Exploring America’s Most Cursed and Haunted Tunnels
What is it about tunnels that make them such spooky places? Is it the dark, gloomy, often claustrophobic confines of their cold walls? Is it their entrances, where roads or tracks lead off from the light only to peter out and fade away into the gloom ahead, almost as if being erased from existence? Or is it their almost universally potent symbolic nature as portals from one place to another, just as doors are? Is there some subconscious influence on us due to this deeply ingrained archetype as portals and passages through darkness and space between two points which would normally be completely isolated from each other? Perhaps due to a combination of all of these these factors, tunnels have long drawn to them stories of the supernatural and the bizarre, and indeed they represent some of the most allegedly haunted or cursed places there are. Here we will take a tour through these desolate, dark passages, and explore some of the spookiest tunnels to be found in the United States. Let us delve into these dank, dark realms and the tales of the paranormal they have accrued over the years.
We start our tour in Massachusetts, at the foot of the Berkshire Mountains, where what was once the longest tunnel in North America snakes off into the gloom. In the early 1800s, the mountains here were troublesome for those who wanted to move goods and raw materials from Boston to the outlying western areas of the state, so in 1819 it was proposed that a tunnel canal be built directly through the solid rock to cut right through to the other side. The sheer dimensions and engineering wizardry that would be required to build the proposed tunnel were mind boggling for the time, and so the idea sat in limbo for many years, merely a neat idea that was deemed to be too massive an undertaking to realistically take on. When the steam locomotive came into vogue, the idea of a rail tunnel through the mountain proved to be too much of a good idea to resist any longer, so in 1851, a prestigious rail company by the name of Troy and Greenfield began the ambitious Hoosac Tunnel project, which had long been put on hold by everyone else.
Construction was slow going and plagued by setbacks. Digging into the sheer rock surface proved to be extremely slow paced, and at one point the tunnel had to be started over again in a different spot after a good portion had already been dug out. It was not until it was decided to put high explosives to use that any real progress was made, but this newfound progress came at a cost. The use of the unstable nitroglycerin explosives within the cramped confines of the ever expanding tunnel was extremely dangerous, and safety precautions were nearly nonexistent, which resulted in the deaths of dozens of workers in the very first few blasts alone. One particularly horrific such accident happened in 1867, when a gas line explosion destroyed a water pumping station, flooded the tunnel, and killed 13 workers. Nevertheless, the project pressed on. The explosions, both intentional and accidental, along with numerous collapses, gas fires, and falling rocks and other debris, would claim around 200 workers’ lives over the 24 years it took to complete the perilous construction project, earning it the local nickname of “The Bloody Pit.”
When the Hoosac Tunnel was finally completed in 1876 at the cost of much time, money, and lives, it was widely renowned as a major feat of engineering, being the longest tunnel in the United States and the second longest in the entire world. However, far from being only a technological marvel, the tunnel had been steadily accruing a reputation as a sinister cursed and haunted place before it had even been finished. When fatal accidents and construction deaths first started occurring in earnest, rumors quickly spread throughout the construction crews that the spirits of the dead lurked out there in the stifling blackness of the tunnel. It was often reported that screams, moans, and whispers could be heard emanating from the darkness, and it got to the point where workers refused to enter the tunnel after dusk. Additionally, various apparitions were often sighted stalking about the tunnel’s entrance or the surrounding wilderness, as well as mysterious lights flitting about amongst the trees. One particularly creepy story during the construction of the Hoosac Tunnel allegedly happened in 1865, when a man by the name of Ringo Kelley and his two crew mates, Brinkman and Nash headed in to go to work. The tale goes that as they were working within the murky confines of the tunnel, Kelley accidentally set off a batch of high explosives too early, causing a rain of solid rock to crush the other two to death under tons of rubble. Not long after this tragic mishap, Kelley would go missing and later be found in the tunnel dead, apparently of strangulation. At the time, construction workers claimed that it was the angry, vengeful spirits of Kelly’s dead workmates who had killed him.
Even after construction was completed, the vicinity of the Hoosac Tunnel has become a hotspot for ghostly activity, with strange lights, spectral entities, and poltergeist activity reported from here. One hunter once even reported having his rifle ripped from his hands by some unseen force, which proceeded to beat him over the head with it. Others have claimed that they become easily confused or lost in the woods near the tunnel, or have experienced passing out or bouts of lost time. It is even rumored that some people have vanished off of the face of the earth in or around Hoosac Tunnel. Interestingly, not all of the alleged spiritual activity here is so malevolent, with some miners during the construction claiming that disembodied voices and whispers had warned them of impending dangers such as explosions or collapses. All of this has made the Hoosac Tunnel a popular placeholder on lists of the most haunted places in Massachusetts.
Staying on the East Coast, we come to Virginia, which holds the honor of having two of what are considered to be the most haunted tunnels in North America. First we have the Big Bull Tunnel, of Wise County, Virginia. This simple, rather unassuming, 1,700 foot long arched tunnel was built in the late 1870s or early 1880s, and was beset by problems from the very start of construction. Even though engineers had thoroughly assessed the terrain where the tunnel was to pass, and found there to be no soft or unstable ground, nevertheless there were numerous inexplicable mud and rockslides from the beginning, one of which completely flooded the project at one point. Although these setbacks perplexed the engineers, they pressed on anyway, and only ran into more problems the further they progressed. It is said that cracks would appear in the walls for no discernible reason, and there were constant collapses which even reinforced retaining walls could not seem to stop. Workers also were routinely pelted with chunks of rock that would fall from above for seemingly no reason, and all in all it almost seemed as if the mountain didn’t want the tunnel to be built. Uncommonly intense rains that barraged the area at the the time also compounded these problems, causing frequent flooding which could not be contained with the water pumps that were installed and which seemed to constantly break down. Two workers also met with freak deaths when one was scalped by local Native people in the vicinity and yet another fell from a supply train. All of these issues quickly created rumors that the land here was cursed.
Big Bull Tunnel ended up taking far longer to complete than had been initially estimated, and even upon its completion the mountain continued its spiteful wrath. In one instance, just after the rail tracks had been finished, a massive portion of the mountain caved in which required a full four months to clear out again. Even when trains began to use the tunnel in full force, freak accidents would rear their heads. There were numerous reports of people being knocked off of trains to be severely injured or killed, often due to sudden falling rocks or debris blocking the tracks. Other accidents were more spectacular. In 1897, a train hit a rock that had been laying across the track, smashing two of its cars together and sending it careening into support pillars, which resulted in a major tunnel collapse. In another major crash in 1900, a freight train and engine collided when they for some reason failed to notice each other. Several of the train crews were seriously injured and two died in the tragic crash. Not only train crew were susceptible to these mysterious deaths. One creepy story is that of a night watchman at the tunnel by the name of E. H. Pierce, who was found dead in the morning with a bullet hole in his head and his throat slashed open. No suspect was ever found in the killing.
This reputation for odd accidents and death no doubt had a big part to play in fueling the stories that Big Bull Tunnel was intensely haunted. Many train crews and local residents reported seeing ghostly apparitions within the tunnel, or hearing unexplainable wailing or screaming in the blackness. This haunted reputation was particularly brought to the public attention in 1905, when a standard tunnel inspection team had a chilling experience. On July 17, 1905, the inspection team stopped the train in the tunnel and a flagman named John Peery went off on foot to perform an inspection. Not long after, it was reported that Peery came running out from the tunnel visibly shaken, and claimed that he had heard sounds within that were from no human or animal and which he had found to be unbearable. Two other team members by the names of Callaway and Kearns went with the terrified man to the place where he claimed he had heard the sounds. After several moments of standing there in the silent gloom, a groaning started to burst forth from beyond a bricked up portion of wall, beyond which there was only solid earth and nowhere for a person to be hiding. It was Callaway who first snapped out of his bewilderment and conjured up the courage to actually speak to whoever or whatever it was. According to the story, Calloway asked what it wanted, to which it replied “Remove that awful weight from my body,” followed by an even spookier and more menacing “They are drinking my blood.” It was at this point that the three men hastily made their way back to their train in a state of fright. The story was heavily circulated in the news at the time and cemented Big Bull Tunnel’s reputation as a frightening haunted locale. Although The Norfolk and Western Railway company claimed that they would launch a thorough investigation into the matter, it is unclear whatever became of it.
Perhaps even stranger and more steeped in weirdness than Big Bull is Virginia’s other haunted tunnel, Church Hill Tunnel, located not far from Richmond, Virginia. Originally opened in 1873, Church Hill Tunnel was closed in 1902, until it was decided it would be renovated and reopened in 1925 to service the needs of the burgeoning growth of the area’s population. Just as with the other tunnels mentioned here, there were a number of deaths associated with the tunnel’s construction, but the most infamous disaster would strike after its reopening. On October 2, 1925, a team of workers was hard at work on efforts to refurbish the tunnel to a usable condition, in this case doing repairs on the tunnel’s ceiling. The train they were aboard consisted of 10 flatcars and a steam engine, and the men stood atop the flatcars as they carried out repairs on the tunnel ceiling. At some point, the ceiling suddenly fell down upon them, burying them in tons of rock and rubble and causing a fire due to a burst boiler on the train. Only two survivors were able to crawl from their rocky prison, although one of them had been fatally burned in the boiler fire and would die later of his wounds. Rescue efforts were launched, but the collapse had been so massive that only one body was retrieved, that of engineer Thomas Joseph Mason, whose blackened, charred corpse was found impaled upon a lever. The rest of the crew and laborers could not be found, and the Virginia State Commission finally decided to seal off the tunnel with sand and concrete walls for safety reasons, leaving the train and the missing bodies entombed there in the darkness.
It did not take long at all for ghost stories to start making the rounds. The most commonly reported occurrence is the sound of voices shouting forth from the sealed tunnel screaming “Get me out!!” as well as the sounds of a locomotive engine and a scraping sound that seems to be that of someone digging or scratching at the rocks within, perhaps trying to get out. Even more ominous than these stories of anomalous voices and sounds is the popular tale that an actual vampire lurks in the area. Mostly considered to be an urban legend, the story of what has come to be known as the Richmond Vampire centers on a grotesque entity with jagged fangs and dark, loose hanging skin which was supposedly found by rescuers crouched over and feeding off of the bodies of the 1925 train disaster. The tale goes that the creature was then chased into the nearby Hollywood Cemetery and the beastly apparition is then said to have hidden within a mausoleum bearing the name of W.W. Pool. It has been theorized that the Richmond Vampire story has its roots in the horrifying appearance of a worker who had been badly burned by the exploding boiler in the disaster, after which he had stumbled out of the tunnel with broken teeth and hanging, burned skin, giving the impression that he was a horrific supernatural creature, which then created the legend through retellings over the years. Even so, there are still those who claim the Richmond Vampire is real.
Moving on with our tour we come to the state of Ohio, with its infamous Moonville Tunnel. This tunnel was once part of the Marietta Cincinnati railroad, which snaked through remote, thickly forested area for the purpose of supplying the various coal mining operations that were sprouting up there during the 1800s. The railway paved the way for the formation of the tiny town of Moonville, from which the tunnel takes its name. This particular tunnel and its railway have always been considered to be precarious and dangerous, with one stretch perilously held aloft high above a canyon with a slight, decidedly flimsy looking trestle just wide enough for the train. The stretch of railway became a popular place to walk along, as it was considered to be a significant shortcut through the valley, and this resulted in quite a few deaths caused by oncoming trains or people slipping and falling off of the trestle. One particular such death has become the origin of one of the tunnels most persistent ghostly legends. It is said that there is the phantom of an old man dressed like an engineer who carries with him a spectral lantern, who stands at the entrance of the tunnel waving his light about. The man is thought to be the spirit of a man who was assigned to stand there and wave his lantern at passing trains to ensure that they slowed down when entering the tunnel, but who was perhaps inevitably struck down dead by one such train, only to continue dutifully with his job even in death. Although the railway and the Manville Tunnel have long since been closed down, this apparition is commonly sighted to this day, still standing there waving his lantern at trains that will never come.
Moving down to Tennessee, we come to the Sensabaugh Tunnel, which was built in the 1920s and named after a landowner named Edward Sensabaugh. The origin of this particular ghostly tale starts with this landowner as a psychopathic murderer who is said to have killed his entire family, including his baby, and tossed their corpses within the tunnel. To this day, the spirit of the baby is said to haunt this place, with the ghastly, disturbing sound of far off baby crying heard regularly within the tunnel. It is also often said that if one stops their car within the tunnel, it will not turn back on.
Traveling further west, we come to Oregon, our last stop on this tour of haunted tunnels, and what is considered to be the most heavily haunted of them all. Beneath Portland, Oregon, there is a group of passages that worm their way through the darkness and which have been collectively known as the Shanghai Tunnels. This warren of murky passages winds up through the earth to end up at various basements of hotels and bars along the Willamette River, and were ostensibly created for the purpose of moving goods to the waterfront while avoiding traffic at street level. It is also widely believed that they were instrumental in a practice known as “Shanghaiing,” in which people were secretly kidnapped, dragged through the tunnels to waiting ships, and then whisked off to Asia to be used as slave labor or, in the case of women, as prostitutes. During these covert kidnappings, the victims were allegedly kept underground in squalor until they could be shipped out, and very often did not survive this ordeal. This could explain many of the ghostly phenomena reported from the tunnels. In addition to disembodied voices moaning, screaming, or pleading to be set free, there are also voices which will reportedly command people to leave or conversely to stay. The tunnels have become a popular destination for ghost hunters and were featured on the TV program Ghost Adventures.
These are by no means the only allegedly haunted tunnels in the United States, just a sampling of some of of the more supposedly intensely haunted ones. Others are out there, winding through rock and perhaps even through boundaries that separate our world from another. What is it about these tunnels that so imbue them with such strangeness and inexplicable happenings? Is it merely their tragic histories that have laid the foundation for these legends? Is it the product of their already innately spooky atmosphere of darkened shafts leading off through dank dimness into the unknown and the black beyond our vision, playing tricks upon our perceptions and giving rise to creepy ghost stories? Or is there chance that they do indeed harbor supernatural forces that call them home? Could it be that these tunnels do indeed delve not only into mountains, but also into new, bizarre realms of the unexplained, piercing through some veil and into new dimensions? Whatever the case may be, there can be no doubt that these tunnels are inherently scary places that certainly prod at the imagination and lend themselves to tales of the supernatural, and it is hard to gather the courage to walk alone through one at night, regardless of whether one believes in ghosts and curses or not.