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Friday, October 28, 2005

Delving into the Hoosac Tunnel Part II

Advocate Weekly
Thursday, October 27
By Joe Durwin

In last week's column, I explored some of the early history of the Hoosac Tunnel, including the tragic deaths involved in its construction and the first rumors of ghostly encounters in this massive five-mile mountain passage. After all the blood, tears and virtual mountains of money, the tunnel was finally completed in the mid-1870s. It became an important part of railroad travel in the region, but it also continued to be a place of tragedy, where mysteries abounded like cloistered smoke in the dark hole in the hills.

In 1874, three months before the first train passed through, a local hunter named Frank Webster went missing in the vicinity the dark passageway. When searchers found him three days later, he was in a traumatized condition and said that voices had ordered him into the tunnel. While wandering inside, he was accosted by horrible apparitions who ripped his rifle from his hands and beat him over the head with it, after which he could remember nothing more. The following fall, a fire-tender named Harlan Mulvaney was delivering a wagon load of firewood into the tunnel when he went missing. The horses and wagon were found in the woods soon after, but Mulvaney was never located. I have not yet been able to find any contemporary documentation of these two incidents, so I must admit I do not know how much of the story surrounding these disappearances can be chalked up to legend.

I do know that the chain of brutal fatalities taking place in the tunnel continued for decades after. Most researchers have focused on the nearly two hundred killed during the construction, but I personally have collected records of more than three dozen deadly incidents after 1875, and this seems to be only the tip of the iceberg. In 1876, a worker named William Richards fell while working at the ill-omened central shaft. A few years later, a circus tent man named Sam Caesar was killed when he fell from the top of a train and slipped between the cars, being crushed instantly.

Many of the accidents were caused by the low visibility in the tunnel. Prior to the line being changed over to electric, poor ventilation caused the tunnel to fill up with smoke, making it almost impossible to see clearly. This led many railroad workers being struck by oncoming trains, as well as frequent collisions of trains with one another. These disastrous crashes included one in 1894, in which two men lost their lives, and one in 1912, where four men lost their lives. This latter was so bad that the wreckage burned unchecked for many hours and the tunnel remained blocked for several days. A particularly bad weekend came in November of 1901, which saw three incidents in rapid succession. During the afternoon of November 23, a passenger train collided with a freight train that had been stopped on the east-bound track. Several cars were destroyed but no one was seriously injured. Four hours later, a worker was struck and killed while heading back from the wreckage on the east track. Because of the noise involved in the clean up there, he did not hear the train that came barreling down the west-bound track. The following day, a worker by the name of Michael Powers died when he was overcome by the acrid coal gas that, while a constant problem, had been worse that day because of malfunctions in the fan system of the central shaft.

Not all of the causes of death in the tunnel were as cut-and-dry. In 1912, a section foreman named Andrew Cullen killed himself in the tunnel after "suddenly becoming insane" and killing two of his crew. There had been no quarrel between the men and no reason for his rampage was ever proffered. Another suicide had been attempted there by a woman 17 years earlier. The attempt failed, but no reason was identified for that act either.

Another death shrouded in mystery was the 1935 electrocution of a young man while riding a freight train through the dark passage. The body was identified as Albert Debruycker by his mother, and was buried in North Adams. Matters were complicated 12 years later, however, when Debruycker turned out to be alive and well, living in California. To this day the identity of the body buried under his name in Southview Cemetery remains unknown.

Given the legacy of tragedy and mystery surrounding the tunnel, its reputation as one of the most haunted places in New England should come as no surprise. There are numerous first-hand accounts of inexplicable occurrences witnessed there, stretching back for well over a century. One of the first documented complaints of this kind can be found in letters written by Paul Travers, a mechanical engineer, and Dr. Clifford Owens, a friend of one of the tunnel foreman. In September of 1868, Travers reported that he and another worker had heard "what truly sounded like a man groaning out in pain. Yet, when we turned up the wicks on our lamps, there were no other human beings in the shaft." Four years later, Owens reported hearing a similar moaning sound. This was followed by a blue light, which, as it approached them, appeared to be the form of a headless human being.

Then there is an account from Joseph Impoco, who worked in the tunnel in the 1920s. Impoco claimed that ghosts had saved his life on two occasions by shouting warnings to him: when a train was about to mow him down and when he was nearly electrocuted. In 1984, Ali Allmaker wrote an account of the tunnel's eerie atmosphere. Mistakenly referred to as female in all recent accounts, Mr. Allmaker was a philosophy professor at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts with a part-time interest in hunting ghosts. He described how he accompanied a railroad employee on a tour of the Hoosac and throughout felt the sensation that someone was following close behind him. He also mentioned that some North Adams students had left a tape recorder in the tunnel overnight, and when they retrieved it strange, muffled voices could be heard. Some sources also cite the 1976 report from an Agawam parapsychologist, of seeing the clear form of a ghost in old-fashioned clothing eating his lunch in front of her, but this account originated with a tabloid story by The Star and appears to have been fabricated.

Stories of phantom workers, floating blue lights and strange voices in the long dark abyss of the tunnel continue to this day. There are even wild accounts of a bricked-up room where "unspeakable horrors" are hidden. Though it is still actively used by freight trains, a handful of people every year brave the dark, unpleasant and potentially dangerous 5-mile hike. Anyone endeavoring to attempt this trip, though, should first have a good long think on the fate that has befallen many others while passing through Berkshire County's "Forbidden Mountain."

Happy Halloween.

Primary Sources:

Berkshire Evening Eagle: Aug 9, 1943; Aug 14, 1943; Jan 14, 1946; Apr 2, 1947; June 27, 1959; Sep. 2, 1959;

North Adams Transcript: June 7, 1895; July 14, 1898; Sep. 24, 1900; Jan 11, 1901; Nov. 25, 1901; Nov. 11, 1902

Fitchburg Daily Sentinel: Feb 16, 1873; May 22, 1906; Oct 4, 1935; March 17, 1942;

NY Times: Oct 21-22, 1867; July 1, 1879;

Arizona Republican: Aug 6, 1893
Daily Democrat (MO): Oct 6, 1873,
Indianapolis Star: Feb 21, 1912
Daily Kennebec Journal: Feb 5, 1912
Davenport Daily Leader Sep. 10, 1894

Kuperschmid, Eileen. “Do 192 ghosts walk these tracks?” Berkshire Sampler, Oct 30, 1977

Byron, Carl. (1974) A Pinprick of light: The Troy & Greenfield Railroad and Its Hoosac Tunnel
Norman, Michael; Scott, Beth. (1995) Historic Haunted America

On the web:

Friday, October 21, 2005

Exploring the Hoosac Tunel - PART I

Advocate Weekly

In an honor of the approaching Halloween holiday, I have decided to dedicate two installments of "These Mysterious Hills" to what is surely the most thoroughly haunted location in all the Berkshires: the Hoosac Tunnel.

The second longest railroad tunnel in North America, the Hoosac has a long history about which much has been written. This history is a saga of will and human engineering - it is also the tale of politics, economics and terrible tragedy. From among these historical threads arises an additional narrative, that of supernatural occurrence and ghostly goings-on, and it is in this area that my own expertise lies.

To understand the tunnel's dark reputation, it is crucial that the history of its construction be examined. Hoosac Mountain, the imposing mass of rock through which the tunnel cuts a path, was formed along with the rest of the Berkshire Hills hundreds of millions of years ago, through a series of geological processes known as the Taconic Orogeny. Five miles wide at its base, the mountain is composed mainly of limestone, slate and mica, with tough gneiss throughout its center. Many sources maintain that Native Americans referred to it as Forbidden Mountain, implying that the land was already regarded as cursed long before the tunnel. In actuality, the Mahican words from which "Hoosac" is derived translate to something like "Mountain Rock." The label "forbidden" was placed on it by early colonial settlers, possibly because of the obstacle it posed to travel. Removing this obstacle proved to be no mean feat.

The creation of a tunnel through the mountain was first proposed in 1819, but the task seemed too daunting at a time when railroads were still fairly new to the country. The plan was later resurrected as part of the Troy and Greenfield Railroad, and construction began in 1851. It was first thought that the project could be completed in as little as five years, but, as with the estimates of its cost, this proved hopelessly optimistic. An expensive, 70-ton boring machine was brought in to begin cutting through the mountain, but the machine quit after only 10 feet. A 1906 article in the "Fitchburg Daily Sentinel" tells of a legend that the inventor of this machine went insane because of its failure, and that his ghost went on to haunt the cave where this false start was made. However, its inventor, John Wilkinson (given as Wilson in some sources) died decades before the tunnel was begun. While it is therefore doubtful that his ghost is to be found among the revenants reported in the tunnel, the failure of another of his machines in 1857 helped to bankrupt Chief Engineer Herman Haupt, so it is always possible his ghost may have been holding a grudge.

While the financial burden of the project was extreme, exceeding $20 million by the time of completion, it pales beside the immense cost in human terms. Between 192 and 195 lives were lost in the process of cutting the nearly 5-mile hole through the Earth, and the manner of these deaths was usually quite horrific. Causes included suffocation by toxic gas, being crushed by falling rock or blown apart by explosions. This latter was particularly common, owing to the introduction of nitroglycerine as the preferred explosive in 1867. While its safety was championed by George Mowbray, who manufactured it at a factory built near the tunnel's western portal in North Adams, the statistics belied this. In fact, Mowbray's own foreman, John Velsor, was "blown to atoms" - as newspapers at the time put it - when at least 800 pounds of the deadly soup went off in December 1870. Not a single trace of the man's body could be recovered from the site of the blast.

Even before nitroglycerine entered the picture, there were a number of casualties from explosive charges. One infamous occasion was in March of 1865. Two workers, Ned Brinkman and Billy Nash, were killed when a black powder charge was exploded prematurely by a third worker named Ringo Kelley. Kelley disappeared soon after and there were whispers that Nash and Brinkman's deaths may not have been accidental. Then, a little over a year later, Kelley's body was found in the tunnel, apparently strangled. No culprit was found and some workers came to believe that the ghosts of the men he had killed were responsible. Some even refused to return to work at the site.

Meanwhile, the litany of death continued. Many of the worst incidents took place in or around the central shaft - which ran 1,028 feet deep, used for ventilation and to speed up the tunneling - and it is believed by some to be the most haunted part of the tunnel. A Welsh worker named Griffin Jones took a wrong turn and fell the entire length of the shaft. When his body was found, it had been flattened so badly that it was "rolled up like a side of leather" to be taken to the funeral home. Another worker was killed when a drill fell over 300 feet, impaling him. But the worst accident there took place in October 1867. A candle ignited volatile naptha gas in the hoist-house at the top of the shaft, sending the burning building crashing down on 13 men who were working below. The pumps were also destroyed and water flooded the shaft. A brave miner named Mallery volunteered to be lowered down on a rope to look for survivors, but saw only water and burnt timber. Overcome by fumes, he was hauled up, whereupon he gasped, "No hope."

Following that tragedy, ghost stories proliferated, with frequent accounts from workers of apparitions and disembodied voices around the area of the shaft. A year after the disaster, the remaining bodies were reached, and the sickeningly realization came that not all the men had died right away. Some of them had apparently managed to stay afloat on a makeshift raft, finally suffocating in the buried enclosure. When the bodies were finally interred, the tales of ghostly encounters subsided somewhat.

The tunnel was finally completed, and the first train passed through it in 1875. But the story of the tunnel's haunting was far from over. In next week's installment, I will explore the continued legacy of death, mayhem and mystery in northern Berkshire's "bloody pit."

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Saucer Fever in the Berkshires

The three week period that began on June 24, 1947 was a curious time in the history of our country. Whether literal or metaphoric, there was definitely something strange in the air. On the 24th, a pilot named Kenneth Arnold reported seeing nine disk-shaped objects flying across the sky near Mt. Rainier, Washington. At least twenty other persons across the Pacific Northwest reported seeing the same that day, but it was Arnold’s soberly told account and detailed description that drew the most attention, launching the term ‘flying saucer’ into its place in the American lexicon. Over the following days, as media spread discussion of Arnold’s story, others began coming forward all over the country, saying that they too had spotted similar objects. The trickle became a deluge on July 4, as many of the millions of people celebrating Independence Day outside looked up toward the sky and saw something they couldn’t account for.

That day marked the first mention of disks seen east of the Mississippi, as claims of sightings poured in from 28 states. Newspapers across the country had a field day, and the Berkshires were no exception. The Eagle interviewed Dr. John Lynn, a behavioral scientist from Valhalla, N.Y., who attributed the phenomenon to anxieties about atomic weapons. He also compared them to the scare brought on by Orson Welles’ War of the World broadcast nearly a decade earlier- a particularly interesting statement, considering the fact that no one had yet suggested any connection between the saucers and anything extraterrestrial.

Meanwhile, some area residents had already spotted what they believed to be examples of the bizarre objects. A group of four Pittsfield residents, while watching the parade (described as the longest and best to date at that time) observed a disk overhead around 10:45. One of the witnesses, Mrs. Sidney Smith of Pomeroy Avenue, described it as “round, colorless, luminous object with a peculiar rolling motion.” The saucer sped off south, gaining altitude as it went. Reaction among residents who had not seen anything was mixed, as far as can be judged by a random survey of people on North Street on July 7. “I certainly don’t think it’s imagination, not with so many people seeing them,” said a Pittsfield photographer, “It’s either what some foreign government is sending over, or an experiment of our own army.” John Foley of Foley’s Restaurant had a simpler explanation: “Somebody’s got the DT’s.”

By that time, “saucer fever” was reaching fever pitch across the country, with sightings having been reported in 38 states and parts of Canada. By the 8th, similar reports were coming in from Europe, Australia and Africa. That same day also saw national reporting of an Air Force official’s announcement that a crashed saucer had been recovered by the military near Roswell, New Mexico. Though retracted the following day, this press release had already given birth to a controversy that would last more than half a century.

Sightings continued in Berkshire County as well. Mrs. Fairfield Osborne spotted one while staying as a guest at the Stockbridge home of Margaret Cresson, the daughter of famed sculptor Daniel Chester French. Mrs. Osborne said that prior to this she had never heard of the flying saucer phenomenon, but after viewing the strange aerial shape she consulted some recent newspapers and found that the descriptions there matched what she had seen exactly. She told reporters that what she had seen had been a brilliantly illuminated round object “like an automobile headlight in the sky.” The bright object appeared to hover around the top of Mount Everett, about 25 miles away. A few seconds later, it vanished entirely from view. Two similar bright objects were seen by architect Charles Masterson of Crane Avenue in Pittsfield, though Masterson admitted they may have been planes.

Over the following days the wave of interest in the new saucer phenomenon lessened in intensity as reports of sightings began to drop off. Whether this was because the sightings themselves had ebbed, or because by then an organized campaign of derision had been brought to bear in combating what some officials considered a dangerous panic (i.e., one that might interfere with public recognition and interest in more “real” national security threats) and people stopped coming forward so readily, is a debatable point. Various kinds of experts continued to attribute the wave to fears about nuclear warfare, or alternately, as Orville Wright, among others, believed, to government seeded fear-mongering. Most predicted that it would soon pass and be largely forgotten. This was not an unreasonable assumption on their part. Prior waves of unidentified flying objects, like the “mystery airships” widely reported in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, or the “foo fighters” of World War II, though never completely explained, had been filed away in a dusty backroom of the national consciousness. But for whatever reason, this was not the case this time. “Saucer culture,” as one commentator called it, was here to stay, and the UFO phenomenon- whether physical, metaphysical, or sociological- has gone through cycles of greater and lesser interest, but never faded completely.

So, while this was certainly not the last time that a UFO sighting has been reported in the region (nor the first, according to some sources), it is worth noting that the seeds for this as a staple of American subject matter were sown in a space of a couple of weeks- and the Berkshires were very much a part of it, getting in on the ground floor of a most curious chapter of history.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Ace Pilot lost over southern Berkshire

There is something about the concept of humans flying through the air that we as a species seem to have a built-in incredulity about. Long before flight was even a remote possibility, various cultures the world over had stories outlining its seemingly inevitable failure. Icarus’ plunge into the sea is a well-worn favorite from classical mythology – though many overlook the fact that Daedalus survived the flight from Crete just fine, and one out of two really ain’t so bad, when you’re dealing with wax-based aerial technology. Those folks in Genesis also got themselves in quite a mess just for trying to take the long route to the upper atmosphere with the Tower of Babel. Even after the reality of human flight had been repeatedly demonstrated, some folks just couldn’t bring themselves to accept it. For example, in January 1906, more than two years after the Wright Brothers first successful flights at Kitty Hawk, a no less respected publication than Scientific American was denouncing the Wright flights as a fable for the gullible.

Though most people have, I presume, by now accepted the fact of air travel, there may always be a lingering undercurrent of skepticism about its safety and efficacy- a primordial instinct that tends to bubble closer to the surface following any publicized plane crash. It is reflected even more keenly, though, in the fascination we have with aircraft that go permanently missing. The name Amelia Earhart, for instance, is unlikely to be forgotten anytime soon. Likewise, the alleged “Bermuda Triangle” has, since it was first hypothesized 55 years ago, provoked endless debate, innumerable (and for the most part thoroughly unwatchable) television movies, and even board games. All of which is but elaborate preface to this week’s meditation on a case that has long interested me: the ill-fated flight of Captain Mansell R. James, believed to have gone missing over the hills of southern Berkshire in the summer of 1919.

It should be mentioned at the outset that James was no novice when it came to piloting an airplane. He was a decorated veteran of the Royal Air Force, an ace who had brought down no less than ten enemy planes. Just prior to his final, fateful flight, he had just collected a $1,000 prize for a competitive flight from Atlantic City to Boston. While returning from Boston to New Jersey on May 28, he ran into trouble and had to make a forced landing in Lee. The following day, he took off from there around 11:00 a.m., headed for Mitchel Field in Long Island, where he intended to refuel for the next leg of his flight. This was the last time anyone ever saw him.

When he never arrived in Atlantic City, they assumed that he may have changed his mind and started out for Toronto, where another major aerial contest was taking place. When word came that this was not so, and that he had never even arrived at Long Island, a search began on June 2 in the area south of where he had taken off. By June 4, five planes were searching full time, spread out across southern Berkshire County and northwestern Connecticut. Search parties grew in manpower and planes over the following days, U.S., Canadian, and British Air Forces pitching in to help locate the missing ace. A considerable fleet of planes conducted fly-overs of western Massachusetts, Connecticut, the Hudson River and the Long Island Sound, but not a trace of Captain James or his Sopwith scout plane could be spied. Numerous theories and ideas were kicked around, but none led to locating the (presumably) downed aircraft.

Over time, many people saw what they believed to have been the crash site of the famous flyer. Early in August, wreckage was reported from a gull at Connecticut’s Mt. Riga, but this turned out not to be his plane. A week or so later, three men fishing near Branford saw what they thought was the wing of the missing craft, but this too proved to be a false lead. Finally, more than six years later, in December, 1925, the best lead to date manifested. While hunting in “a remote section of Tyringham,” one Warren Campbell became separated from his companions, and subsequently stumbled onto the wreckage of a small plane half-buried in brush. As it appeared to have been there for several years, Campbell assumed that others had come across the overgrown debris in the past, so did not bother to mark the spot. Only when he finally found his way out of the woods and told the others about it was it suggested that this could have been the craft of the lost British ace. Unfortunately Campbell, a Brooklyn native, was unable to guide them back to the spot where he had seen the wreck. Several days of extensive searching ensued, covering miles of forest and swamp without success. To the best of my knowledge, the location of Captain James’ crash site remains a mystery.

The fact that James failed to reach his destination is in itself not resoundingly mysterious. He had after all just made a forced landing in Lee the day before, after unspecified difficulties. Furthermore, when he left Lee that day, it was without a compass. The mystery is in the total failure to find any trace of the plane, despite extensive searches of the region, in which the Air Forces of three different nations all became involved at one point or another.

More than eighty years later, a number of questions remain. What precisely was the cause of the talented pilot’s failure to reach Long Island? Was the debris spotted in the woods of Tyringham the remnant of James’ missing plane- and if not, whose was it? Has anyone since stumbled onto the wreckage and, like Campbell, made little note of it, assuming it had been discovered long before? Perhaps someday answers to these questions will come to light, but at this time, it remains one of many aviation mysteries, a local chapter in the sometimes tragic history of humankind’s precarious mastery of the sky.