This fall my husband and I had a wonderful train trip through the town of Schaghticoke. Every year Amtrak runs a fall excursion train one weekend. Train buffs from all over the country ride. This year the trip was from Albany to East Deerfield, Massachusetts…..with the centerpiece of the 10 hour day a journey through the 4.75 mile long Hoosac Tunnel. This was the first time a passenger train had been through the tunnel in at least thirty years. Yes, that was great, but for me as town historian, a trip by train through my town was the high point- twice, actually, as we retraced our journey on the way back.
We boarded in Albany with about 450 other folks early in the a.m., headed for Schenectady on the regular passenger rail. There we diverted to the north, on a freight line, through Saratoga County to Mechanicville, going through the new Intermodal Yard, crossing the Hudson River on the very high bridge to the north of where Route 67 crosses the river. Then we entered Schaghticoke, headed slowly south, crossing route 67 just to the west of Hemstreet Park on the grade crossing, then making a big swing to the east through the woods, crossing under route 40 just south of the village of Schaghticoke. We crossed Electric Lake and headed for Johnsonville, paralleling Route 67 and the Hoosic River. After passing through Pownall, Vermont, we skirted the north edge of North Adams, Massachusetts. The Hoosac Tunnel passes under a mountain of the same name, and we emerged near East Deerfield, Massachusetts, following the Deerfield River through the woods. There is a big railroad yard there, where we could do a three-point turn on the tracks and head back the same way.
For me the highlights in Schaghticoke were first, crossing the Hudson River on that c. 1900 bridge, and second, following the former right-of-way of the short-lived Albany-Northern Railroad, just to the west of route 40. In 1859 the railroad’s bridge over the Tomhannock collapsed under the weight of a train, killing about a dozen people and really ending that railroad company. Last, it was great to see the views of the Brock Farm, the village of Schaghticoke, and the sites of the old Schaghticoke Powder Mill from the middle of Electric Lake. The most surprising part of the trip was that at least twenty cars full of people followed our train by road, both going and coming, taking photos of the train at every road crossing.
Of course the trip through the Hoosac Tunnel was exciting, and very, very dark. It took about twelve minutes to go through. Let’s look back at the construction of this engineering marvel. Ground was broken in 1848, with the route beneath Hoosac Mountain to form part of the railroad from Troy to Boston. There really wasn’t technology invented to be able to dig a five-mile tunnel under a mountain, so the project went very slowly for many, many years. The original railroad, the Troy and Greenfield, finally defaulted in 1862, as the Civil War raged. Post-war, new drilling and explosive technology- this was the first commercial use of nitroglycerin- made it possible to finally complete the tunnel. A violent explosion in 1867 killed thirteen workers and resulted in no work for a year, but finally the tunnel was completed and the first train went through in 1875. It was the second longest tunnel in the world. It is still the longest active tunnel east of the Rocky Mountains.
By the 1880’s 85-90 trains passed through the tunnel each day. It had been widened to allow double tracks throughout. It was still a dangerous journey as the tunnel was filled with smoke from the steam trains and the air got so bad by the end of five miles that the trains didn’t work well and the operators had to lie on the floor of the cab to get enough air to breathe. The route was electrified, but that never worked well, even as the traffic increased to 70,000 cars per month by 1913, and only the arrival of diesel engines about 1945 resulted in more comfortable and safe passage through the tunnel. Passenger traffic ceased in 1958…until our trip in fall 2015.
I have talked to several people who have walked through the tunnel- they don’t recommend the journey, as it was very dark and dangerous. There are quite a few illustrated accounts online of walks through the tunnel, and lots more information on its construction. If you would like to see at least the portals of the tunnel, it is possible to drive close to the eastern portal, near North Adams, Massachusetts, then walk to look at it. As for viewing the railroad in Schaghticoke, I think that if one is careful, one could walk all along the route, with the exceptions of the causeway over Electric Lake, and of course the bridge across the Hudson River!