious are lured by the tunnels history: tales of fires, explosions, tunnel collapses and reportedly the ghosts of men who lost their lives.
Warnings aside, a few fearless and hearty souls still choose to enter alone or together. On a sunny day in October 2002, Daniel V. Boudillion and Andrew T. Bowers took it upon themselves to explore the legendary site. There’s nothing quite like a first-hand experience. Thus, properly geared up for what would prove to be a six hour round trip, in and out, the men began their foot journey through time. After walking nearly an hour, a pinprick of light was still visible from the portal opening. Though natural light may go a long way, a small lantern, flashlights and extra batteries are recommended. The men used lightweight Mag lights sweeping them over the tracks and moisture laden walls.
The East Portal bears the date 1877 embossed above the stone arched entrance where a single lane track has been the major railway through the tunnel since then. Unlike similar tunnels which were widened to accommodate two tracks, the Hoosac remains unchanged. The original 24 ft. by 20 ft. dimensions barely leave enough room for the rumbling train. Later, to accommodate double-stack trains an additional ceiling height increase of fifteen feet was added, but the width remains untouched.
Only a few feet of leeway remains on either side of the track for footing. Electrical cables run the length of the southern wall. The berm on both sides is laid with crushed rock or gravel, and usually fills with puddles of muck or water. Such close and precarious quarters meant the men literally walked the track, hobbling between railroad ties, which provided their only stable footing. Placed about two hundred yards apart were old field telephones recessed into the walls and lighted. Overhead, the tunnel’s sides were shored up with brick arch supports, which at any time might come crashing down.
Once past the Central Shaft section, they spotted a spark of light from the East Portal and a curious small red light. Was this a ghost or possibly . . .yes, a freight train was approaching! So they flattened themselves into a wall recess and with bated breath – waited . . .
Boudillion relates, “The entire tunnel began to vibrate hideously long before it got to us. When it did, even the rock was shaking and I wondered why the bricks didn’t fall as I pressed up against the wall. After the engine passed it was completely dark and quite a sensation hearing car after car slam and rattle by, only an arm’s length away, in the pitch dark.” The train having passed the East Portal, the fragment of light disappeared due to the plumes of black diesel exhaust that completely blocked it. Scarrry. . .!
Some of the worst disasters occurred in and around the Central Shaft. In October 17, 1867 a lamp called a “Gasometer’ leaked Naptha flames and exploded sending the hoist house up in flames. Thirteen men working in the shaft were showered by over 300 newly sharpened drill bits, followed by the hoist mechanism and burning pieces of the falling structure. Most likely suffocating from dust, debris and fumes, they all perished in the darkness. It was a year later before the bodies were recovered.
Strange stories emerged thereafter from what became known as “The Bloody Pit.” Below are incidents reported by sane and stable people. Like most supernatural occurrences, these chilling tales have varied explanations and remain open for subjective interpretation.
Following the 1867 Central Shaft disaster, Glenn Drohan, correspondent for the North Adams Transcript wrote: “During the time the miners were missing, villagers told strange tales of vague shapes and muffled wails near the water-filled pit. Workmen claimed to see the lost miners carrying picks and shovels through a shroud of mist and snow on the mountaintop. The ghostly apparitions would appear briefly, then vanish, leaving no footprints in the snow, giving no answer to the miner’s calls.”
Before Boudillion and Bowers, several two men teams have explored the Hoosac, each reporting eerie experiences. Progress on the tunnel slowed considerably when workmen repeatedly complained about what sounded like “a man’s voice crying out in agony” and they refused to enter the tunnel after sundown.
In September 1868, Mr. Dunn a construction company official and his associate Paul Travers went to investigate. Sometime after 9:00 p. m., about two miles into the shaft, they heard what sounded like a man crying out in pain. Amidst bone chilling silence, they turned up their lamp wicks, but saw no one. Travers, a former Civil War military officer used to hearing the cries of the wounded and dying, claimed in a letter to his sister that “I’ll admit, I haven’t been this frightened since Shiloh. Mr. Dunn agreed it wasn’t the wind we heard.”
Late one evening in June 1872, Dr. Clifford Owen and drilling operations superintendent James McKinstrey entered the tunnel whether for mechanical or practical observation or supernatural curiosity is unclear. Regardless, once again about two miles inside the tunnel which felt “cold and dark as a tomb” the men also heard a strange and mournful sound accompanied by painful groaning. Owen reports, “The next thing I saw was a dim light coming along the tunnel in a western direction. At first, I believed it was probably a workman with a lantern. Yet, as the light grew closer, it took on a strange blue color and appeared to change in shape into the form of a human being with no head.” The blue light moved so close they could almost touch it, then hovered toward the east end and vanished. Their eyewitness account has oft been repeated.
Not all ghostly encounters are negative. In 1936 a former railroad employee Joseph Impoco was twice warned and twice saved when he distinctly heard his name called by a bodiless voice; he jumped back from the tracks just as the train came barreling through.
For nearly 140 years, strange blue lights, eerie voices, the mournful moans of restless souls and ghostly apparitions have been seen, heard and experienced by persons who have been around or walked through the tunnel. Boudillion and Bowers, however were slightly disappointed during their walk-through, because none of the above mentioned ghosts crossed their soot-filled, watery path. Perhaps it was the wrong time of day (late evening or night seem to be conducive to ghostly encounters) or perhaps they do not “appear” on cue, even for the most hopeful.
The Amtrak trip heightened my interest in the early construction of trains, railroads and tunnels. Most were inaugurated and in progress during the early 1800’s, developing in places all over the world. Each tunnel and railroad company has its own story and unique history to contribute and I’ve only begun the journey.
I’d jump at the chance to explore a railroad tunnel, but ONLY with people who know what they’re doing like trained guides who ride tourists through abandoned tunnels on “railroad work cars” and point out the interesting aspects.
References of interest—Railroads of Pennsylvania: Fragments of the Past-Lorett Treese; The Great Allegheny Passage: Guide to History/Heritage Along the Trail- Bill Metzger. Web sites: http://www.boudillion.com/hoosac/hoosac.htm, www.prairieghosts.com/hoosac.html , www.trainweb.org/horseshoe.curve, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gallitizin_Tunnel