GHOSTS OF THE BLOODY PIT
HAUNTINGS OF MASSACHUSETTS' HOOSAC TUNNEL
The rugged lands of western Massachusetts are somewhat dominated by the beautiful and remote Berkshire Hills. They are part of a land that has been haunted for centuries and ghost stories are commonplace here. Many tales are told of spirits in the forest, calling voices that have no source and of those who have wandered into the woods, never to return again. Of all of these stories though, perhaps the most chilling is the tale of the Hoosac Tunnel near North Adams in the Deerfield Valley.
The tunnel was one of the greatest undertakings of the region and work was started on it in 1851. It was not finished for almost 25 years! During that period, hundreds of miners, using mostly black powder, shovels, picks and their own hands, fought against the unyielding rock of Hoosac Mountain. By the time the tunnel was finally finished, more than 200 men had died in what came to be known as the “Bloody Pit”. They died in fires, explosions, tunnel collapses and in one case, by the hand of another. It would be the cold-blooded murder that occurred in 1865 that would give the tunnel its reputation for ghosts.
It was during that year that the explosive known as nitroglycerin was introduced to America. The construction crew of the Hoosac Tunnel would have the honor of being among the first crews to use it. On the afternoon of March 20, 1865, three explosive experts named Ned Brinkman, Billy Nash and Ringo Kelley decided to use nitro to continue their work on the tunnel. They placed a charge and then ran back toward a safety bunker that would shield them from the effects of the blast. Brinkman and Nash never made it there however. For some reason, Ringo Kelley set off the charge before the other men could make it to shelter. The two men were buried alive under tons of rock.
Soon after the accident, Kelley vanished without a trace, leading many to believe that the “accident” with the nitro may not have been an accident after all. He was not seen again until March 30, 1866... when his body was discovered two miles inside of the tunnel. It was found at almost the exact spot where Brinkman and Nash had been killed. The authorities quickly deduced that Kelley had been strangled to death. Deputy Sheriff Charles F. Gibson estimated that he had been murdered between midnight and 3:30 AM that morning. The death was thoroughly investigated but no suspects were ever found and the crime went unsolved.
And while the authorities determined that no killer could be find, the construction workers had their own ideas about who had killed Ringo Kelley. According to the rumors and whispers, they believed that Kelley had been killed by the vengeful spirits of Brinkman and Nash. They came to feel that the tunnel was cursed and many of them refused to enter it again. Some of the crew members walked off the job and did not return. The dark and brooding place, with the deep shadows and dripping water, became known as a shunned one. It was best avoided most believed, slowing the construction of the tunnel down even more.
In 1868, the construction site was toured by Paul Travers, a mechanical engineer and a respected cavalry officer during the Civil War. He had received a letter from a Mr. Dunn of the construction company, who had asked him to come and examine the tunnel. Apparently, the workers “complained constantly of hearing a man’s voice cry out in agony” and needless to say, refused to enter the half-completed tunnel after sundown. Dunn was convinced that the strange sounds were nothing more than winds sweeping off the mountainside but despite his assurances, work had slowed down so drastically that he had contacted Paul Travers to investigate the matter.
Travers and Dunn went out to the site on September 8 and the former military officer did not soon forget when he encountered there. He later wrote a letter to his sister and told her about the weird experience: “Dunn and I entered the tunnel at exactly 9:00 PM. We traveled about two miles into the shaft and then we stopped to listen. As we stood there in the cold silence, we both heard what truly sounded like a man groaning out in pain. As you know, I have heard this same sound many times during the war. Yet, when we turned up our the wicks on our lamps, there were no other human beings in the shaft except Mr. Dunn and myself. I’ll admit I haven’t been this frightened since Shiloh. Mr. Dunn agreed that it wasn’t the wind we heard. Perhaps Nash and Brinkman.... I wonder?”
A month after Travers’ investigation, on October 17, the worst disaster to occur in the tunnel’s history took place. A gas explosion blew apart the water pumping station on the surface and 13 miners were killed when debris filled the central tunnel where they had been working. A reporter for the North Adams Transcript wrote that a miner named Mallery was lowered in a bucket into the shaft. He was told to look for any sign of survivors. He was brought back to the surface a few minutes later, nearly unconscious from the fumes inside. “No hope....” he managed to gasp out to the rescue team.
Without the pumping station, the 538-foot shaft filled with water. The bodies of some of the dead crew members grotesquely began to surface. More than a year after the disaster, the last of them were found. The missing miners and the macabre discovery of the bodies created stories and legends in the surrounding area.
Glenn Drohan, the correspondent who had first written about the accident for the Transcript wrote: “During the time the miners were missing, villagers told strange tales of vague shapes and muffled wails near the water-filled pit. Workmen claimed to see the lost miners carrying picks and shovels through a shroud of mist and snow on the mountaintop. The ghostly apparitions would appear briefly, then vanish, leaving no footprints in the snow, giving no answer to the miner’s calls.”
As soon as the last of the bodies were found and given a decent burial though, Drohan stated, the bizarre visitations ceased. These dead men had apparently found rest but some of the victims of the “Bloody Pit” had not. Even after the apparitions stopped appearing, the eerie moanings in the tunnel continued and the men remained terrified.
Based on the account of a Dr. Clifford J. Owen, the haunting also began to take on other characteristics as well. Owens came to the tunnel on a night in June 1872 and was accompanied by James R. McKinstrey, a drilling operations superintendent. There is no information to suggest why the two men came to the tunnel on the last night of June 25, but one might guess that it was in search of the ghosts who allegedly haunted the shaft. If this was the purpose of their trip, then the journey was apparently a successful one!
The two men traveled about two miles into the tunnel and then halted to rest. There was no light in the shaft, save for their dim lamps, and Owens later described the tunnel as being “as cold and as dark as a tomb.” The two of them stood there talking for a few minutes and then they heard a strange and mournful sound. It sounded to Owens like someone in great pain.
He then goes on to write: “The next thing I saw was a dim light coming along the tunnel in a westerly direction. At first, I believed that 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 in shape into the form of a human being with no head.”
The light moved closer to the two men and was so close that they could almost touch it. It remained motionless, as though watching them, then hovered off toward the east end of the tunnel and vanished. Owens and McKinstrey were understandably stunned and Owens later wrote that while he was “above all a realist” and that he was not “prone to repeating gossip and wild tales that defy a reasonable explanation” he was unable to “deny what James McKinstrey and I witnessed with our own eyes.”
Strangeness continued at the Hoosac Tunnel both shortly before and after it opened to admit trains to pass through it. On October 16, 1874 a local hunter named Frank Webster vanished near Hoosac Mountain. Three days later, he was found by a search party, stumbling along the banks of the Deerfield River. He was in a state of shock, mumbling incoherently and falling down. He explained to his rescuers that strange voices had ordered him into the Hoosac Tunnel and once he was inside, he saw ghostly figures wandering around. He also said that invisible hands had snatched his hunting rifle away from him and that he had been beaten with it. He couldn’t remember leaving the tunnel. Members of the search party recalled that Webster did not have his rifle when he was found and the cuts and abrasions on his head and body did seem to bear evidence of a beating.
Later that same year, with the tunnel headings completed, workmen removed rocks from the tunnel and began grading the line and laying track. On February 9, 1875, the first train went through the tunnel, pulling three flatcars and a boxcar. A group of 125 people had come along for the ride. According to the news stories about the event, North Adams had just become the “Western Gateway” to the rest of New England. But this was not enough to stop the strange stories from being told.
In the fall of 1875, a fire tender on the Boston & Maine rail line named Harlan Mulvaney was taking a wagon load of wood into the tunnel. He had gone just a short distance into the shaft when he suddenly turned his team around, whipped the horses and drove them madly out of the tunnel. A few days later, workers found the team and the wagon in the forest about three miles away from the tunnel. Harlan Mulvaney was never seen or heard from again!
The stories continued for years, creating believers from those who worked there, passed through or spent much time about the tunnel. One former railroad employee, Joseph Impoco, worked the Boston & Maine for years. He firmly believed that the tunnel was haunted but he was not afraid of the place. In fact, he credited the resident ghosts with saving his life on two separate occasions. On one afternoon, he was shipping away ice from the tracks when he heard a distinct voice telling him to “run, Joe, run!”
He looked back and saw a train bearing down on him! “Sure enough, there was No. 60 coming at me. Boy, did I jump back fast!” He looked around for whoever had called out his name, but there was no one else nearby. Later, he would recall that he had distinctly heard the voice before the train had appeared. He also added that he had seen a man pass by, waving and swinging a torch, but he hadn’t paid attention to anything but the shout. The voice, wherever it had come from, had saved his life.
Six weeks after the incident, Impoco was again working on the tracks. This time, he was using a heavy iron crow bar to free some fright cars that had been frozen on the tracks. He was prying at one of the steel wheels when he heard the loud, familiar voice again call out to him. “Joe! Joe! Drop it, Joe!” the voice called frantically. Impoco immediately released the bar and it was instantly jolted and thrown against the tunnel wall by more than 11,000 volts of electricity! The charge came from a short-circuited overhead power line. The unseen friend has saved Joe’s life again.
A short time later, Impoco left his job and began working out of the area. Every year though, he would return to the Hoosac Tunnel and pay a sort of “homage” to the ghost who saved his life. He was certain that if he failed to do this one year, some tragedy would befall him. In 1977, Impoco’s wife was ill and rather than go to visit the tunnel, he stayed home with her. In October of that year, she died. Joe believed that her death was connected to his failure to journey to the Hoosac Tunnel.
Throughout the 1970’s and the 1980’s, the tunnel began to be investigated by ghost hunters and paranormal groups who had heard of the long history of hauntings. In 1976, a researcher from Agawam, Massachusetts claimed to come face-to-face with one of the local denizens. He described the figure of a man in old-fashioned work clothing, backlit against a brilliant white light. Could it have been the same ghost seen by Owens and McKinstrey in 1872?
A professor and part-time ghost hunter named Ali Allmaker had what she felt was a close encounter in the tunnel. She wrote that she was accompanied to the tunnel by a railroad official in 1984 and while there, had the uncomfortable sensation of someone standing close to her. She also stated that several students from North Adams State College visited the tunnel one night and left a tape recorder running in the shaft. They left it there and when they returned and listened to the tape, they heard what seemed to be muffled human voices on the tape.
The stories about the “Bloody Pit” still continue to be told today. Locals in the area still claim that strange winds, ghostly apparitions and eerie voices are experienced around and in the daunting tunnel. Visitors who journey to this site today however risk becoming one of the resident ghosts themselves. The Boston & Maine Railroad still runs nearly a dozen freight trains through the tunnel each day, making this a trip that is definitely on the dangerous side! If you’re interested in the historical aspects of the tunnel though, you can visit a museum that is dedicated to the site in the Western Gateway Heritage State Park.
But if you are interested in the ghosts, I recommend that you tread lightly here. The spirits of the past are still reported to linger and dark shadows press tightly on every side. Perhaps the Mohawk Indians were right. They named this place Hoosac Mountain, which in their language means “forbidden”. Did they know something about this place that the builders of the tunnel did not?