The Haunted Hoosac Tunnel

Alex Johnson - Content Writer

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As a lifelong New Englander and skeptical wet blanket, I’m a little curious why the region is such a popular place for spooky sh*t: witches, vampires, ghosts—why here? Is it all the old buildings? The crooked trees? The long, dreary winters?

You know what? Yeah, that actually all makes sense. New England is a gloomy place when it wants to be, and it wants to be about eight months out of the year. And the more history a place has, the more likely people will report seeing ghosts there, right? Still, I’ve never seen a ghost before, so I don’t really know how it works. Are we still making new ghosts up here, or are all of the ghosts grandfathered in from back when America used to actually make things?

I’m tempted to think that a prerequisite to seeing a ghastly apparition is actually believing in ghosts to begin with. I don’t believe in ghosts, which I assume means I won’t ever see one.

That’s likely what Dr. Clifford J. Owens thought when he entered the Hoosac Tunnel in June of 1872, looking for a rational explanation for the reported howls of pain and sadness echoing in the long dark of the unfinished railroad passage. He didn’t believe the ghost stories, until he—and a site superintendent—saw a headless apparition and could offer no better explanation.

Granted, we’re talking about a doctor from the 19th century, back when they’d tell you to drink mercury to cure an STD. Still, Dr. Owen’s diagnosis was in: the tunnel had a case of acute poltergeist-itis.

The Hoosac Tunnel

I may not believe in ghosts, but I sure do believe in nightmares, and the construction of the Hoosac Tunnel was a body-mangling nightmare.

The Hoosac Tunnel is so named because it’s a passage carved through the Hoosac Range in the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts. I only know enough Algonquian to order stuff at restaurants, but, as I understand it, the word can be loosely translated to “place of rocks.”

C’mon in!

The European-descended folk who settled the area kept the Algonquian name for the mountain range, but they had some other changes in mind. Mostly, they wanted to blow a big f**king hole in it so they could run a train through it.

Digging big tunnels underground has always been extremely dangerous, but I estimate it was particularly terrible in the mid-19th century. Because it was deadly, the work was slow. Construction began in 1851 and the tunnel wasn’t completed until 1875.

Low-tech, unsafe conditions; noxious, volatile, flammable gases; and highly unstable explosives claimed the lives of over 190 men before the tunnel was completed The Hoosac Tunnel thus earned its nickname: the “Bloody Pit.” 1

“Accidents” Happen

So laborers were dropping like flies throughout the excavation project, and maybe that would’ve been enough to win the Hoosac Tunnel its own ghost army, or at least a few ghost soccer teams. But the best ghosts don’t come from workplace accidents; they come from murder.

Nitroglycerin was the shiny new volatile chemical compound on the block in 1865. Well before it was ever used to treat angina, nitroglycerin was used to blow the righteous f**k out of god’s own mountains. In March of that year, three explosive “experts” gave the combustive agent a shot. Ned Brinkman, Billy Nash, and their drummer, Ringo Kelley, primed a charge, then sped off to a safety bunker for the detonation. Unfortunately, Ringo fucked up—he blew the nitro before his partners got to safety.

According to the stories, Ned Brinkman and Billy Nash were buried alive under tons of rock in the explosion. I’d wager that it’s more likely they were buried dead. Either way, it roused suspicion: was this simply an accident, like all the other deaths in the tunnel? Or was this murder?

Ringo Kelley disappeared soon after. Workers found him 10 days after the nitroglycerin incident, two miles deep into the tunnel, near where his partners had died. Ringo was dead, apparently strangled to death.

This picture isn’t too scary—until you consider that every one of these people had already died during the tunnel’s construction! Just kidding. These folks are all dead now, though.

Without any suspects, the case went cold, but the tunnel workers were convinced that Ringo had been revenged by the ghosts of his dead partners. 2

Who You Gonna Call?

A high mortality rate was one thing, but ghosts were another—the workmen reported hearing cries of agony coming from a man’s voice inside the tunnel, and refused to enter after dark. This was a problem.

In September of 1868, a former cavalry officer and mechanical engineer named Paul Travers was asked by a Mr. Dunn to investigate. They entered, expecting to find nothing but the sounds of wind howling through the rock. Instead, the two of them heard the voice of a groaning man, just as reported by the more superstitious workers. Travers wrote of the experience, “I’ll admit I haven’t been this frightened since Shiloh.” 3

Just a month later, the tunnel claimed 13 more souls in the worst disaster of the entire project. A gas explosion destroyed a surface pumping station, filling the central shaft with debris. With the pumping station down, the 538-foot shaft filled with water, bringing some dead bodies with it. It would be over a year before all of the victims’ bodies were discovered—some of them on a makeshift raft built to keep the men from drowning in the rising water.

“I’ve sold [haunted train tunnels] to Brockway, Ogdenville, and North Haverbook,
and, by gum, it put them on the map!”

In the meantime, before all of the bodies were accounted for, workmen told stories about seeing the dead men’s ghosts—on the mountaintop, in the tunnels, carrying their tools. They reported hearing muffled wails near the flooded shaft. It’s hard to say if they simply imagined these sounds, or if they were actually hearing cries for help from the survivors who had built the raft—the voices of ghosts who had not yet died.

The sightings seem to have stopped after all the bodies had been recovered and buried. But the moans and groans of the dark tunnel kept up, and workers remained fearful.

Four years after the explosion, the powers that be finally got a guy with a PhD to take a look. Dr. Clifford Owens and a guy named James McKinstrey entered the tunnel at 11:30 p.m., apparently hoping to see something. He wrote:

We had traveled about two full miles into the shaft when we finally 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 talking for a minute or two and were just about to turn back when suddenly I heard a strange mournful sound. It was just as if someone or something was suffering great pain. The next thing I saw was a dim light coming along the tunnel from a westerly direction. At first, I believed it was probably a workman with a lantern. Yet, as the light grew closer, it took on a strange blue color and appeared to change shape almost 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, it felt as if the temperature had suddenly dropped and a cold, icy chill ran 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 just stood there gaping at the headless thing like two wooden Indians. The blue light remained motionless for a few seconds as if it were actually looking us over, then floated off toward the east end of the shaft and vanished into thin air.

Lest we think that Dr. Owens was as superstitious as any of the tunnel workers, he included the following: “I am above all a realist, nor am I prone to repeating gossip and wild tales that defy a reasonable explanation. However, in all truth, I can not deny what James McKinstrey and I witnessed with our own eyes.” 4

Tunnel Visions

In February of 1875, the first train passed through the completed Hoosac Tunnel. One-hundred and twenty-five passengers made it through with no issue, which isn’t too surprising—unlike human men, trains fear nothing. The Hoosac Tunnel put North Adams on the map as a New England transportation gateway.

You don’t have to believe in ghosts to never f**king go in here.

As you might expect, once the project was completed, most of the tales stopped. But the tunnel hasn’t been empty, by any means. Aside from being an active freight railway, explorers, maintenance workers, and passers through have continued to tell stories of a presence in the dark, sometimes helpful, other times threatening, heralded by muffled voices. 5

Personally, I’d recommend staying out. Not because of the ghosts, but because freight trains run on loose schedules, carry wide loads, and still run through the Hoosac Tunnel today. I don’t know if ghosts exist, or if they’re capable of strangling the living, as they’re suspected of doing to Ringo Kelley. But getting hit by a freight train will ruin your day, 100 percent.

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Notes & Gossip 📌

  1. Howes, Marc. (Accessed August 14, 2018). Ghosts. Retrieved from http://www.hoosactunnel.net/ghost.php
  2. Howes, Marc. (Accessed August 14, 2018). Ghosts. Retrieved from http://www.hoosactunnel.net/ghost.php
  3. Shiloh was a battle during the Civil War
  4. Howes, Marc. (Accessed August 14, 2018). Ghosts. Retrieved from http://www.hoosactunnel.net/ghost.php
  5. Howes, Marc. (Accessed August 14, 2018). Ghosts. Retrieved from http://www.hoosactunnel.net/ghost.php

Scholarly Shout-outs 🌟

  • Howes, Marc. (Accessed August 14, 2018). Ghosts. Retrieved from http://www.hoosactunnel.net/ghost.php
  • Ocker, J.W. (Accessed August 14, 2018). Hoosac Tunnel. Retrieved from https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/hoosac-tunnel
  • Taylor, Troy. (2001). Ghosts of the Bloody Pit: Hauntings at Massachusetts’ Hoosac Tunnel. Retrieved from https://www.prairieghosts.com/hoosac.html

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