Without further adieu, the story:
In the rugged and beautiful Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts, where mists draw patterns on the peaks, ghostly legends have prevailed since the earliest days of settlement. Around campfires and by the warmth of wood~ burning stoves, old-timers tell of persons who vanished, never to be seen again; of weird night sounds echoing down the valleys; and of grown men, sound of mind, filled with undefinable fears.
One of the most popular legends is that of the haunting of the Hoosac Tunnel at North Adams.
The digging of this railroad tunnel is a saga of blood, sweat and tears. Begun in 1851, it wasn't finished until 1875. During those twenty-four years, hundreds of miners, using mostly crude black powder and pick and shovel, chipped away at the unyielding rock of Hoosac Mountain. By the time the tunnel was finished, two hundred men had lost their lives in what came to be known as "the bloody pit." Most died in explosions, fires, and drownings, but one death may not have been accidental.
In 1865, the explosive nitroglycerin was introduced to America and used for the first time in the construction of the Hoosac Tunnel. On the afternoon of March 20, 1865, explosive experts Ned Brinkman, Billy Nash, and Ringo Kelley planted a charge of nitro and ran toward a safety bunker. Brinkman and Nash never made it. Kelley bad prematurely set off the charge, burying his coworkers alive under tons of rock.
Soon after the accident, Kelley disappeared. He was not seen again until March 30, 1866. His body was found two miles inside the tunnel in the exact spot where Brinkman and Nash had died. Kelley bad been strangled to death.
Deputy Sheriff Charles F. Gibson estimated the time of death at between midnight and 3:30 A.M. An investigation was carried out, but with no suspects, the murder was never solved.
Some of the workmen, however, came to their own conclusion. They knew that Kelley bad been killed by the vengeful spirits of Brinkman and Nash. Fearing the tunnel was cursed, they balked at entering it. Even visitors became uneasy inside the dark, dank cavern with water dripping continuously from the ceiling and streaming down the walls.
Paul Travers, a mechanical engineer employed on the Hoosac project, toured the tunnel with a Mr. Dunn. Travers had been a highly respected cavalry officer in the Union army. In a letter to his sister in Connecticut, dated September 8, 1868, the engineer wrote," ... the men constantly complain of hearing a man's voice cry out in agony and refuse to enter the great shaft after nightfall. Mr. Dunn has reassured them time and time again that the strange sound is nothing more than the wild winds sweeping down off the mountainside. Our work has slowed to the point where Mr. Dunn asked me to help him conduct an investigation into the matter.
"Last night Mr. Dunn and I entered the great tunnel at exactly 9:00 P.M. We traveled about two miles into the shaft and then stopped to listen. As we stood there in the cold silence, we both heard what truly sounded like a man groaning out in pain. As you know, I have heard this same sound many times during the war. Yet, when we turned up the wicks on our lamps, there were no other human beings in the shaft except Mr. Dunn and myself. I'll admit I haven't been this frightened since Shiloh. Mr. Dunn agreed that it wasn't the wind we heard. Perhaps Nash or Brinkman I wonder?"
A month later, on October 17, 1868, the worst disaster in the tunnel's history occurred. Thirteen miners died in a gas explosion that blew apart a surface pumping station. Debris filled the central shaft where the miners were working.
Glenn Drohan, a correspondent for The North Adams Transcript, reported that a miner named Mallory was low¬ered by bucket and rope to search for survivors. Brought back to the surface, and almost unconscious from fumes, he gasped. "No hope."
Without an operating pumping station, the 538-foot shaft soon filled with water. Bodies of some of the dead miners surfaced. More than a year later the remaining bodies were found on a raft the men had built to float on the rising water. They had suffocated from the vapors of deadly naphtha gas.
Drohan 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 at [the] mountaintop.
“The ghostly apparitions would appear briefly, then vanish, leaving no footprints in the snow, giving no answers to the miners' calls.
"But, as soon as the raft-bound miners were found, and given a ‘decent’ burial, the visitations ceased."
Yet deep inside the tunnel, the eerie moanings persisted, and workers were terrified.
Four years after the gas explosion, a Dr. Clifford J.
Owens visited the tunnel, accompanied by James R. McKinstrey, a drilling operations superintendent. Dr. Owens wrote the following account, which was thought to have appeared first in a Michigan newspaper:
"On the night of June 25, 1872, James McKinstrey and I entered the great excavation at precisely 11:30 P.M. We had traveled about two full miles into the shaft when we finally halted to rest. Except for the dim smoky light cast by our lamps, the place was as cold and dark as a tomb.
"James and I stood there talking for a minute or two and were just about to turn back when suddenly I heard a strange mournful sound. It was just as if someone or something was suffering great pain. The next thing I saw was a dim light coming along the tunnel from a westerly 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 shape almost into the form of a human being without a head. The light seemed to be floating along about a foot or two above the tunnel floor. In the next instant, it felt as if the temperature had suddenly dropped and a cold, icy chill ran up and down my spine. The headless form came so close that I could have reached out and touched it but I was too terrified to move.
"For what seemed like an eternity, McKinstrey and I just stood there gaping at the headless thing like two wooden Indians. The blue light remained motionless for a few seconds as if it were actually looking us over, then floated off toward the east end of the shaft and vanished into thin air.
" ... I am above all a realist," he continued, "nor am I prone to repeating gossip and wild tales that defy a reasonable explanation. However, in all truth, I can not deny what James McKinstrey and I witnessed with our own eyes."
On October 16, 1874, Frank Webster, a local hunter, vanished. Three days later, a search party found him stumbling along the banks of the Deerfield River in a state of shock. Webster said that strange voices had ordered him into the Hoosac Tunnel, and once inside he saw ghostly figures wandering about. Suddenly, something seized his rifle from his hands and beat him over the head with it. When the searchers found the hunter he had no weapon with him and he couldn't recall leaving the tunnel.
During that same year, with tunnel headings completed, workmen removed rubble, completed the grading, and laid track. On February 9, 1875, the first train went through the tunnel. It pulled 125 people on three flatcars and a boxcar. North Adams had become "the Western Gateway" to much of New England.
But even with the completion of the tunnel, frightening tales still circulated.
In the fall of 1875, Harlan Mulvaney, a fire tender, was driving a wagonload of firewood into the tunnel late one night. Suddenly Mulvaney turned his team around, whipped the horses across their flanks, and careened out of the tunnel.
A couple of days later, workmen found the team and wagon in woods three miles from the tunnel. Mulvaney was never seen or heard from again.
Joseph lmpoco, a former employee of the Boston and Maine Railroad, believes there may be some truth to this legend. He went to work for the railroad at the age of eighteen and claimed the tunnel ghosts saved his life. Twice! In an interview that appeared in The Berkshire Sampler of October 30, 1977, Impoco told reporter Eileen Kuperschmid that he was chipping ice from the tracks one day when he heard a voice say, "Run, Joe, run!"
"I turned and sure enough there was No. 60 coming at me. Boy, did I jump back fast. When I looked there was no one there," he recalled.
Impoco said he heard the voice before he heard the train.
He added that he'd seen a guy with a torch pass by and wave, but he paid no attention to him. The voice that had come from somewhere saved his life.
Six weeks later, lmpoco was using an iron crowbar to free freight cars stuck on icy tracks. Someone shouted, "Joe! Joe! Drop it. Joe!" He dropped the bar and it was instantly struck and smashed against the tunnel wall by eleven thousand volts of electricity from a short-circuited overhead power line.
Later, while removing trees from the tunnel entrance, lmpoco was nearly crushed when an enormous oak fell in his direction. He outran the falling tree, all the while hearing a strange, unearthly laugh. He was certain it hadn't come from one of his crew members.
Joseph Impoco quit his job and moved away. But every year he returned to visit the runnel and to pay homage to the ghost who had saved his life. He was certain that if he didn't go tragedy would befall him. In 1977 he stayed home. His wife was ill and she wanted him with her. In October of that year she died.
In 1976 a parapsychologist from Agawam, Massachusetts, visited the tunnel and claimed to see the figure of a man wearing old-fashioned work clothes. The man appeared within a glowing white light. Could it have been the "Apparition that Owens and McKinstrey had seen 104 years earlier?
Ali Allmaker, a philosophy professor at North Adams State College and part-time ghost hunter, wrote in the Berkshires Week, issue of July 6-12, 1984: "I have been in the tunnel only once, accompanied by a railroad official, and can attest to the claim that it is an eerie place. I had the uncomfortable feeling that someone was walking closely behind me in the darkness and would tap me on my shoulder or, worse, pull me into some unknown and unspeakable horror at any moment."
Allmaker also reported that, on one occasion, college students took a tape recorder into the tunnel, turned it on and left. When they retrieved the machine, sounds like muffled human voices were heard on the tape.
Although today's visitor to the area may be tempted to enter the tunnel, he risks his life, in doing so because the Boston and Maine Railroad runs a dozen or more freight trains through the tunnel every day. But he can gain an appreciation of this enormous engineering feat by visiting the Hoosac Tunnel Museum in the Western Gateway Heritage State Park that opened in North Adams in 1985.
And if the visitor talks to certain old-timers, he'll learn that reports of chilling winds, shrieking noises, and floating apparitions still occur. Perhaps the Mohawk Indians had correctly named Hoosac Mountain. In their language it means "the Forbidden Mountain." And did they also, as some believe, put a curse upon this place to keep it safe from white invaders?
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Minor points: Hoosac actually means place of rocks, not forbidden. The tunnel was completed in 1874. Also the miners who died in the central shaft died from the fire consuming oxygen, not from naphtha fumes.