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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

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