THE HOOSAC TUNNEL: BLOOD, SWEAT, AND ... MYSTERY
The eastern portal of the Hoosac Tunnel in the town of Florida, Mass. Photo: Bob Mansfield, 2003.
Adapted from The Advocate, “North Adams Notes,” June 6, 2001
By Mark E. Rondeau
Once a world-shaking feat of cutting-edge engineering and bold, can-do thinking, the Hoosac Tunnel is now mainly taken for granted as a still-functioning, but nearly invisible vestige from the past.
In fact, in recent years there has been talk of changing North Adams’ nickname from “The Tunnel City” to something more contemporary. In a few years, no doubt, we will be known as the “MASS MoCA City.” That would be OK with me, but the effort to construct the Hoosac Tunnel and the role it played in the shaping of North Adams need to be remembered as an important part of our heritage.
The recently announced effort to celebrate the 100th anniversary of St. Anthony Parish in 2003, led our friend Tony Talarico to remember another centennial observance for which planning began 30 years ago — the 100th anniversary of the Hoosac Tunnel in 1973.
Talarico has scrapbooks that detail the effort from when planning began in the summer of 1971 to newspaper and magazine items from years after observances of the Hoosac Tunnel centennial in the fall of 1973. Among items in his collection are cachet envelopes with a Hoosac Tunnel Centennial logo stamped with the postmark “North Adams, Mass. 3 p.m. Nov. 27, 1973.” This marked 100 years to the day when the east and west heading in the under-construction tunnel met in 1873.
“The Hoosac Tunnel was the first major tunneling work in the United States. Its importance is due to its being the Fountainhead of modern rock tunneling technology,” states an information card inside the cachet envelope. “The work was begun in 1851 using hand tunneling methods unchanged for centuries and completed twenty-four years later by techniques which were almost totally mechanized. The basic pattern of operation using pneumatic rock drills and high explosives remain practically unchanged today.”
The tunnel is 25,031 feet long — nearly 4.75 miles. Workers excavated some two million tons of rock and the excavation error at the meeting point was nine-sixteenths of an inch. The first train ran through the tunnel on Feb. 9, 1875. Construction of the Hoosac Tunnel cost $14 million and 195 lives lost during the work, according to the information card.
One impact of the tunnel on the history of North Adams and the area can be glimpsed from a letter written by then-Congressman Silvio O. Conte on Nov. 27, 1973 in commemoration of the 100th anniversary.
“I feel very close to this celebration because, as I informed my colleagues in a tribute to this centennial observance printed in the Congressional Record, my father worked on the tunnel and my mother’s family lodged many members of the tunnel crew. I am therefore delighted to participate in this ceremony as part of the Hoosac Tunnel family,” wrote Conte. “My family was among the fortunate ones, untouched by the tragedy which struck with such frequency those who labored to create the passageway through the Hoosac Mountain. Today we honor those who were not so fortunate, the 195 men killed during the excavation.”
The deaths of so many during the construction of the Hoosac Tunnel almost guaranteed that it would have a certain dark mystery attached to it. And let’s face it, if you’ve ever stood at one or the other of the dark, gloomy portals and imagined walking through it to the other end — even if guaranteed that no train would come driving through — chances are the thought filled you with no small foreboding.
Among Talarico’s collection is an article from the Springfield Sunday Republican from March 19, 1972 — “The Legends of the Hoosac Tunnel.” Writer Walter D. Mosher notes that workers with some reason called the tunnel “Bloody Pit.”
“Over the years, workmen, as well as spectators, who had visited the tunnel site, told strange tales of certain supernatural events that they themselves claim to have witnessed at one time or another,” Mosher writes.
He notes that in 1872, Dr. Clifford J. Owens of Detroit visited the tunnel as guest of James R. McKinstrey. Following is part of an article written by Owens that is believed to have appeared 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 miles into the shaft when we 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 for a minute or two and were just about to turn back when suddenly I heard a strange mournful sound. The next thing I saw was a dim light coming along the tunnel from a westerly direction. At first I believed it was a workman with a lantern. Yet, as the light drew closer, it took on a strange blue color and appeared to change shape 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, I felt a cold, icy chill run 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 stood there gaping at the headless thing like two wooden Indians. The blue light remained motionless for seconds as if it were actually looking us over, then floated off toward the east end of the shaft and vanished into thin air.”
Furthering the mystery is an unbylined article from the Aug. 31, 1976 issue of The Star — “Ghosts saved my life twice in haunted tunnel.”
The article details experiences that 72-year-old Joseph Impoco had while working in the tunnel more than 50 years before at age 18:
“One day he was crouching alone in the tunnel’s black wastes chipping ice from the tracks when an eerie voice cried out to him.
“ ‘Joe! Joe! Joe! Jump quick.’
“Suddenly he saw a fast express train bearing down on him.
“ ‘I jumped all right. I leaped just like a frog,” Impoco said.
“The train missed him, barely, and as it roared away he looked around for whomever had called to him. No one was there.”
After a couple of other close calls with mysterious voices involved, Impoco quit his job and moved to Springfield, where he operated a poultry market until his retirement. But every year he made a pilgrimage to the tunnel.
“If I don’t,” he said in the article, “I feel like something terrible will happen to me.”
I encourage anyone wishing to learn more about the Hoosac Tunnel to visit the museum dedicated to it at the Visitor’s Center at Heritage State Park in North Adams.