The History of the Hoosac Tunnel

Interesting facts 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.
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
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.
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.
Hermann Haupt (Civil war era)
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 was abandoned.

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.
Miners descending the West shaft (later era)
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 Army. Bird 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.
The Central Shaft - Post construction
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.
A drawing of a typical Burleigh Drill setup
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 contracted.

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.
Central Shaft Tragedy
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.
The fuse used for blasting the nitroglycerin
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.
Walter Shanley
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
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!