Secrets of the D&H

by Prof. Eno Lirpa

Many of our readers know about the many notable accomplishments of the Delaware & Hudson Railroad. The gravity railroad, the canal system, the Stourbridge Lion, the Belden Hill Tunnel, the beautiful D&H headquarters in Albany, the Laurentian, and more, are part and parcel of the lore and legend of the D&H.

But buried in the D&H's past are some not-so-glorious moments. One of them, for instance, concerns the Belden Hill Tunnel. While the tunnel was an achievement that helped "make" the railroad, how many of you know that the Belden Hill Tunnel was a source of grave concern for the Sierra Club and New York State? It even was closed by court order for months because of a problem with an endangered species.

It seems that an extremely rare species of mice -- officially Mus Beldensis, commonly "Belden Hill Tunnel Mice" -- lives only in the warm confines of the tunnel. This mouse is very closely related to the also rare species Mus Canadianus Spiralii -- commonly, "Spiral Tunnel Mice" -- which lives in the Canadian Pacific's Spiral Tunnels in British Columbia. Both species are almost blind due to their living in the darkness of a tunnel. They exist entirely on grain that inevitably dribbles from the grain-laden hopper cars of passing trains. They squeak out an existence, so to speak.

The Bytown Railway Historical Society (Box 141, Station A, Ottawa, Canada K1N 8V1) revealed the secret story of the Spiral Tunnel Mice to the world a couple of years ago. In that situation, CP's newer tighter-doored hopper cars, which lose far less grain, threatened the food supply of the mice. Canadian animal rights protection activists fought the usage of the new hopper cars, but the CP eventually reached a compromise with the help of VIA Rail. At the back of passenger trains traversing the spiral tunnel, the conductor was assigned the duty of scattering wheat and corn onto the track. Problem solved.

The D&H also bought the same newer hopper cars the CP did, thus threatening the existence of the Belden Hill Tunnel Mice. But a CP-style agreement to preserve the rare species could not be reached at Belden Hill. As you know, the D&H had no passenger trains using the tunnel, and thus no grain-scattering method was available. The Sierra Club's animal rights section eventually obtained a court order banning the D&H from using its new rolling stock. This obviously was a tremendous operational problem for management, but the public never really heard about the dilemma.

The impasse was solved, in a way, by New York State. About three years ago, the state and D&H jointly announced a program to enlarge the Belden Hill bore, ostensibly to improve clearances. What was not revealed, however, was a key part of the deal. This virtually-secret pact was reached to allow the railroad to use its new hoppers while at the same time ensuring the survival of the tunnel mice.

Belden Hill Tunnel was closed and the contractors moved in. You probably saw all the publicity photos showing the machinery to enlarge the size of the tunnel. As far as the public was informed, the plan was to widen the clearances to enable the D&H to run "excess height and width" cars through the enlarged bore. Prior to the tunnel work, which was funded in the great part by New York State's Department of Environmental Conservation (commonly called EnCon), high and wide loads on the Albany-Binghamton main had to detour by way of the D&H/Conrail (formerly Erie) Jefferson Junction connection, reached via the tracks under Starucca Viaduct. With the improved clearances after the tunnel reconstruction, the "Jeff Junction" route was torn up. And to the general public, that was the story. I'll wager no one ever read about the Sierra Club's or EnCon's involvement with the project, for it is a touchy subject on the property.

During the work on the shaft, EnCon officials installed special feeders for the tunnel mice. This gave the mice -- by now officially classified an endangered species -- a permanent food supply. To this day, the grain feeder system is replenished and checked by EnCon officials posing as NYS tunnel inspectors.

So, if you ever visit the tunnel and see workers "inspecting" it, look closely. They may be carrying cameras to take pictures of the feeders to show animal preservation specialists, but the official story will be "just taking photos of equipment". If they carry what appear to be tool boxes, the workers will tell you they are just "testing equipment"; in reality, they are likely aligning and testing the feeders. Be alert for cleverly-disguised kegs of grain labeled as spikes, unlabeled sacks, etc. And, if the word "feeder" slips out -- as this writer heard from one worker -- don't bother to press the subject. Their official words will explain about "power feeders" for the equipment...certainly not about mice feeders.

This is not to say the tunnel mice feeders haven't caused any more problems. Whatever you do, never go into Belden Hill Tunnel to look at the feeders. Besides the quite obvious fact that you would be trespassing, this tunnel, like other railroad tunnels, is highly dangerous. Let me give you an example.

One day, a Georgia-born EnCon inspector went into the tunnel to inspect the condition of the feeding apparatus. He unfortunately wore light brown clothes and carried with him a piece of good old southern-style corn bread as part of his lunch. The tunnel mice -- notoriously poor in vision but extremely keen of scent -- mistook the ill-fated worker for a large sack of corn, and attacked the poor soul. He reportedly was hospitalized for weeks to recover from the many wounds he suffered. Let this be a warning and not your epitaph!!

So now you know the continuing saga of Mus Beldensis. It is one of the quiet little secrets -- well, actually a furry little secret -- of our favorite railroad.

Next time: the little-known D&H joint venture with Sikorsky Aircraft for steam-powered helicopters...

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Updated 28 December 2002

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