‘Interest in the Hoosac Tunnel is never ending’
Rail-Fan II at the Rowe Historical Society’s Kemp-McCarthy Museum featured rare Hoosac Tunnel memorabilia. Bev DenOuden, a museum volunteer, dressed in vintage clothing from the 1800s from the museum’s collection and spoke with visitors about Rowe.
Rare Hoosac Tunnel memorabilia brought enthusiasts from all over the Pioneer Valley and beyond to the Rail-Fan II at the Rowe Historical Society’s Kemp-McCarthy Museum on Sunday.
CORRECTION:The East Portal of the Hoosac Tunnel is located in Florida, near the Rowe town border.
ROWE — Between 300 to 400 people came to the Rowe Historical Society Museum’s “Rail-Fan II” to talk with railway historians, to look at Carlos Heiligmann’s displayed model trains, and to view old train photographs, postcards and posters from the past.
But the biggest draw was the technological wonder of the 19th century — the Hoosac Tunnel, and how it was built by blasting through the Hoosac Mountain Range over 25 years, starting from both the east and west ends and drilling up through the middle. Along the way, there were worker deaths and water leaks, “black powder” and black powder explosions, overage costs into the millions and growing unpopularity with the state government that paid for “The Gateway to the West.”
“It seems like interest in the Hoosac Tunnel is never ending,” tunnel expert Jerry Kelley said.
In fact, a memorial is planned in the town of Florida on Oct. 19, to mark the anniversary of the Oct. 19, 1867 death of 13 workers who died in the central shaft — about 570 feet below ground-level — after a fire burned down the hoist house. Stan Brown of Florida said a new memorial has been constructed with the names of those who died in the accident.
Kelley and Tim Lawrence gave a 90-minute presentation about the 4.75-mile Hoosac Tunnel. Their presentation included faded stereoscopic images of the cleared land, the workers’ shanties and dormitories, and the experimental boring equipment that was relatively new, untried, and often broke down.
“It was a very interesting project. People in this country and around the world were interested in seeing how it was done,” said Kelley. “This was probably the first major public works project ever photographed,” he said, showing an image of the East Portal site in Rowe from 1870.
According to Kelley, some of the foundation stones of the old workers’ shanties are still standing in the empty fields, along with four large steep pins, marking where the first survey tower was placed, on Rowe’s Neck.
A photograph of the central shaft was taken immediately after the fire tragedy and it shows a ring of people in civilian clothing gathered around the brick-lined central shaft. The fire began when lighting in the hoist-house cellar ignited naphtha fumes and the fire sucked all the oxygen from the shaft. Kelley said newly sharpened drill bits in the hoist house may have rained down on the men as the fire burned through the building.
“The hole quickly filled with water,” Kelley said. “It took about a year to get all the bodies out. Some floated up. People said (the shaft) was haunted.”
A man in the center of the photo, a worker named “Mallory,” was lowered into the pit with a rope around his waist, to see if anyone could have survived. When they lowered him down, and he could no longer breathe, he tugged on the rope to be brought up.
“He said ‘no hope,’” said Kelley.
Kelley said water was a constant problem and drainage systems had to be worked out, and that “hundreds of thousands of dollars” were spent on water pumps for the project.
The West Port, in North Adams, was built on what was called “demoralized rock” that was sopping wet. The West Port was built as a kind of 750-foot “brick tube” that floated on the soft, water-filled soil, until solid rock was struck further in. He said the tube’s walls was six bricks thick.
When the tunnel was bored all the way through, the error margin for both drilling to meet in the middle was less than an inch — “about as close as a finger,” said Kelley. “That’s how accurately it was surveyed.”
Newly displayed Hoosac Tunnel ephemera, which was sold as souvenirs in the early 1900s, includes images of the tunnel on English Staffordshire plates (sold between 1903 to 1909), on German-made beer steins, and on antique German porcelain from about the era of World War I.
The ephemera comes from a private collection, said Kathy Heiligmann, vice president of the Rowe Historical Society and a museum trustee. The items are now on exhibit in a new display case that was purchased with a grant from the Amherst Railway Society.
Colrain native Carl Byron, the author of a 1974 classic on the Tunnel, sold out all three dozen copies of “A Pinprick of Light” that the Boston & Maine Historical Society brought to the event. In addition, many people who already owned the book brought in their copies for Byron to sign. Byron said only about a half-dozen more copies exist of the out-of-print book, but more Rail Fan attendees were ordering the books that were left.
Cliff J. Schexnayder, a construction engineer from Chandler, Ariz., is writing a book about the people who worked on building the tunnel. Besides going to the Rail-Fan event, Schexnayder said he had visited some of the places that were key to the construction.
Proceeds from the Rail-Fan event will benefit the Rowe history museum.
You can reach Diane Broncaccio at:
or 413-772-0261, ext. 277