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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."

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