A STORY A BUTTON COULD TELL
by Jerry Kelley
A friend of mine that is into metal detecting had mentioned to me that he was looking for places with old building foundations to search. I got to thinking that I knew of such a place, a place with a lot of history that might yield good results for this underground terra-searcher. I promised my friend that I would take him out to an area that I have explored extensively. A place with so many stories, that it defies haste . That place is the Hoosac Tunnel in Western Massachusetts.We made our plans and on a warm sunny day in early spring we headed out to the Tunnel. We arrived at the Eastern Portal in Florida Massachusetts, in the early morning with just the right amount of light to start our “prospecting”. I explained that 145 years ago this area was bustling with activity. An area that included a company store, a tavern, dormitories and a lot of modest housing for the tunnel workers as well as one of the largest public works projects in the 19th century. We hiked up the hill to the site of the company housing that was over a century old and got to work. After an hour or so my friend had located a few items of interest. A rusty file, a broken pick, a few pieces of metal and what looked to be, a button. At first, this button did not seem all that important. I thought that it was a fastener to join a piece of clothing together but some simple research would soon prove me wrong. A few days later and after a good cleaning, I started to get a better look at this valuable piece of history. What looked to be a button with a crest on it soon turned into an interesting lesson in American history. As we cleaned a centuries worth of tarnish off this old fastener we soon discovered the manufactures name on the back of the button, ** Evans of North Attleborough Mass. The crest on the front soon revealed that it was the old state seal of the State of New York, the same crest that was used by the New York State Militia during the Civil War. At this point I can only speculate on the history of this button. I believe that this button was from the coat of a Civil War veteran that was probably the best piece of over clothing that he ever possessed. The old crest of the New York Militia fits into the timeline with tunnel construction. I would wager that he probably lived in one of the houses that the button was found close to. I can state that tunnel workers worked in what would be today described as deplorable conditions. That is to say, long hours in knee deep tunnel water, lifting heavy rocks out of the mud of the newly blasted abyss. Although they worked in eight hour shifts, they often ate while they worked braving blasting explosions as well as floods and other problems. There is no way to tell what became of this man with the lost button, one can only wonder.
If only a button COULD tell its story !
Hoosac Lining Tower Adventure
by Jerry Kelley
A few years ago I started to do research for a website on the Hoosac Tunnel in Western Massachusetts. I had seen a photo of an old building used to survey a straight line for the construction of the Tunnel that was still intact. The Tunnel was built in a perfect straight line, so I knew that this small rock lining tower had to be somewhere on the tunnel centerline. I assembled my maps and got to work. I knew that there were six lining tower survey locations and that they would be on a straight line with the Tunnel but just where these towers located, would there be anything remaining at these locations? I surmised that each tower would have to be within sight of the next to be useful for surveying the line over Hoosac Mountain. After careful research, I felt that I had figured out where the locations could be found, so I set up an ambitious schedule to find them. Hiking to most of these locations is bush whacking at best. That is to say, hiking without trails, with map and compass and a new fangled GPS unit. I called my close friend and fellow adventurer Fred and explained my plan for a hike. It was late winter and there was still considerable snow on the ground but I was “on a mission”. Fred was interested and the next weekend looked good as it seemed like the weather would co-operate. The weather was warm for late winter with crystal clear blue skies as we made our assent up the side of Spruce Hill. The hike so far went well and we made all the necessary rest stops for two “retired adventurers” in their late 40’s and early 50’s. It took a couple of hours to reach the summit of Spruce Hill and we were rewarded with a fantastic view of the Hoosic River Valley and the North Adams area. At this point I was already in my T shirt with steam rising off my back! We took in the scenery for a few moments and after cooling off, we proceeded to head north along the ridge line towards the area that I thought would be the location for the western lining tower. After twenty minutes or so of level hiking on the hard pack snow we arrived at the location but where was the tower? We searched for over an hour with no luck. Had I made a mistake with my map location? At this point I was starting to question my research. I asked Fred to look in one direction while I looked in the other. We were expecting a ten foot square rock building. We met back up ten minutes later but with no results. With winters light a modest commodity we decided to head back down to where we had parked. I explained to my fellow adventurer that we could save some time by not hiking back up the way we came but to follow the lower ridge line and we should come out on the trail the way that we came up the hill. By this time the suns rays had softened the snow to a point where we started to sink in. The six inches of snow that we found on the assent turned into two feet on the way down. We headed down a few steep slopes, sliding like otters over the snowy terrain. The tall spruce trees waved in the wind emptying their needles of the winter’s last snow. I got to thinking… I asked Fred if he was OK with leaving our trail up on the mountain for a “shortcut” through an unknown forest? He quickly replied, “We have been on many an adventure, through many places and we have always found our way home”! Fred’s optimism was reassuring but I have to admit that I felt better when we finally came upon our original trail that we had taken up the hill, especially with the day’s fading light. After finally reaching the car we both agreed that although we had failed in our mission to find the tower, we had a most enjoyable day and a fantastic hike through the woods! A couple of months later I decided to head back out after the thaw and have another look around for the elusive tower. So, on a clear spring day, I headed back up the hill and over the Hoosac ridge to have another gander. I made my way to the location and in the same area that we had so trampled the snow pack earlier was the lowest level of tower foundation. The remaining tower stones were piled up eighteen inches high! The snow had covered what was left of the tower for the winter. Some time in the 1940’s or so the railroad ran a power line exactly on the tunnel centerline right of way. In fact, there is a power pole set right in the middle of the lining tower foundation. Sadly, I think that it was at this time that the tower building was destroyed.
My Last Day in the Pit
by Jerry Kelley
(The following story chronicles the last day of an Irish miner helping to dig a vertical shaft into Hoosac Mountain.)
The construction of a four and three quarter mile railroad tunnel in Western Massachusetts known as the Hoosac Tunnel required more that twenty four years of extremely hard and dangerous labor for it’s completion. It was decided that a twenty seven by fifteen foot central shaft would be sunk 1028 foot to grade to help speed up construction by providing two more work faces to dig from. So it was sometime in 1863 that construction on the “Bloody Pit” began. “Hello, my name is Shamus O’Brien and I consider myself quite fortunate to have a job working on the Tunnel. It has only been six months since I left the old country and found a job in America. This is a grand country, with great people with unlimited vision. There seems to be no bounds to the great projects, in this, my new home. I am a “drill man”, that means that me and my buddies drill holes in the solid rock for the explosive charges to be placed. We then go up the shaft and then “BOOM”. Our progress is measured in a few inches a day and the work is hard but the pay is better than anything I can get elsewhere. The day is October 17th, 1867 and me and my gang start the shift. We travel down the 583 foot shaft in an iron bucket suspended by a hemp rope. We all say a prayer. Our job is to fill the bucket with the newly blasted rock, the spoil from the last drilling effort. We descend into the blackness, down, down, down. Finally we touch the bottom and start our work. All is well, the candles on our hats provide the illumination for our labor. The light is poor but you get use to it and after a while one can see quite well. After a couple of bucket lifts up, we hear a tremendous explosion from above. A flash of light fills the pit and then all Hell breaks loose! First the sparks from the fire above, followed by chunks of flaming wood and then large beams topple into the shaft! Then the unthinkable happens. Hundreds of newly sharpened steel drill bits follow the raining debris down to the bottom! Me partner Joe is impaled by a drill bit from head to toe. He slowly turns towards me and falls into the mud, dead. The screams overcome the roar of the raining debris and seconds turned into an eternity. I got hit by something, I don’t know by what but I do know that not all of the crew is dead. Smoke fills the bottom of our newly created hell hole. I feel a sharp pain in my shoulder. I reach across my chest and find a large piece of steel protruding from my arm! I don’t know who is still alive, the smoke, falling ashes and debris along with the rising ground water make for a nightmare from Hell. The water quickly rises to the point where the few men left try to make a small raft from the charred timbers. A few cling on…. The water flows in upon us. There is little hope. The air grows thinner, thinner, thinner… “ It was on this day that thirteen miners lost their lives to a naphtha explosion in the Central Shaft hoist house. Although an heroic man named Mallory attempted to make rescue of the trapped miners, he hardly survived the rescue effort himself. When he was pulled up from the shaft he proclaimed, “No hope, no hope.” The shaft quickly filled with ground water. A few bodies later surfaced but it took almost a year to pump the shaft down and recover the remaining bodies.