The Long Agony of the Great Bore
It took a quarter of a century, nearly two hundred lives, and a wealth of innovative ideas to dig the four-and-a-half-mile Hoosac Tunnel through a Massachusetts mountain
Most great monuments of nineteenth-century American engineering, such as the Brooklyn Bridge, dominate the surrounding landscape. By contrast, the Hoosac Tunnel, dug through a mountain in western Massachusetts, is inconspicuous, as tunnels naturally are. Yet it stands in the front rank of the projects of its age by whatever standards of measurement one chooses. On the one hand, its construction, which began in 1851 and ended in 1875, took almost two hundred lives, damaged many reputations, and nearly claimed the solvency of the commonwealth of Massachusetts. On the other hand, the tunnel, besides providing the transportation route for which it was intended, proved to be a remarkable stimulus to inventors. Many innovations of lasting value appeared as the tunnel and the technology needed to complete it brought each other slowly and painfully into existence over a period of a quarter century.
In the early nineteenth century, as the nation expanded westward, Massachusetts began to feel a need for connections with the growing hinterland. Hoosac Mountain, a ridge in the northwest of the state, was found to lie athwart an otherwise convenient route from Boston, on the seacoast, to Troy, New York, on the Hudson River. Passes through the formidable barriers of the Taconics were cut by the Deerfield and Hoosic rivers, with the latter flowing into the Hudson, but between the two streams lay the unavoidable bulk of Hoosac Mountain, rising sharply more than a thousand feet above their level.
In 1825 the Erie Canal was completed, and it immediately began to channel much of the trade of the expanding West across New York State to Albany and from there down the Hudson to New York City. In the same year an ambitious proposal was laid before the legislature of Massachusetts. It suggested that a canal be dug from Boston westward to the Hudson, to siphon off enough of the Erie’s trade to keep New England commercially healthy. The legislature appointed a commission, headed by the engineer Loammi Baldwin, to survey possible routes. It reported in favor of the Hoosac route through the northern part of the state. Rather than have the canal conducted over the mountain with an interminable set of locks—220 would be needed, by Baldwin’s count—the commissioners recommended that the state bore a tunnel, nearly five miles long and complete with towpath, to allow the passage of canalboats. The expense and labor anticipated, however, were enough to make the legislators hesitate, and as they did, the brief era of canal fever in New England gave way to railroad mania.
Boston was directly connected with Albany by the Western Railroad in 1842. It took a southerly route across the state, passing through Worcester, Springfield, and Pittsfield before swinging north to Albany. This line, however, had no convenient path through the mountains of western Massachusetts; it required steep grades and considerable maintenance. Save for the Hoosac barrier, the northern route remained a shorter and more attractive one than the Western’s. In addition, a sense of grievance possessed the northern towns left off the Western route. Led by Alvah Crocker, a wealthy Fitchburg businessman, they began to agitate for a railroad—and a tunnel.
Fitchburg and the other northern Massachusetts towns had experienced what can best be called a tunnel vision. “Their case,” wrote one historian, “could hardly be reduced to logic. It was hot with imagination, and in the ensuing haze, beyond the summits of the Berkshires, shimmered the mirage of an immense western commerce.” Yet the overblown hopes rested on a firm foundation. The railroad age was young, but it had already become clear that regions or towns served by major lines flourished at the expense of less favored communities. Nowhere in the state was the proposed tunnel less popular than in Springfield, Worcester, and the other centers located along the line of the Western. Unable in the end to halt the project, they did all they could to limit state assistance.
That assistance, at the start, was not great. The appropriate charters were issued, and a state loan of two million dollars was authorized, to be released in installments as the railroad and tunnel progressed. The remaining funds were to be raised by subscription. The promoters ceremoniously broke ground for the tunnel in 1851. Hopes ran high for a speedy completion. Much of the confidence rested on an enormous, steam-driven drilling machine—”a ponderous wonder” to Scientific American —constructed for the purpose at the eastern foot of Hoosac Mountain. A reporter watched the assembly of its seventy-five tons of cast-iron parts; “nearly every piece,” he observed, “required a derrick and pulleys to get it into place.” The machine’s central drilling shaft was to be turned by a wheel, driven by “engines of one hundred horse power and for which a building was being erected.” It was designed “to cut a groove around the circumference of the tunnel thirteen inches wide and twenty-four feet in diameter"; explosives would then loosen the remaining core of rock.
The engineers found that the rock was more durable than any known machine.
The end of innocence for the project came late in 1852. The vaunted machine broke down completely a mere ten feet into the rock. All attempts to revive it failed. It was left out to rust, and the remnants subsequently were sold for scrap. The chastened engineers were reduced to slow and primitive methods; tunneling through the rock with pick and hammer and hand-drilling blastholes for charges of black powder. The explosives released “noxious gases,” fouling the air in the tunnel as work inched deeper into Hoosac Mountain. Other problems appeared. Edward Hitchcock, a famous geologist and the president of Amherst College, had assured the builders that the excavation would be free of water seepage, but in fact, drainage became an almost constant problem. A later visitor would record: “There is ceaseless dripping on our heads, and we walk literally through puddles.” The rock on the east had been hard enough to break the drilling machine, but that on the west proved too soft to manage. It caved in readily, and much time and expense had to be put into building brick archways to hold up the tunnel roof.
In 1856 the promoters sought out Herman Haupt, a Pennsylvanian known as one of the foremost American engineers of the day. Much to his subsequent regret Haupt agreed to take charge of the stalled project. To replace the hand drilling, he had a new, large machine built for twenty-five thousand dollars. Unlike its predecessor, it was to bore only a wide blasthole, not the circular profile of the tunnel. A pair of such machines, Haupt thought, would complete the entire tunnel in a little more than a year. In fact, the one that was built outdid its precursor by failing to advance a single foot into the mountain before breaking down. The engineers had not yet learned what one observer called the “fundamental principal” behind their troubles: that the rock was more durable than any machine.
All mechanical difficulties paled before those of finance. Unable to raise enough money elsewhere, the builders started to rely on aid from the state. In 1862, Massachusetts, disappointed at the slow rate of construction, cut off its support altogether, and Haupt resigned to accept a commission as chief of construction and transportation on the Union’s military railroads. Less than a mile of the tunnel had been completed; four miles remained to be bored.
Haupt’s departure precipitated something of a crisis. With work progressing slowly and the estimated cost for the remainder rising, many Bay Staters thought it time to abandon the project. They found an able spokesman in F. W. Bird, a wealthy paper manufacturer. The state, however, chose to take over the tunnel and go further into debt by completing it rather than let the money already spent seem to have been wasted. That this decision was likely to prove costly was apparent to many people. Three commissioners were appointed to oversee the work, and over the next five years they struggled to enlarge the tunnel while Bird assailed them in pamphlet after pamphlet: The Road to Ruin, The Hoosac Tunnel: Our Financial Maelstrom, and one whose punning title gave the Hoosac its most enduring epithet, The Last Agony of the Great Bore.
As excavation continued on the eastern and western sides, work was begun on a central shaft, to run from the summit of the ridge straight down a thousand feet to the level of the tunnel. The shaft, when complete, was to speed up construction by providing a new surface for drilling. When trains began to run through the tunnel, it was to provide ventilation. In the end it did so, but the drilling of this shaft produced the worst single accident in the tunnel’s construction. By October 1867 the shaft had been bored more than halfway down. Some new subcontractors attempted to light the pit with naphtha. On the first full day of this experiment, a candle ignited the reservoir of naphtha, and the wooden framework in the shaft went up in flames. The thirteen miners working at the bottom died.
Three weeks after the disaster a newspaper correspondent visited Hoosac Mountain. The central shaft, still closed, was rapidly filling up with water. A full year would pass before it was pumped dry and the bodies of the workmen recovered. Drilling downward resumed. From the east and west, though, work was progressing at a better than usual pace. The inside of the tunnel presented a picturesque scene, according to one reporter: “In the depths of the earth, far down the opening, glitter innumerable candles. Heavy-laden carts of stone come rolling out of the dark defile…. On each side are workmen swinging huge mallets of stone, chipping away at the rock perseveringly to widen the results of the blasting… . The dark rock is relieved by narrow veins of quartz, and the effect is very fine.”
Less enthusiastic was an account of a later visitor to the workings. The Reverend Washington Gladden entered through the east portal. “The fitful glare of the lamps upon the walls of the dripping cavern—the frightful noises that echo from the low roof, and the ghoullike voices of the miners coming out of the gloom ahead, are not what would be called enlivening,” he reported. Gladden and his companions ventured into the uncompleted portion. “The roof of the tunnel for the rest of the journey is very low, and the scenery does not on the whole improve as we go forward. Through the smoke before us spectral lights are seen flitting about, and a frightful din in the region of the lights grows louder as we approach.”
Although Gladden found this noise unpleasant, it was music to the ears of the builders. It came from the Burleigh rock drill, one of the chief innovations produced in the course of the project. The dismaying choice between enormous and unreliable drilling machines, on the one hand, and slow, ineffectual hand drilling, on the other, had stimulated a search for something better. In 1866 a Fitchburg mechanic, Charles Burleigh, improved on earlier designs to produce a compressed-air drill that was small, light, and relatively durable. The metal drill, attached to a piston, was driven rapidly back and forth at 250 strokes a minute by the admission and release of compressed air in a cylinder. Air was compressed for the drills by waterpower at a plant on the Deerfield River. The Burleigh, as it came to be known, has been called the “first practical mechanical rock drill in America.” Thomas Doane, chief engineer of the tunnel, devised a rail carriage on which several of the drills were mounted and operated simultaneously against the rock face. The escape of compressed air from the drill had the unexpected advantage of providing ventilation.
When the two paths finally met, they differed by a mere inch and a half.
Even with such improvements, drilling alone was not enough to make significant progress; it was only an adjunct to blasting. Along with several other new explosives, nitroglycerin was first tried on the tunnel in the summer of 1866, but it was not immediately adopted. Eventually, however, considerations of safety took a backseat to the need for faster excavation. George Mowbray had worked in the original Pennsylvania petroleum fields as a chemist before setting up an independent business. His advertisements offering nitroglycerin for industrial use caught the eye of the commissioners, who persuaded Mowbray to come and help them finish the tunnel. He arrived in 1868 and set up a factory in North Adams, near the western portal. The new explosive soon demonstrated a tremendous effectiveness in clearing rock. Inevitably there were many fatal accidents as well, though it was found that freezing the nitroglycerin made it safer to handle.
In an expansive mood, Loammi Baldwin, of the canal commission, once observed that the northern route had been clearly marked out for traffic by the “finger of Providence"; it was too bad, a skeptic had retorted, that that finger had not been thrust through Hoosac Mountain. The oversight, which had seemed relatively minor to the early tunnel advocates, was becoming less and less understandable. Between 1863 and 1868 the commission spent more than three million dollars—an enormous sum for the time and especially disturbing for a state that had always prided itself on its fiscal sobriety—without completing half the tunnel. Again there were calls for the project to be abandoned, but the towns along the northern route would not stand for it. Instead, in 1868 two Canadian railroad contractors, Walter and Francis Shanly, were hired to complete the tunnel, at an added cost of close to five million dollars.
While Bird and others continued to attack the profligacy of the legislature in financing the Great Bore, Scientific American, the voice of the nation’s inventive and engineering community, scolded Massachusetts for its stinginess. It observed editorially that the Mont Cenis Tunnel, then being dug between France and Italy, had been “liberally supplied with money,” yet the unfortunate engineers of the Hoosac “had to depend upon the caprices of the Legislature of one little State.”
The nearly eight miles of the Mont Cenis bore were completed in 1871 by methods very similar to those used in Massachusetts. The nearly five-mile span of the Hoosac would take several more years to finish, but from the time the Shanlys took over the project, recrimination and debate, at least over the technical aspects of the tunnel, largely ceased. To be sure, the new engineers reaped the benefits of many arduous years of necessity mothering invention, but they went about their work with a spirit of care and thoroughness that previously had been missing from the enterprise. Late in November 1873 the workers tunneling from east and west met beneath the mountain. The alignment of the two paths had been a constant worry. A relatively small error could have made the shafts miss each other completely. At the beginning of construction, surveys had been run to establish a straight line across the top of the mountain, and the paths of the excavation were constantly checked against it. The surveyors aiming the central shaft downward to its point of intersection had had to take particular pains to keep their excavation perfectly vertical, to the point of correcting their plumb bob readings for the gravitational pull of the mountain rock. In the end the two paths turned out to differ in alignment by an inch and a half in the horizontal plane and a mere nine-sixteenths of an inch in the vertical—a remarkable tribute to the skill of the engineers.
More time had to be spent in widening the tunnel for traffic. The first cars passed through it early in 1875; the first passenger train, later that year. A final celebration was held in the national centennial month of July 1876.
The best estimate is that Massachusetts paid out seventeen million dollars more for the Hoosac Tunnel than it ever received back. What it did get in return was the faster transportation route it had wanted to the West, though the commerce that resulted could never have lived up to expectations. Fitchburg and the other protunnel towns got their railroad but never managed to displace the cities to the south from their primacy. The Shanlys, their work completed, made the rounds of the legislative committees, seeking (unsuccessfully) full reimbursement for the money they had put into the project. Accidents, at a much reduced rate, continued to occur: in 1880, the 199th worker was killed in an explosion; three months later the tunnel was temporarily blocked by the collapse of some timbers in the central shaft. The inventors fared better. George Mowbray stayed in North Adams and built up a flourishing business; he supplied the nitroglycerin needed for the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The Burleigh rock drill was quickly taken up for use in other mining and tunneling enterprises. The tunnel itself, visible only as two small holes in the side of the mountain, has remained in use; recently a park was created at the site to preserve the memory of its long and difficult creation.
William B. Meyer is a graduate student at the Clark University School of Geography, in Massachusetts.