Chatham Author Tells Forgotten Story Of The Hoosac Tunnel

By: Debra Lawless

Topics: Local authors

Author Andrew R. “Bob” Black did a bit of preliminary research on the steps of the Boston Public Library before embarking upon his new book “Buried Dreams: The Hoosac Tunnel and the Demise of the Railroad Age” (Louisiana State University Press, 2020).

He had been researching another topic when “this Hoosac Tunnel kept popping up. It was a political football,” he recalled during a telephone interview last week.

To gauge current knowledge of the tunnel, he asked library patrons if they had heard of the tunnel. In 100 interviews, only two of them had, which he found “extraordinary.” And so Black found the topic for his book — a great 19th century engineering project that few know about but that Black believes should be celebrated.

In 2016 Black, who lives in Chatham, published “John Pendleton Kennedy: Early American Novelist, Whig Statesman & Ardent Nationalist.” Black earned a Ph.D. at Boston University after retiring from a career in international business.

The Hoosac Tunnel is a 4.75-mile railroad tunnel still in use today. Its eastern portal is in the town of Florida, and its western portal in North Adams.

The tunnel’s story begins with Massachusetts’s unfortunate geography. A “ship catcher”— Cape Cod — stuck out on the eastern side, the Berkshires formed an “impregnable wall” on the western side, and in between was a whole lot of poor, rocky soil.

In the 19th century, as the riches of the west were explored, railroad owner Alvah Crocker had the idea that if a train tunnel could be cut through Mount Hoosac in the Berkshires, “the wealth would come pouring through to Boston,” Black said during a telephone interview last week. “Buried Dreams” tells the story of the nearly quarter century effort to carve and blast out that tunnel before, during and after the Civil War.

In 1848 Crocker, known as the “father of the Hoosac Tunnel,” and a partner petitioned the state legislature for a charter to run their trains to the Hudson River through Hoosac Mountain “to access the cornucopia of riches pouring out of the Great West.”

Bolstering what seemed like a crazy idea was Edward Hitchcock, the president of Amherst College. Hitchcock was also the influential state geologist who said Hoosac Mountain would be “easy for drilling.”

Hitchcock’s “pronouncements were made with too much assurance,” Black says. “He was wrong on just about every count.” But this was a period when people believed that humans could bend nature to their will, and the tunnel project was approved.

One of the most fascinating stories of the tunnel is the engineering feat itself. Here, tri-nitroglycerine was first used to blast rock, as were electrically-lighted fuses. The primitive hoist bucket that sent men down the central shaft was eventually replaced with an Otis elevator.

“The passion for these kinds of processes led the technical ability to do them by a decade or two,” Black says. “The technology for mining simply wasn’t there.”

During the nearly 25 years that it took to build the tunnel, many interesting entrepreneurs and engineers come and go in Black’s tale. Just as interesting are the many tunnel workers from Ireland who spoke only Gaelic. In the beginning, the men lived in primitive shacks and existed at times on apples stolen from local orchards as their pay was irregular. “All tunnel workers came from desperate circumstances elsewhere,” Black writes. “No one came to work at the tunnel if they didn’t have to.” Working conditions were so harsh that at least 135 men died at the site with an additional 60 maimed in explosions, falling rock, falls and even a flood. Measles broke out in their living quarters. In 1867, 13 miners were killed when the central shaft, dug down through the mountain to a depth comparable to the height of the Empire State Building, blew up.

“I was really trying to build empathy for the miners,” Black says. He’d like to see a statue commemorating the group erected near the tunnel.

By the summer of 1869, men were toiling 24 hours a day in eight-hour shifts. They bore into the two sides of the mountain at a rate of 160 feet per month. The final blast came on Thanksgiving Day 1873 when 600 people gathered to witness the connecting of the eastern and western excavations. “The Hoosac Mountain had been breached.” Fourteen months later, the first train ran through the tunnel.

The total cost of the project was $28,856,396, far exceeding early estimates. Unfortunately, 1873 was a period of an economic depression and there was no money or will to build the infrastructure needed to transport grain and other materials from the Hudson in Troy, N.Y. to Boston. The great money of the west never flowed through the tunnel.

An interesting footnote to the story comes with tunnel engineer Thomas Doane, born in Orleans in 1821. One of the men who advanced mining technology, he is an ancestor of Tommy Doane of Chatham. The elder Doane is buried in Orleans.

Black will sign copies of “Buried Dreams” at Yellow Umbrella Books in Chatham on Sunday, Oct. 11 from 1 to 3 p.m. For more information call the store at 508-945-0144.