The Bloody Pit
This would be my first time visiting the Berkshires of Massachusetts, and as far as first introductions go, in my humble opinion, this was a great one. We were looking for a place with the rather morbid nickname, “The Bloody Pit”
The “Bloody Pit” is a bit of a misnomer, mostly because it’s actually not a pit, but rather, a tunnel. Officially called The Hoosac Tunnel, this 5 mile tunnel burrows through the Hoosac Mountain Range in Northwestern Massachusetts.
Among many things, it was considered to be an architectural and modern marvel of its time, and before that, an impossible feat of Yankee Ingenuity.
The Berkshires stubbornly presented themselves to be a successful barrier for travel and trade to get anywhere west of Massachusetts. The existing rail lines depended on rather lengthy and inconvenient detours, which simultaneously frustrated and inspired Alvah Crocker, a paper mill owner from Fichburg, to extend the questionably altruistic gesture of financing the construction of a new railroad. Coincidentally, the railroad would also benefit his mills.
With much surveying work, Alvah decided that the Deerfield River Valley would be the best chosen location for his new railroad. But there was one problem. A massive one. There was a 3,000 foot roadblock in his way. He would have to literally burrow through the Berkshires, to run a tunnel from the town of Florida, all the way to North Adams. And that’s just what he decided to do.
In 1848, the Hoosac Tunnel project was unveiled, and people were astonished. It seemed like an impossible feat. The project already got off to a rather unusual start. The tunnel’s path was determined with building a series of wooden towers on neighboring Berkshire mountain summits, and with the use of plum bobs and piano wires, they were able to sort of create a rough line where the tunnel would theoretically run under the mountains. Their calculations seemed to be good enough for them, because in 1851, ground was officially broken in North Adams – and the tunnel was envisioned as the “gateway to the west”, which pretty much could be translated to anywhere west of those pesky Berkshire hills.
The tunnel was to be constructed in two phases, the so called Western Portal in North Adams, and the Eastern Portal in Florida. In 1852, construction on the Eastern Portal officially commenced. But almost foreshadowing the entire project, construction crews immediately ran into problems.
An innovative boring machine was brought in, and was going to be used to kick off the construction. They boasted it had the ability and power to drill through the toughest of stone, but after only digging 12 feet, it became hopelessly stuck in the Berkshire bedrock. Attempts were made, but it just couldn’t be removed. Frustrated and embarrassed, the crew would have to start again in a different spot, the present day location of the Eastern Portal.
The work crews employed to dig the tunnel were probably very miserable. Conditions in a poorly ventilated tunnel with underlit conditions underneath several mountains over 2,000 feet were probably just as you’d expect; horrible. It was described as “building a sandcastle in the mud”. The rock and earth were so unstable and prone to washouts, that the tunnel was either constantly flooding or collapsing. Eventually, they had to dig canals to get the excess water out of the tunnels, which were also often flooded and over depended on.
In the Hoosac Tunnel’s long list of achievements in both the negative and positive realms, one of them was that it would be the first modern day construction project to use Nitroglycerine in the construction. But because of its highly unstable conditions, lack of knowledge about it and poor tunnel conditions, there often would be tragedy and death when work crews would lodge the nitro and black powder in the mountain side, sending deadly blasts radiating out and killing many.
So much nitroglycerine was used in the construction that a factory actually had to be built just to keep up with the demand. It’s location was said to be near Whitcomb Summit, but probably not surprisingly, it was said to have either exploded or burned down. To add further mystery, it was said that 10,000 barrels of the stuff had survived, but never claimed. Some say that they’re still somewhere in the woods of Florida, waiting for someone to stumble upon them.
All and all, the project took 24 years to finally complete, finally finishing in 1875. During this time, an estimated 200 people lost their lives, others walked off the job, and many people including the federal government wanted to pull the project because of the number of horrifying casualties. However, the railroad company played a sneaky card and purposely didn’t report all of the deaths, pushing the number down to around 75, give or take, which caused the government to agree to allow them to continue.
But the most chilling incident to take place here happened inside the central shaft, which alone is incredible – a giant shaft used as a chimney, boring 1,000 feet, or the length of the Empire State Building, down from the summit for better ventilation and exhaust escape. Because coal was the major powering force behind locomotives at the time, the 5 mile ride through the tunnel got dangerous. Conductors were even reported to wave broomsticks out windows to ensure they were still moving, because they couldn’t see through the smoke.
On October 17, 1867, a team of Cornish miners were hoisted down 583 feet into the uncompleted shaft to continue hacking their way down through the mountain. It was said to be a scary ride down, literally into nothing but blackness. But that day, the dark wasn’t their main concern. Flammable chemicals from a naphtha fueled lamp inexplicably leaked and ignited, causing an explosion that ripped through the hoist that was responsible for lowering equipment down, as well as equipment, flaming drill parts, and splintery wood, raining down flaming shrapnel onto the 13 men at the bottom. Air pumps malfunctioned, leaving the men stranded in the dark without oxygen. Those who didn’t die of suffocation, drowned as the hole began to fill with water. Helpless onlookers, realizing there was nothing they could do, waited until their screams stopped bellowing from the hole.
Though it was thought that no one had survived the accident, when they attempted to eventually finish the shaft, they found a makeshift raft, but the man had also died. They were right, just not in the way they expected.
The tunnel was eventually completed, and was serviced by 2 sets of tracks, used by passenger and freight trains. Today, the second set of tracks have been removed, and freight trains still use it, including a spectacle called “Truck Trains” – trains that have the capability to be 2 miles in length, with the purpose of keeping trucks off Massachusetts’s highways.
But what about the “Bloody Pit” moniker? Not surprisingly, a place with this much tragedy has it’s ghost stories. Tales of phantom specters haunting construction workers were told, and lead to many walking off the job. Weird sounds were (and still apparently are) said to emanate somewhere in the dark bowels of the tunnel, that sound like agonizing moans. The name was coined originally by the tunnel construction workers, but the term was forever cemented into the flypaper that is popular culture, and people still use it today. An interesting side note to this, The Algonquian word Hoosac loosely translates to “the beyond place” – and today, that name is worn by a river, a mountain range and a tunnel. Maybe there were on to something.
Other things that haunt the tunnel are curious teenagers and so called “Tunnelphiles” – who often make treks inside the dangerous (and active) tunnel for a thrill jaunt. There were plenty of videos on youtube showing careless teens almost getting hit and killed by trains, and then having a laugh about it after.
Driving through the interesting town of North Adams, with its former and brawny brick mill buildings with the predictable conversion into art studios and a college, we headed towards the famed Mohawk Trail, a great serpentine drive over the summits of the Berkshires, along with an infamous hairpin turn that is steeped in stories about cars accidents, and an oil truck careening down at a much higher speed than it should have been traveling, before crashing in front of a restaurant and exploding.
Further down the road, traveling through a pleasant outfit of Spring greens and rolling hillsides, we saw a rather unwelcoming welcome sign, “Welcome to Florida” it read, with rotting wooden palm trees on either side, complete with peeling paint. We were almost there. A break tapping ride down a mountainside soon lead us to a road following the Deerfield River, with its murky waters a brilliant rust color that matched a nearby railroad bridge perfectly.
Then to our left, the tunnel appeared, a gaping black mouth allowing access into the deep and damp unknown far below the Berkshires.
Immediately after getting out of the car, we were hit by 2 things, the sultry humidity and a few “No Trespassing – Tracks In Use” signs. If we needed a warning, that was probably it. The tunnel was dangerous, and past those signs, our fate was up to us.
Approaching the mighty mouth of the Hoosac Tunnel, the temperature dropped several degrees – to a point where I wished I had a jacket on an 80 degree day. The cacophony of dripping water could be heard echoing off the damp walls, with layers of crumbling bricks, their broken remains littering the tunnel floor. I realized now exactly how unprepared I was for this. And to confirm this thought, the crack of a crumbling brick jolted my attention.
The entrance was practically a waterfall of dripping water, and years of coal dust and fuel residue and tunnel grime, forever raining down from the arched brick ceiling which threatened to fall and give someone a concussion. If you were hit by a brick while traversing the tunnel, you were done for.
To add to my uncomfortableness, the tunnel floor wasn’t in better condition. A poor drainage system left the sides of the tracks buried under piles of dirt, silt, and crumbled bricks, all sitting in pools of water, some were more than ankle deep. Some areas had live electric wires sitting in them. The tracks didn’t offer a safer alternative. The wooden planks had been rotting for years, and were warped and glistening with falling water, making anything faster than a slow walk a bad idea. It would be a constant battle of trying to see where you are stepping, and what may fall on you over head.
Despite this information, my expensive camera gear at risk, and now being joined by a possibly chapter of the local Hells Angels who all pulled in on their bikes, we decided to all venture into the tunnel.
The icy water now dripping down our necks and our backs, we quickly moved into the tunnel and out of the Berkshire sunlight. I can’t explain how different and out of place I felt once inside. The sunlight was gone, and your eyes instantly strained to adjust. All you heard was cascading water and falling bricks. But there was something else here, something bigger that seemed to steal the air from the atmosphere; you could feel the tunnel itself, trembling around you and confusing your senses and your thoughts.
About 5 minutes into our tunnel walk, the group in front of us stopped, and a woman, the wife of one of the bikers, started to freak out. “I can sense things” she explained, holding her hands in front of her and waving them slowly in front of her. “I can sense when ghosts are here. I can communicate with them. This place has many ghosts, and they all are unhappy with our presence here! We need to leave!” and with that, she proceeded to power walk back outside, the group of tattooed men following her, all saying goodbye.
So what now?” I asked. But I already knew the answer, and further we went. My eyes soon adjusted and I began to calm down and become somewhat familiarized with my surroundings. And by that, I mean that I became accustomed to being inside a tunnel that seemed to have no end, even though we knew the numbers and the facts.
We fiddled with our cameras and flashlights as we attempted to walk without stumbling and falling onto the disgusting gritty earth below. Now, the tunnel entrance was just a pin prick of light. We had ventured in a very long ways. With the new feeling of isolation that found me, me and the Hoosac Tunnel shook hands.
I had a destination in mind. What “tunnelphiles” referred too as “The Hoosac Hotel” or “The Hoosac Hilton” (but far less luxurious). It’s a brick room, bored into the mountain in the center of the tunnel, originally built for the tunnel workers to avoid traveling through the entire tunnel for supplies, and later it was the station of an appointed employee of the railroad to ensure the tunnel ran smoothly. Today it’s all but abandoned and crumbling in the dark. From various blog entries I’ve read, written by daring people who made the 3 mile journey, there were rumors of dead bodies in “body bags” unceremoniously stashed inside, which in reality are just a strange collection of various plastic bags that teenagers like to call “body bags”, because there isn’t enough grim lore about this place, I guess. There are also some soggy remnants of old furniture inside the room, like the shell of an old phone, a wooden desk littered with beer cans and empty Nerds boxes, and many satanic symbols that had been carved into the table’s warped surface.
At this point, we had completely lost sight of the entrance, and because the tunnel is elevated slightly on both sides, and curves in the middle, you can never see both entrances at the same time. It’s a world of eternal blackness and foul air as the tunnel told stories about the dripping water and the sound as it fell.
But we would never make it to The Hoosac Hotel. To make a long story short, a train approached, it’s pinprick headlights growing larger down the tunnel shaft. We made a hastily retreat back towards the entrance, slipping on slick railroads ties and slogging through cold puddles and over bricks the entire way, before one of the tunnel’s infamous truck trains came barreling through the opening.
We picked ourselves up and walked back to the car, still breathing heavily. As we approached the parking lot, we ran into another group of bikers, and had a brief conversation with a large cheerful fellow in a leather jacket.
“Hey boys, you just come from the tunnel?”
“Yessir. It’s pretty incredible”
“You know that tunnel is over 5 miles long?”
“Yeah, we did”
“I always hear about some stupid group of people who want to walk the entire thing. They go all out, bring video cameras and everything.”
“Do you know anyone who has actually made it?”
“What?! Fuck no! That’s a suicide mission”
Me and my friend looked at each other “Yup.”
Sadly, I never made it to “The Hoosac Hotel”, but someone did, and they posted some of their pictures on Hoosactunnel.net. Click on any of the pictures below to be taken to their website.
There is an entire website devoted to the history and construction of The Hoosac Tunnel, and offers the most information about it on the internet.
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