from 1819 - 1999
The following text mostly comes
from Carl R Byron's book "A Pinprick Of Light" If you want more details I highly
suggest you read this book. It can be found on
or the North Adams Public Library. This text is for the most part a summary of the book with a few
tidbits thrown in from other facts that I knew.
The Hoosac Tunnel for those
unfamiliar is a 4 ¾ mile long railroad tunnel which is at present part of the Springfield
Terminal Guilford rail line (district 4). It is blasted from under the Hoosac Mountain which
lies in between the Deerfield River on the east and the Hoosic River on the
west. Once a well traveled route, the tunnel rarely sees more than a handful of
trains a day. Here is its story.
Click here for the Timeline
The Hoosac Tunnel goes all the way
back to 1819 when it was originally proposed as a portion of a canal system
running from Boston to Albany. A civil engineer by the name of Loammi Baldwin
was hired by a legislative commission in 1825 to survey a route. However despite
Mr. Baldwin’s projections and plans the project was shot down for being too
costly and for carrying too much uncertainty. No other route in the northern
portion of the state could be found. There was no way around the great mountain.
In 1841 a self made paper mill owner from
Fitchburg MA by the name of Alvah Crocker, in response to a the more southern
"Western Railroad" being opened, began lobbying for the creation of a more northern route
which would favor his mills. He as well as others argued that the Western
Railroad which traveled through Worcester and on to Springfield left the more
northern towns out in the cold. Not to mention that the Western Railroad had to
negotiate some very difficult grades and curvatures. By March of 1845 Crocker had opened his
Fitchburg RR from Boston to Greenfield. Crocker knew that the only way to complete his route
would be to climb the Deerfield River valley and pierce through the Hoosac
mountain which stood in his way. While standing at the foot of the Mountain near
the what is today the East Portal, Laomi Baldwin once said: "Why, sir, it seems
as if the finger of Providence had marked out this route from the east to the
west."—"Perhaps so," answered Alvah Crocker, " but it is a pity that the finger
of Providence hadn't been thrust through the Hoosac Mountain."
In 1848 with the slogan “On to Hoosac, on to
the West” The Troy and Greenfield line was chartered. The Bore was initially
planned to cost $2,000,000. On January 8th 1851 ground was broken on
the North Adams side. During the summer of 1852 the infamous $25,000 “Wilson’s
Patented Stone-Cutting Machine” built by Munn & Co of South Boston began chewing
away at the east side of the mountain. This machine was supposed to cut a 24
foot tunnel through the entire mountain in 1556 working days. The general idea
was that the machine would cut into the rock and then that cut rock could be
blasted out. After about 12 feet of progress the machine seized up. The machine
would stay in its own self dug grave for a number of years. This hole can still
be seen today, albeit it is somewhat more obscure than as recently as 50 years
ago. It is often referred to as the false start, but in fact this was never
supposed to be the tunnel portal, instead it was meant to be a testing area. At
least on the west side things were progressing, the tunnel itself had not
started, but the gutter approach was underway.
Image of the hole made by Wilson’s Patented Stone-Cutting
Machine [Click to enlarge]
The engineers realized that the only way
forward on the east side was to use a star drill (which is sort of like a chisel
with a star arrangement for the cutting blades on the head) and black powder as an explosive. When the drill is
hammered by a 20 pound double jack sledge hammer it moves forward and must be
spun by hand. It was dangerous being in the 2 man crew using the star drill, but
not as dangerous as being in the blasting crew. Once the team had drilled about
2 feet they would fill the hole with black power and blast.
The head of a star drill
In 1854 Alvah Crocker was able to secure a
$2,000,000 loan from the state with numerous strings attached including tunnel
depth requirements, and a $600,000 sold stock requirement. With this loan The
Troy & Greenfield signed a contract with Edward W. Serrell & Co. of Philadelphia
PA. However due to an inability to meet obligations required by the state
(namely the stock requirements) the contract with Serrell had to be severed.
Work was halted for the winter of 1856.
During the spring of 1856 The Troy & Greenfield
was able to sign on Hermann Haupt, a well known and respected railroad engineer
from the Pennsylvania RR for $3.9 million. Haupt was responsible not only for
the tunnel, but the entire right of way for the Troy & Greenfield.
(Civil war era) [Click to enlarge]
At this point problems with the tunneling
techniques began to become apparent. A watery crumbly “porridge stone” or as
tunnel opponents enjoyed calling it “demoralized rock” was discovered to be in
abundance on the west end. Every time a shovel full was removed it was filled by
the another shovel full of the crumbling stone. Workers described this as a
“shovelful of eels”. This problem would ultimately require 6 to 8 layers of brick in tube
form to support the tunnel. On the east side layers of gneiss and quartz proved
difficult to blast through. For the deeper harder stone on the west end, Haupt
purchased yet another $25,000 ill fated machine. After a test run the machine
By May 1857 the west heading was only a mere 80 feet deep. To speed up work a small shaft was dropped about 300 feet east of the original portal (known today as the Haupt Tunnel portal). This shaft, completed September 23, 1858 formed two headings to chip away at. This shaft was located right about where the West Portal is presently located. The demoralized rock here was so bad that it was decided to drop a 318 foot deep shaft 2500 feet from the west
end to create 2 additional headings. Progress continued despite several
political ups and downs and by 1860 the west heading had proceeded 500 feet with
a great deal of help from stone arching that was slowly replacing wooden
timbers and the small shaft. The east was having better luck, without the demoralized rock the
tunneling had progressed 1810 feet.
descending the West shaft (later era) [Click to enlarge]
Political opposition was growing on Beacon
Hill. The Western Railroad had grown tired of the threat that the Troy & Greenfield
posed. The new Governor Frank W Bird was sympathetic to the Western Railroad and
worked hard to derail the tunnels progress. He appointed cronies to engineering
positions so they could slow Haupt’s progress. Because of the political
hostilities Haupt abandoned work on 1861 to go and build railroads for the Union
was on such a tirade that in 1862 he published “the road to ruin” a pamphlet
blasting Haupt and “The great bore”. Shortly after that he published another
pamphlet called “fact vs. illusion” which was yet another attack against Haupt
and The Hoosac Tunnel. Haupt retaliated with a short called “The rise and
progress of the Hoosac Tunnel”
Progress without Haupt stopped completely. The
tunnel lay at 2400 feet deep on the east end, 610 feet on the west end, and 518
feet of westward tunneling coming from the West Shaft. The first 100 feet on the
west end was a 16 foot wide stone arch, the remaining 510 feet was held up by
timbers. This of course posed a problem because 16 feet was unsuitable for the
ultimate goal of a double track.
On August 18 1862 the Troy & Greenfield
defaulted on its mortgage. The state took control September 4th. On
March 19, 1863 a state commission submitted a feasibility report which covered
sever crucial points: Drilling would have to proceed by using compressed air
drilling and more powerful explosive for blasting. Much of Haupt’s work would
have to be redone because he did not closely follow engineering specifications set by
Mr. Edwards. A new West Portal would have to be constructed, and both
ends would need to be widened. Finally the west end would need to have a brick
tube installed. On July 1st 1863 Thomas Doane was named chief
engineer and shortly thereafter.
Mr. Doane quickly began digging a 27X15 foot
Central Shaft 321 feet west of the tunnels projected true center. Teams of 10 –
15 miners worked round the clock with the goal of sinking the shaft to grade.
The Civil War slowed the construction of the tunnel significantly. By years end
1864 only 1145 feet were added by the state.
Central Shaft - Post construction [Click to enlarge]
Mr. Doane had a rock crib dam built on the east
side about a mile up the Deerfield River which channeled water through a 16 foot
sluiceway into a mill containing air compressors. These air compressors powered
drills inside the tunnel which were redesigned from drills used in the Alps by a
Fitchburg man named Charles Burleigh. The Burleigh Drills were mounted on
movable carriages and connected to rubber hoses which were connected to iron
pipes leading from the compressor building. The Burleigh drills went into
operation June 14 1866. The Tunnel line was resurveyed and
6 stone towers were erected for alignment purposes.
drawing of a typical Burleigh Drill setup [Click to Enlarge]
In 1866 Doane rehired B.N. Farren to create a
500 foot long 6-8 layer thick brick tube on the west side to hold back the
demoralized rock. Ultimately the tube would be 883 feet in length. 7573 feet of
the tunnel would be built with a brick lining, 6690 feet would simply be brick
arching. In all 20 million bricks were used in the tunnels construction. A
series of 4 miniature shafts often referred as Hockin’s wells were dug to grade
on the west side as a method of rock exploration. The largest of these wells was
#4 which is also known as “the baby shaft”. A supplementary shaft was dug to
help the West Shaft with water removal. All of these shafts are now filled in
except to an extent the West Shaft.
In 1867 tunnel crews averaged about 80 to 100
feet monthly. On July 31st the Central Shaft was half way to grade.
On August 23, 450 feet of brick arching was completed and another 500 feet were
In August 1867 Mr. Doane quit angrily over the
state’s persecution of tunneling activities and the mounting death toll. C.P.
Granger would be his replacement. The Central Shaft was left in charge of a man
by the name of Carl O Weiderkinch. His job was to make sure the Central Shaft
was perfectly straight and in line with the tunnel.
The Central Shaft was a death trap. Many people
met their unfortunate demise there. This was also the site of the worst tragedy
in the tunnels construction. On October 17, 1867 a gasometer which was an
abandoned form of lighting held in the hoist house basement leaked naptha fumes
which shortly thereafter contacted a candle and exploded sending newly sharpened
tools as well as the hoist house down the 583 foot deep shaft. All 13 of the
workers in the shaft died from either the debris of asphyxiation. Two hours
after the explosion one miner was lowered down by rope. He was pulled up gasping
and said “No hope”. As the shaft filled with water some bodies surfaced. Others
would not be recovered until October 18, 1868. All work had ceased at the
Central Shaft for an entire year. The Tunnel certainly earned the nickname “the
bloody pit” after this incident.
Before Mr. Doane quit, he began exploring
alternatives to the weak black powder. He read an advertisement in the
Scientific American about an explosive made by one George Mowbray:
trinitroglycerin. Initial tests showed a lack of performance; however those
test concoctions were impure. Mowbray arrived on October 29th 1867
and promptly began construction of a 2 story factory for making his explosive soup
about 100 feet west of the West Shaft. By December 31st the “Acid
house” was finished and operational. The explosive proved highly effective when
applied in 42 inch deep drill holes (as opposed to the 30 inch holes for black
powder). Newer safer methods for detonation were soon created. The powder trail
was soon replaced by friction/static electric detonators. Eventually a system
was in place that could detonate the explosives in the time keeper’s office,
12,000 feet from the heading. The final solution was created by two North Adams
natives. The device consisted of two insulated wires terminating in a hollowed
out chamber in a wooden plug with a pasteboard chunk covered with fulminate of
copper placed between the wires. The convergence of these new technologies made
the tunnel the first large scale usage of trinitroglycerin and blasting caps.
fuse used for blasting the nitroglycerin [Click to enlarge]
The track was completed up to the East Portal
on August 23 1868. At the same time, miners were averaging 150 feet per month.
At this point people could travel by rail from Boston to Troy with the exception
of the Hoosac Tunnel portion, that part had to be crossed by stagecoach.
On January 7 1869 after having funding cut off
several months earlier, F.W. Shanley won the contract to finish the great bore
(aided greatly by the departure of Governor Bird from office.) By April 19th
1869 tunneling operations were in full swing again. On February 8th
1869 The brick arching was complete (the brick crews were not affected by the
state stop order). Mr. Shanly contracted Hawkens & Holebrook Co to work on any
and all future brick arching. During the summer of ‘69 (no pun intended) a
great flood destroyed a large amount of track along the Deerfield River as well
as filled the west end nearly to the top. Large portions of the brick arching
had to be replaced.
Shanley [Click to enlarge]
By May 1870 Mowbray was producing 250 pounds of
nitroglycerin daily. On July 4th 1870 the first train since the flood
reached the East Portal. Also on August 13th the Central Shaft finally
reached grade. Shortly after, one of the first Otis industrial elevators was
installed. A new tunneling method was developed which involved 2 levels. On the
east end tunneling was done on the bottom portion, and 600 feet behind the
heading the roof portion was sloped out. On the west end the opposite method was
applied. In late 1870 a locomotive was purchased to aid in rock removal and
replace the mule teams on the east side.
Train used to
remove spoil [Click to enlarge]
In May of 1872 progress was hindered by the
flow of water from newly opened water veins to the point where the Central Shaft western
heading had to be abandoned until the eastern heading broke through. Work
reached its peak this year with 900 men working three 8 hour shifts. The
abandoned hole dug by the “Wilson’s Patented Stone-Cutting Machine” in 1852 was
turned into a blacksmiths shop. On December 12th a final blast opened
the wall between the east Central Shaft heading and the East Portal heading. At
this point water no longer had to be pumped up the Central Shaft, but instead
could be pumped over the center crest and allowed to flow out the East Portal.
On November 26, 1873 only 16 feet of heading
remained, finally on Thanksgiving Day 1873 the big wigs entered the tunnel to
have the final section ceremoniously blasted at the hand of Walter Shanly.
Shanly, Commisioner Johnston, and Mr. Granger passed through the 5 foot crater
first, then the blasters, then the 500 onlookers from the public. The Hoosac
Tunnel was officially a reality. Grading and track laying would continue for the
remainder of 1874. A stone façade was built from Northfield quarried stone at
the West Portal. This portal added 50 feet to the tunnel’s length.
On February 9, 1875 the first train passed through the tunnel (carrying a few flatbeds and a boxcar filled with people), on April 5th the first freight train passed, finally on October 13th the first passenger train passed.
B.N. Farren did the final work on the tunnel in February 1875 which
included widening tight spots, and building arching over weak spots. The State
officially opened the tunnel July 1, 1876.
Between August and November 1877 a stone façade
was built on the East Portal (This discrepancy in façade construction dates
explains why the date on the East Portal reads 1877 and the west end reads 1874.
I add this because this often confuses people, and visitors to the east often
misinterpret it as meaning the tunnel was completed in 1877). In 1881 double
tracking was added so that bidirectional traffic could be facilitated. The
final cost of the tunnel turned out to be estimated at approximately $20,000,000
in 1870’s dollars.
On February 11, 1887 The Fitchburg
RR purchased The Hoosac Tunnel for $5 Million and 50,000 shares worth $20 each.
The Fitchburg RR decided that lighting the tunnel would be safer and more
pleasing, so they installed 1300 lights 38.5 feet apart. Continuous water leaks
shorted out the lights frequently, so they were removed in 1889. The smoke in
the tunnel was so bad that a 16 foot fan was installed at the top of the Central
Shaft. The base of the Central Shaft was widened and a brick arching was
installed with duct openings at track level offset by about 60 feet on each
side. A room in the center of the tunnel known as “The Hoosac Hotel” was
hollowed out for the track walker as well. 85-90 trains passed through daily.
Rear end collisions happened as a result of the blackness and smoke. Some
collisions proved to be fatal. Ventilation was so poor that train crews had to
lie on the floor to find breathable air. Boiler fires would die down to the
point that the crews had to stick broom sticks out and against the wall to
determine if they were still moving.
On July 11, 1900 The Boston &
Maine RR bought out the Fitchburg RR. By December 1901 the B&M started replacing
the wood burners with frightfully inefficient oil burners. On May 11, 1910 the
tunnel was electrified in an effort to speed up traffic and reduce smoke (smoke
remained an issue even after electrification due to banked coal fires). The
electrification system included catenary wires on the roof of the tunnel, and an
electrified zone that extended beyond the portals. By 1913 traffic was so heavy
(70,000 cars monthly) that the Zylonite power plant in Adams couldn’t meet the
demand with it’s 6,000KW generator. Power was soon drawn from the #5
hydroelectric plant 3 miles north of the East Portal. In 1926, 3000 feet of the
west end was deepened 18 inches for better clearance. On August 23rd 1946
the upcoming diesel locomotives which were far more powerful than the electric
engines killed off the electrified zone for good. A new signaling system from
Williamstown to the Soapstone siding in Rowe replaced the old one. A double
motor fan was soon installed on the Central Shaft to remove the diesel fumes.
1911 picture of
Catenary electrification crew
In 1954 a steel storm door was
installed on the West Portal replacing the wooden doors. These doors helped keep
strange weather from entering the tunnel, particularly in the winter. In 1957
The tunnel was reduced to a single track 3 feet north of the center for
clearance purposes. On November 28th 1958 passenger service stopped.
In 1973 the track was centered and replaced by continuous welded rail. Finally
in 1997 a 10 foot wide strip of stone was removed from The Tunnel’s ceiling and
the track was lowered to allow for even taller railcars. The rail at the East
Portal was sunk below ground level.
Ultimately the Hoosac Tunnel met
its goal of providing a very important link to the west via Albany. The Hoosac
Tunnel would go on to be declared a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the
American Society of civil Engineers. It was the longest tunnel in North America
until 1916 when it was beaten by Moffat Tunnel in the Rockies. It never did
manage to achieve the status of being the longest tunnel in the world. Mt Cenis
in the Swiss Alps which opened a few years earlier and was 8.5 miles in length.
So let’s go on to Hoosac, on to the West!