4.5.09

Tunnel of the Week: Hoosac Tunnel


[This is content recycled from my now mothballed website, www.excitablemedia.com. Please enjoy!]

Far underneath the Appalachian backwoods of Northwest Massachusetts lies the fourth longest tunnel in the United States, twenty-five thousand eighty-one feet long, which I'm not sure but isn't that about how many feet are in a mile? An absurd amount of money and human life was spent creating this tunnel, wa-a-ay back in eighteen-hundred and fifty-something, and the canny political observer might be reminded of the Boston/Bechtel Big Dig currently nearing its final stages in metropolitan Beantown. As far as tunnels go, this one's a doozie, even by today's exaggurated standards, and it bears on its long dark shoulders the pride of the people of North Adams, their chests puff as they tell tunnelly ghost stories and hawk tunnel T's, catering to the ever-dwindling tunnel tourism trade.

[Descending the central shaft.]

In all probability, here's what will happen. You'll walk down under the Route 8 overpass after finding ample parking, and proceeding slowly with eyes filled with wonder down a short cobblestone street flanked with historical societies and pottery shops, looking like something out of a movie set, an old western to be precise, the old short street incongrous amongst the surrounding rundown mill housing and overgrown moutainside, to find a long one-story train station building marked Western Gateway Heritage State Park, and a little wooden sign directing you to the entrance, all uniformly dark gray, hard to make out amid the matching wood siding. You'll enter the foyer filled with local tourism brochures and turn to the right, to be greeted by a little well-tanned man, wearing a government issue polo open at the collar as much as possible, gold chain flickering in the track lighting overhead. The museum will look brand new, a prime example of modern museum display practice, similar to the Mill City museum in Minneapolis, all multi-layered particleboard printing and diorama style display, difficult to tell what's actually old and what's made to look old, even to the discerning eye. The Keeper of the museum is eager, eyes twinkling, making you think of the laser light show at the public observatory, almost begging you to ask him about the tunnel's storied past, which you inevitably do, as lonely as it is inside -- you're the only ones there, as far as you can see. He'll talk of tourists from abroad, following trails of tales of ghost stories, lost miner's revenge, the peril of untested nitroglycerine, the tribulation of politics and powerbroking, the way the tunnel broke the idealistic young spirit of one of the Civil War's most brilliant structural engineers, leading him to retreat to his native Tennessee, evermore cursing the name Hoosac, begrudging the Commonwealth of Massachussetts to his last.



[Advertising.]

And then there's the movie. After much promising, much hoopla, after no less than an 'out to lunch' delay whereby the Keeper of tunnel history decreed a half hour recess, recommending the foodhouse next door . . . we opted instead for the Eagle Street hot dog stand, local home to competitive eating, barstools, and chocolate milk from one of those big beautiful stainless steel milk dispensers. The movie room was a gazebo set up in the middle of the museum, and we watched the roughly half-hour piece from the second row of the neatly arranged black chairs, all other seats empty. The opening credits superimpose themselves over a tunnel, neither light nor end visible, just a few rail ties in front of the camera and folksy music piped over the sound of a train. A voice begins to speak, aged, gravelly, filled with portent: "There was only one thing that stood between bustling Boston and the limitless west . . . a great mountain . . . Hoosac." Pause for effect. Let the weight sink in, before we cut to white-bearded Fritz Wetherby, host of the show. Fritz is the tie that binds, leaping in and out of the frame, one second he's alongside the tunnel entrance, then he leaps out stage left, cut, Fritz leaps in stage right, one fell swoop, appearing amidst the beech-laden Berkshire forest saying "come with me into the tunnel," a white rope tied round his ample girth, white contrasting nicely with his red suspenders as he swings away from the rocks, somewhat precariously (will he fall?), and descends into the central tunneling shaft.

[For a spell, the tunnel was double tracked.]

O! the things that I learned. I won't bore you with a litany of detail, just a few salients. Know that after the film, I walked down through the tunnel tunnel, an educational recreation of tunnel conditions with button-activated voice actors reading excerpts from the heated political debate surrounding Hoosac, what became known to its detractors as The Great Bore. The canal tunnel was first proposed in 1819 by a small cadre of northern Massachusetts businessmen, jealous at all the rail traffic being detoured into the southern half of the state. They had a vision, a rail line that would connect Boston to the limitless west, a rail line that would speed towards the Erie Canal, that great feat of engineering, a double tracked link to manifest destinations: Great Lakes, Great Plains, Grand Canyons. The rail line would transform northern Massachusetts into an industrial utopia, invigoriating towns from Greenfield to Pittsfield, a boon to reckon with. The idea took a great while to ferment, lobbyists did their dismal duty, but eventually, by the mid-19th century, 1851 to be precise, the Hoosac alliance within the Massachusetts commonwealth legislature had enough clout to apportion some tax monies to the construction of the great tunnel, what would have been, had it been immediately built, the largest, longest, darkest tunnel in the whole wide world.

Needless to say, by the time they finished tunneling Hoosac, the Erie Canal was past its zenith, and was nosing down into the long decline toward history. North Adams maintained its station just outside the socio-political radar of the powers-that-be, at least until they converted an old factory into the fourth largest modern art museum in the world. Once again money was pissed away and lives were lost, all for some poor sap's vainglorious dream. But that, friend, is a yarn for another day.


[One ticket to the future.]

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