One of my favorite train watching spots in the 1970’s was the Hoosac
Tunnel. Specifically the East portal. The Hoosac was at its completion in about
1875 after 25 years of effort, the longest (25,081 feet or just under 5 miles)
Railroad Tunnel in the United States. This honor was eventually usurped by
the completion of the Moffat Tunnel in the Rockies at nearly 7 miles in about
1916.. The Hoosac carried the East-West mainline of the Fitchburg Railroad,
later to become part of the Boston & Maine beneath the Berkshire Mountains
of Western New England. The tunnel itself is dead straight but you can’t
see through it since it slopes gradually upward from each end until it has
risen some 60 vertical feet near the center. The purpose for this high center
point with a gradual downward slope towards both ends was to facilitate drainage.
At the midpoint (12,837 ft from the east portal) there is a large room that
extends to the north and then up over the tracks forming a room above the tunnel
itself. Extending upwards from that room, there is a vertical airshaft (15
x 27), known as the Central Shaft, that rises many hundreds of feet to the
top of the mountains (1030 feet). There is also supposed to be a West Shaft
located some 2500 feet in from the west end, but I have never seen it either
from the top or from inside the tunnel. At the top of the Central Shaft there
are large exhaust fans protected by a chain link enclosure, along with a brick
building and electrical substation.. It seems that the tunnel was so long and
so confined that even though the steam powered trains, banked their fires and
were pulled through the tunnel by one of the 2 sets of three B&M boxcab
electric locomotives purchased just for that purpose, the smoke from even the “banked” fires
was too much for the limited air volume of the tunnel. Thus the exhaust fans
were installed and they were started and spun up each time a train traversed
the tunnel below. When steam and the attendant little electric boxcabs were
supplanted by diesels, the exhaust was not as big an issue and it is unclear
if they are still required for every passing train. Rumor has it that they
remain useable and are often used to clear diesel exhaust fumes from the bore.
We all know or at least suspect, that on many railroads of that era, anything
not immediately required is not maintained and usually left to decay. Although
based on recent visits it appears that the fans escaped this fate; the lighting
system, telephone system, catenary system and the 6 little boxcab electrics
have not fared as well and have taken their place in history. Today the once
brightly illuminated bore is little more that a dark black hole through the
mountains. The bore itself is carved directly out of the granite for most of
its length and only on the last 7500 feet on the west end is there a brick
arch required to hold up the softer rock and earth. As the railcars got bigger
the 1875 era clearances in the double tracked tunnel became a problem so the
railroad replaced the double track with single slightly lowered and nearly
centered track, which then provided some much needed additional clearance.
Since it cuts through a major mountain range the tunnel itself is the cause of some really unusual weather phenomena. The weather systems which normally move from east to west typically bump up against the mountain range, rise up, and as they do so, they lose much of their moisture causing rain on the west side and high clouds or no clouds and sunshine on the east side. This is a natural phenomenon that predictably occurs wherever there are similar geographic conditions and weather patterns. The presence of the Hoosac Tunnel causes a much different reaction by virtue of the fact it provides a hole straight through the mountain range at its base. Here when the weather patterns come up against the mountains some of the weather front takes the path of least resistance straight through the tunnel, causing strange occurrences such as clouds and rain forming in front of the east portal when the entire rest of the area is warm and sunny. There is often a lot of localized fog instead of rain and there is a damp draft that wafts out of the tunnel most of the time, no matter how clear and sunny it is in the general area and valley below.
The tunnel is unique in other ways also. When an eastbound train enters the tunnel at the at the west portal it pushes a slug of air ahead of it that results in a sudden surge of cold draft accompanied by the sound of the train all the way at the other end. It is eerie to hear the train, and feel and smell the draft, but with no headlight to be seen. Sometimes standing in the mouth of the east portal your logic tells you that until you actually see the headlight as it crests the hump in the tunnel, it is more than 2 ½ miles from you. Your logic tells you this, but your senses say, “I can hear it, I can smell it, I can feel the draft. We got to get out of here right away”. In the winter the almost constant draft serves to freeze the dripping and dampness in the tunnel causing ice to pile up over the tracks, and forming giant icicles that smash locomotive windshields and damage equipment. Crews of men originally dealt with this problem with axes, shovels and ice choppers, who labored long and hard, nearly residing in the tunnel throughout the long New England winter. Then an automatic overhead door was installed on the west portal and the “leak in the mountain range” was plugged at all times except when a train was due.
There was another major problem and that was related to track work and derailments. When the B&M suffered a major derailment in the tunnel the careening railcars simply wedged themselves side by side and on top of each other all within the unmoving granite confines of the tunnel, forming a virtual steel plug of twisted steel. Invariably any derailment was located some 2 or 3 miles from either end. A derailment within the tunnel, even a relatively minor one, usually took from weeks to months to clear. The crews had to work to remove one car at a time, and then drag the wreckage all the way to the nearest portal, which was often miles away. In an attempt to manage or at least minimize this problem the B&M created the job of “trackwalker”. This track maintenance man would park his car at the west end every weekday morning and walk the five miles through the tunnel. He carried a backpack full of tools for minor, on the spot repairs and a carbide lantern to see his way. (This was no place to have your “Eveready’s” give out).As you walk towards center from either end you just keep walking into a completely black void with no objects to provide reflected light from your lantern. His job was to walk the line observing the track for debris, loose joints, broken rails etc. Since we consistently visited the Hoosac a number of weekends each summer and fall throughout the 1970’s we became well acquainted with the man who held down that job in the 1970’s. I well remember his name and even have a photo of him at the mouth of the East Portal, but in deference to his privacy and the possibility that some rules may have been inadvertently bent, I will just call him the “trackwalker” to protect him from railroad justice. We even on occasion gave him rides over the mountains to his car, which was at the west portal. He was not required by his job description to walk the track both ways, but he usually did not have a lot of choices, and more often than not had to walk the 5 miles or so back to his car. It was because of our friendship with this trackwalker that we were able to actually safely go deep inside the tunnel and get a feel for the place, experience a train inside and see the central chamber. I can tell you that even then, it was a really scary and extremely dangerous place to be, and only in the company of the trackwalker did we feel any amount of security. Although outwardly friendly he could be very stern and businesslike, especially when there was a train nearby. He took no chances and, friends or not, he would tolerate no compromises in safety.
Let there be no misunderstanding the tunnel was and is now a very dangerous place. It is reported that 196 men died in its construction and as many as 30 more have lost there lives working or just sightseeing in and around the tunnel. In the winters there were often large crews of men required to chop the ice off the rails that was caused by the almost constant dripping inside the bore. Eventually there was a siren installed that was automatically activated when a train approached the tunnel and continued to wail until the caboose passed inside the bore. It is a very eerie sound in the middle of the night at as remote a location as this.
Now lets talk about the area around the east portal. The B&M east west mainline stretches from Boston, MA to Mechanicville, NY. The nearest rail yard to the east was East Deerfield, MA. From thence the tracks run west through Greenfield, Charlemont, Zoar, and a number of small towns with names I can’t remember, always climbing towards the summit, which as mentioned previously was in the middle of the Hoosac Tunnel itself. The railroad crosses under Massachusetts route 2 just west of Charlemont and continues to assault the remaining 10 or so miles of the climb to the summit. Once under route 2 the railroad goes from being somewhat remote to downright hard to get to. It is now passing through a heavily forested wilderness, remote and untouched except for the narrow shelf along the river carrying the tracks. In what seems to be the only other concession to the 20th century, there is a 10-mile long 2 lane, relatively unimproved road that loosely parallels the tracks and the Deerfield River up a long narrow and often deep valley, all the way to the tunnel’s east portal. At the tunnel the RR crosses the Deerfield for the last time, immediately crosses the 2-lane road, which is still shadowing the river, at a grade crossing and dives into the side of the mountain range. So if we stand at the east portal looking east we see a narrow valley, a grade crossing, a truss bridge, all surrounded by towering, heavily forested mountains, and the most striking thing of all, extreme remoteness. We have a railroad climbing up a steep and remote valley next to a river, many miles from any real civilization, save a small 2 lane road. There is a steel truss deck bridge, about 100 feet long that carries the track across the river. The tracks, leave the north end of the bridge, immediately hit a grade crossing, then curve sharply to the left and enter a tunnel all within a few hundred yards. It can be very dramatic and exciting, especially when you mix in a train or two. The thing I like best of all about this place is its extreme remoteness from civilization. No extraneous noises, only the river and the trains. It makes for stunning audio tape recordings, especially at night. You can hear a train grinding up the valley for 5 miles. Then just before the last curve (about 1 mile to the east down the valley) there is a grade crossing that requires the train to blow the horn. It is truly a sound to remember in this remote and quiet (except for the crickets) place. During the era that I watched and recorded trains here the motive power on the B&M was a stable of GP7’s and GP9’s, 5 GP18’s a few F units and Alco road switchers. Towards the end of that decade there were a dozen GP38s and then even some GP40’s. Standing near the bridge over the Deerfield a few yards from the tunnel you can actually identify the type of power on a westbound train simply by the sounds they made as they strained to pull their train up the steep eastern slope of the Deerfield valley. Eastbound trains on the other hand were hard to figure. As I said before when an EB hit the portal on the opposite side of the mountain, those of us waiting and watching were treated to a cold draft, smell of diesel and an indistinct but clearly “there’s a train in the tunnel” sound. One further detail. Also about a mile down the valley to the east there is an interlocking where a long passing siding returns to the single track mainline which remains single tracked all the way to North Adams on the other side of the mountains.
Now that the stage is properly set and I hope you have a better understanding, even appreciation, for the place; I will tell you a few of our “Adventures in Railfanning” at the Hoosac. The first tale takes place on a summer night in 1975. It was a Saturday, we had arrived early in the day and set up our camping trailer in a place called Mohawk Park, down where the road to the tunnel intersected route 2. We had then spent the day watching and recording on film and tape as the B&M struggled up and down the mountain, with long freights and mostly older generation power. The day was clear, and sunny and the weather looked promising for some night taping, and watching. After a short sabbatical back to the campsite for a cookout dinner, we headed back up to the east Portal. Between 7 and 8:30 pm we saw a couple of east bounds from Mechanicville, including the Unit coal train off the Penn Central, and a single westbound. Then for the next hour, there was no activity. It was now getting dark and darkness at the Hoosac is indeed, very dark. It is a good thing there was a moon that night. Even then it was getting a bit scary, with no lights except for 1 lonely street lamp near the grade crossing in front of the tunnel, and no sounds except the crickets and anything else in the forest that surrounded us. Your mind begins to ask probing questions, like what are you doing out here 10 miles from civilization, near a raging river in remote forested wilderness in the middle of the night. When the answer comes back that we are here to “watch trains” it suddenly seems terribly ludicrous. Then around 9:30 as we were succumbing to our inner voices and were beginning to seriously consider leaving; we thought we heard a distant train sound down the valley from the east. We strained to hear and our concerns with the hour, quickly vanished. It probably is a westbound train and we were on the scent again. The faint sound, whatever it was, was a long way off, but it was an extremely clear night. Surely it was a train struggling up the mountain… We moved over the railroad bridge to get further down the valley closer to the elusive sound. Probably somewhat foolhardy at night with a train coming, but we reasoned that there was but one track up the mountain and we knew where the nearest train was; clearly in front of us where we could see him approach, so what was the harm. It was taking a long time to get up the grade so we moved out onto the south end of the bridge to get a clearer night shot between the trees. We were using a tripod and a time lapse to get some real interesting night photos, and of course sound recording equipment, which worked markedly better at night anyway. Onward and closer it came and we could hear the locomotives clearly now and it was sounded like a string of 7’s, 9’s.and maybe an 18 or two. Then it hit the grade crossing a mile from us and the sound of the 3-chime air horn was clear and chilling. We knew we had it made; this was going to be worth the wait. We had a clear night, sound that was crystal clear and unadulterated by any other man made noise and the headlight glow that was going to show from around the curve would make a great time exposure. As we waited and waited the sound continued to come but the headlight still refused to appear around the distant curve. We gestured to each other silently in wonder, afraid to mess up the stunning and astonishing sound that the train was making in the clear clean night air. Then as we listened intently the sound seemed to trail off a bit, then began to fade rapidly. Now we were really confused. A number of scenarios that could explain the changes in sound that we were experiencing crowded through my head. This train was clearly slowing, maybe even stopping. Why would he do that mid-grade on a mountain with a long train? Once stopped with no forward momentum he would pay hell getting that train moving again on the steep upgrade. Yet it became clearer and clearer that he was indeed stopping. Well given that he was indeed stopping… now the question became why? Why indeed? Maybe engine or train trouble, no signs of that. Had he hit something? Then the reality struck me. He had swung onto the long passing siding that we had forgotten about and was stopping short of the mainline switch. Now we were thinking clearly and rapidly. The only possible reason this westbound train would be taking the siding would be to allow an eastbound to pass. We knew that here on the mountain at least east bounds had the right of way over westbounds. All of this added up to one startling conclusion. There is an eastbound freight due very soon and he may already be coming through the tunnel behind us in the dark. As I turned to mention this revelation from my mental exercise, to my companions, I saw the reflections of the headlight of a very fast moving EB freight dancing on the trees as he broke out of the tunnel on a dead run headed right for us. What a time to be right. Not only was there an eastbound due, but also it was already out of the tunnel and only a few hundred feet from us bearing down fast, and he was going downhill. And here we were flatfooted on the east end of the very bridge he was about to cross with a 7500-ton train at 55 miles per hour. Did you ever try to run off of a trestle type bridge with crossties instead of decking, in front of a train in the dark with camera and audio equipment? Hope you never have and will never have to. It is more of a thrill than I would ever care to experience again. The fact that I am writing this should give you a clue that we indeed made it off the bridge before the train got there. Our exit was unceremonious and very ungraceful as we careened off the bridge each of us on opposite sides, and dove down the embankment, actually well ahead of the train. We probably had 10 or 15 seconds to spare. The engineer must have been really startled or just really mad because he blew and kept on blowing that horn, even after the locomotives were off the bridge and partway down the valley. I think startled fits. After all how would he ever have anticipated that he would burst out of the tunnel in the dark at one of the most remote spots on the railroad only to find a couple of idiots literally camped out on a bridge in front of him. Well the “idiots” were safe; bruised and scraped but remarkably no worse for wear. When I checked the audiotape equipment, amazingly it was still running. I had never had time to shut it off. I simply scooped up camera, tripod, tape recorder and microphones and made a beeline for the end of the bridge and safety. I had the entire shameful episode captured on audiotape. The camera did not fare as well. The long lens I was using had some problems as it had taken some kind of hit during the headlong rush, and it was never well again.
Now even though the surprise eastbound had completely passed us, we were still shaken and real uneasy about crossing back over that damn bridge to get to the car. After all who could guarantee that there was not another eastbound following the first one just waiting to burst out of the tunnel and catch us on that damn bridge again. The fact that it was real dark and very quiet didn’t help our frame of mind very much. We were kind of assessing our situation and options when we were startled by a sudden burst of locomotive sound. This time the sound was not from the bridge but from the east somewhere around the curve. After a second or two of rising panic it hit us, the westbound, forgotten in all of the excitement was starting to move once again, or I should say struggling mightily to get started. This told us two important things. This train was now going to occupy the single track so there were no more eastbound trains due and that we had a real opportunity to get good close up sound of a train starting on the hill. My shaken confidence bolstered by this newfound knowledge I hurried back across the bridge to the car to get more tape and another camera lens. When I returned the freight was still not started, and I reset all the equipment, this time well away from the tracks. It took a full 15, minutes for the westbound train to get a roll under him and then pass by our recording equipment on into the tunnel. We followed walking closely behind his caboose across the bridge, just to make sure we wouldn’t be caught off guard again by another train. Safely back across the bridge and near the car we thought it over and decided to go back to camp. It was now nearly midnight. The adventure took about 2 ½ hours. We had been shaken but there were some pictures and a lot of amazingly good sound to show for it. The tape machine never faltered despite being thrown down a Railroad embankment. I relate this story for its entertainment value and not as a “How To” for watching trains. We did some very risky things in the pursuit of our hobby and it was only providence that we did not experience tragedy. Hopefully the lessons learned by us that day, almost the hard way will be learned by those who read this. We were extremely confident in the knowledge that we were well-experienced rail fans, wise to the ways of the railroad operations. We were savvy about east bounds, taking precedence over west bounds, about signal aspects and what they really meant, about the geography and track geometry and etc. etc. All of this real knowledge only conspired to make us believe that we were smarter about the ways of the railroad than we really were, and that can be a grave error.
The next tale is about going inside the tunnel. It was a summer day in ?? (My memory fails me, besides rules may have been broken and I don’t want anyone in trouble, even 30 or so years after the fact). It was a sunny day and there was little rail traffic and no other rail fans about. The track walker appeared on schedule and went inside the shanty to have lunch and check in with the dispatcher. We chatted with him and offered him a ride over the mountain to his car. He said that he would, but first how would we like a short walk into the tunnel. The rail traffic was down with no trains due for a couple of hours and it was a good opportunity. We of course agreed. We had wisely made only a couple of walks to the tunnel mouth and then only immediately after a train had passed. It was by nature a dangerous place and we had a great deal of respect for it. Looking east from the East portal the tracks curve gently to the left before heading across the road and the bridge over the Deerfield. It was I would say 300 yards or so from the tunnel mouth to the grade crossing and the first third of that was in a narrow rock cut bounded on the south by the mountain and on the north by a masonry retaining wall. On the immediate north side of this retaining wall dropped precipitously to a fast flowing some stream 20 or so feet below. To make matters worse once at the tunnel mouth you couldn’t see the grade crossing or any trains coming up the mountain due to the curvature of the tracks. This was complicated by the sound of the stream drowning out any distant train sounds. Once way back in at the tunnel mouth there was a very real possibility that a westbound train could surprise you and the only way out was east towards the train. There used to be double track here and there is some room to get clear of the train, but it is very confined, and still extremely dangerous when there is a moving train and it is not a position I would want to be in. You could however, safely stand on the outside (north side) of the curve and see effectively both ways. If you strategically placed yourself in exactly the right spot, you could see westward a little way into the tunnel (a few hundred yards at most as the angle of view was not directly into the bore) and eastward to the grade crossing with its flashing lights, and some distance across the bridge with its block signals. Additionally you could hear your environment much better, a valuable asset when you are watching trains. In view of these conditions as I stated before we had only rarely and then quite apprehensively approached the tunnel very closely, and never inside. During these occasions we would always position a lookout who could hear any west bound trains and warn us far in advance of any west bound train. For east bounds you could see the headlight inside the tunnel when it was 2 ½ miles away as it crested the center of the sloping bore and had plenty of time to make a hasty exit. This offer by the trackwalker was indeed a rare opportunity to go inside with some level of confidence that we wouldn’t be caught unawares by a train.
So after he had his lunch, we took our cameras and off we went. Walking into the tunnel. We weren’t far inside when it got very cold and clammy. It was extremely damp and seemed 10 or even 20 degrees cooler than the hot sunny day that was outside. It was very strange. When you looked from side to side and at your feet you could see walls, roof and track, but straight ahead it was pitch inky black. There was absolutely no light except that which was reflected from the portal receding in the distance behind you. It was very eerie and spooky not to be able to see where you were going except a few scant feet ahead of you. The track walker threw a few chunks of carbide into his lantern along with some water, adjusted the drip and lit off the acetylene that was produced. It was a kind of wimpy light but it was sure comforting. Even though this little lantern only pierced the gloom a 100 or so feet further it was we thought a vast improvement. As we trudged along the tracks the walker gave us a lesson in the tunnel, its history, the safety rules and most importantly the dangers associated with not being experienced with the anomalies of this very different and often unforgiving environment, that we were now walking in. I would look back often, as the east portal with its little circle of daylight got smaller and smaller until it was literally like a small pinhole in a black hood. We walked for quite a while and we began to wonder how far he was going to take us. He said we were a little over a mile in and it was another 1 ½ miles to the center and the shafts and room, and did we want to continue. He pointed out that it while it was 1 ½ miles in it would then be another 2 ½ miles back out. We were fairly well spooked by now and we said we were inside quite far enough and we would take his word for the details of the structures at the center. As we started back, there came a far far distant sound of a train and since we could see the east portal, we surmised it was coming from the west. We began to walk fast towards the east portal, more than a little spooked now. The walker said “no use to run, that train will cover the distance to you long before you get to the end of the tunnel”. We were more than a little apprehensive… meeting a train a mile deep in the tunnel was pretty close to our worst nightmare. The walker said “relax we have ways of dealing with this” He walked us each to a cutout in the tunnel wall about 4 feet wide by 7 feet high by 3 or so feet deep. I had noticed some of these cut outs on the walk in but never commented on them. These he said are “manholes” now each of you get inside one stay back as far as you can and shield your face incase of a loose tie wire or such dragging from a loaded car. He also admonished us “Not to come out of the safety of the manhole until HE came and got us”. He said that some of the real long cars are so quiet that it is possible to think the train has passed and walk right out into the side of it in the dark. Then off he went ,I assume to his own protective manhole. Knowing the train was still more than 2 ½ miles away, since I still couldn’t see the headlight, I kind of peeked out and peered into the gloom where the train sound was coming from and becoming increasingly louder, by the minute. It is amazing how the rush of the air ahead of the train carries the sound. You could swear that the train was bearing down on us from a mere few feet back of the gloom, and your logic said; “Not possible No headlight” It could easily terrorize you if you let your emotions and fears take over. It was now abundantly clear to me how so many ice workers were killed by trains over the years. Unfamiliar with the anomalies of the tunnel they must have panicked and ran terror stricken for the nearest portal until the train caught up with them and ran them down. That was a little bit how I was feeling when I saw the headlight crest the center hump of the tunnel. Now I knew for sure exactly where the train was (at least 1 or more miles away) and although the sound made the train seem much much closer, I felt calmer. Then for what seemed interminable span of time during which my emotions kept urging me to run while I still can, the locomotives roared by my hiding place. Once the locomotives stormed past, I could hear the cars passing bit could not see them but only an occasional flicker as some distant daylight from the east portal briefly reflected off some bright shiny spot on one of the passing freight cars. And indeed as he warned it seemed to get relatively quiet as some of the longer more modern cars passed the small opening in the rock wall. I was not about to step out until the track walker came and fetched me, even after I saw the lighted caboose with glowing red marker lights pass by. When we got back out into the tunnel it was even spookier, if that seems possible. To the west it was once again pitch inky black, but this time quieter, but to the east the train now blocked most of the light from the tunnel portal and the two caboose marker lights glowed like two little red eyes. As we walked towards the east portal the last of the eastbound train finally exited the tunnel and it was much brighter as the round hole again filled with daylight. We walked to the end of the tunnel as fast as we could without seeming to rush, and we were real glad to be in the daylight once again. We took the walker over the mountain to his car and although we visited the tunnel many times over the years following, we never had any desire to go inside again. We were most content just photographing and audio taping from the outside.
The last tale is unusual in that it took place on our only visit to the west portal. It was a typical visit to the Hoosac. We were camped in the valley at the usual place and had gone up to the East portal to await the trains. It was a couple of hours and no activity and we hadn’t seen the trackwalker either. We began to suspect something was amiss. Maybe there was a wreck or something and the line was closed to traffic. If there was indeed a problem of some kind, we wanted to go see it, but where? We reasoned that if there was a wreck somewhere on the line through the Hoosac, the closest places that trains could be rerouted in an emergency were Greenfield, MA about 25 miles east of our position or North Adams about 20 miles west of us on the other side of the mountains. So if we wanted to find out what was going on we had to scout out that 45 mile stretch. Another clue was that the rails looked more than surface rusty… it may have been days since the last train polished these rails. We really began to ponder what to do. We decided to take the easiest way first and go east towards Greenfield to see what we could find. We started down the valley and about halfway to route 2 we came around a sharp curve that ducked under the railroad right of way, and darned if a train didn’t pass over the bridge as we drove under it. What a surprise. It was a westbound freight laboring up the mountain towards the tunnel. After what must have been the fastest three point turn on record we chased back up the mountain to the tunnel. We quickly closed on the freight and easily passed it as it was an unusually heavy train with 8 locomotives that were literally screaming in about run “8” and still barely making 15 miles per hour. So it was with no trouble that we got to the East Portal ahead of the freight. In fact we needn’t have hurried. We were there set up, waiting and listening, for what seemed like forever; and then we heard a strangely familiar sound… The train was slowing, and this time we knew from past experience, just what it was. He was taking the siding. Therefore it is almost an axiom that there must be another train due. An east bound should be coming out of the tunnel at any minute. We quickly retrained our cameras and waited for the train that never came. Now we were really puzzled. What in the heck was going on? After a short discussion we came up with a few conclusions. First there was no blockage to the east. The train sitting in the passing siding a mile below us proved that. There is a reason that the railroad is not letting that stopped train through the tunnel. Therefore the blockage, if indeed there was one, must be to the west. Since the nearest junction to the west was North Adams, the blockage or problem surely must be between the east portal and North Adams a scant 2or so miles from the west portal. That leaves us with the idea that it, whatever it is must be very close to or even actually in the tunnel. But why bring a train all the way from Greenfield, up the mountain so closely, unless you expected the route to be cleared very soon. Now we had a complete theory that fit all the facts as we knew them. There was a blockage somewhere near the West portal or even inside the west half of the bore, and there was a train poised to go through from east to west. We piled our gear into the car and drove over the mountain to North Adams. It took us a few tries to find the West Portal, as none of us have ever been there before. Also there were no roads up to the tunnel mouth and the railroad right of way was obscured from the nearest road by a few hundred yards of foliage. The tracks of course were the best clue. Follow them and you had to find the tunnel. We parked along the state road near where the B&M tracks crossed at grade and hiked in following the rails, which we noted were also quite rusty at this end also. The west end was quite different from the other side. The mountain slope was much more gentle as it was more earth than granite. The portal had a massive overhead door and the railroad buildings were much more substantial. A bit too close quartered for good pictures but over all a very intriguing place. We also found the erstwhile missing trackwalker there .. Now at last we would finally know what was going on. He was happy to see us but very serious and reserved. Clearly he was very concerned about something. He told us to stay well back from the tunnel mouth as there were a whole bunch of engineers and “high muckey mucks” (his words) presently inside the tunnel inspecting the roof.
It seemed that the spring rains, unusually heavy this time of year, had seeped through to the tunnel roof and a large chunk of roof had vibrated loose on a passing train almost two weeks ago. Reportedly no one was hurt and the train proceeded without further incident, apparently totally unaware that a bunch of earth, soft rock and bricks had fallen on their train until they arrived in Mechanicville, NY some time later. He fact that the B&M no longer used cabooses on the mainline trains simply made it easier for the incident to escape detection. Some time later, apparently about the same time as the train’s arrival at Mechanicville, the trackwalker making his weekday transit of the tunnel on foot, was stunned to see a large amount of debris on the track. He naturally thought a railcar had lost some of its load until he shone his lantern upwards and was aghast to see a gaping cavern about the size of a two family house above what was remaining of the 150 year old brick arch that protected the trains from the mountain. He immediately notified Railroad authorities who stopped and/or rerouted trains at Greenfield on the east and North Adams on the west. Well we had some of it worked out right. Then over the next few days they erected scaffolding in the tunnel, formed a new concrete arch and pumped concrete into the roof of the tunnel. The walker said they pumped for more than a full day. Now, today was the 7th day and they were going to let the first train slowly through, as soon as the current inspection was complete. The scaffolding had been designed with clearance to allow a train through but officials feared vibrations would be damaging until the concrete was at least partially cured. That explained the final piece of the puzzle which was the long train waiting in the siding on the other side of the mountain. That also explained why it was so large a train, and the amount of rust on the rails. There hadn’t been a train on these tracks in nearly 2 weeks.
The officials and engineers came out and signaled for the trackwalker to radio the train to proceed. Then we settled down to see what would happen in the next 45 minutes to an hour it would take for that train to get through the tunnel. After 35 minutes we could distinctly hear the train, and even see the headlight, but it was still about 2 miles deep and the train still had to cover over a mile and a half as the new concrete roof patch was located only about 250 yards from the west end. As the train got closer the noise and ground vibrations got stronger and stronger and the officials were visibly tense. After what seemed like forever, the lead locomotive broke out into the sunshine, followed by 7 more rumbling, vibrating and shaking locomotives, with well over a hundred cars in tow. Then everyone seemed to relax as it was felt that the worst has passed and the train , though still doing a lot of shaking and vibrating, was much quieter that the locomotives had been. So we all stood around watching this long, long train of freight cars slowly exiting the tunnel. Then there was an odd, not loud, but unidentifiable noise. An unidentified noise by definition is something to cause concern, but it this situation it caused terror, and grave apprehension. Sure enough the next car out of the tunnel had a scaffold plank on its roof. Clearly not a good sign. Then the one behind it 2 planks, then there was a loud, this time very identifiable sound. It was the sound of tubular scaffolding collapsing, and planks falling. We all expected the train would derail any minute and watched breathless as car after car came rolling out of the tunnel, each with some piece of construction debris on it , but still they kept rolling. Then there were no other unusual sounds at all, just the train moving inexorably through the tunnel.. Then without warning the last car rolled by and the tunnel was clear. Well clear of train at least, if it was clear of debris or not remained to be seen. We all peered in to the black maw, and of course could see nothing. Gingerly the engineers and officials all walked through the tunnel towards the patch. The result of this inspection was that some part of one of the freight cars must have been overhanging and caught a part of the scaffolding. Once some of the tight clearance scaffolding was even slightly displaced the moving 4 or 5000 ton train simply tore the rest of it down, like it was a bunch of toothpicks. The good news is that none of the large amount of debris got under the train and the train did not derail. The even better news was that the concrete plug stayed put and apparently was going to hold. Railroad guys being what they are, the tunnel was okayed for traffic that day. I never went in and saw the plug, and I don’t intend to, but by all accounts, it is still there holding the earth and mountain up.
Some additional Hoosac Facts:
Cost in 1870’s dollars $21,241,842.00
Width 34 feet
Height 20 feet
# of bricks used in the arch 30,000,000
Tons of rock removed 2,000,000
Nitroglycerine used 500,000 lbs
Error at the point of meeting 9/16 inch
In the words of the Trackwalker… “the tunnel is a fascinating place to visit but a very dangerous place to linger”