Ray’s Hill Tunnel and its abandoned Pennsylvania turnpike

BREEZEWOOD, Pa. — I had driven through the night, fueled by coffee and restored by an hour-long nap at a “unique area” in New York.

I had detoured us to a long, beautiful concrete rail bridge — “but not if it’s, like, 20 minutes out of the way,” I promised before leading us astray us for more than half an hour. My god it was lovely, though.

Built by the Delaware Lackawanna and Western Railroad, the Tunkhannock Viaduct was in 1915 the longest concrete structure in the world. It has 11 piers and pale, smooth arches.
Built by the Delaware Lackawanna and Western Railroad, the Tunkhannock Viaduct was in 1915 the longest concrete structure in the world. It has 11 piers and pale, smooth arches.

And so it wasn’t dawn when we finally parked at the mouth of the abandoned turnpike, as I had hoped. It was after four in the afternoon.

Also, it had just started to rain.

There are so many tunnels in Pennsylvania. They pierce coal-filled mountains and have romantic names like Friendship and Hickory, Allegheny and Big Savage, Shoofly, and this — Ray’s Hill. The rail tunnel was completed in 1885, and converted to highway by 1940. But it’s narrow and long and dark, and with two-way traffic, cars had to slow so much some of the first of America’s bottlenecks happened here.

We started along the pockmarked, overgrown roadway with the hoods of our raincoats pulled up and our hands in our pockets. It was unseasonably chilly and the landscape was shades of brown and gray with green pressing its nose against the door trying to be noticed.

This is no graffiti highway like in Centralia, though a few bored souls have made an attempt along the road. It was vacant but for a couple of give-no-shits brown rabbits.

The rumble strips were full of clear rainwater and the paint that edged the highway was slick with damp. We pressed on through the tunnel was a vague promise — we trusted it was there, but the road kept curving and we weren’t sure how far we’d gone, nor how far we had to go.

Pennsylvania traffic jams became such an issue the state commissioned $100 million to study and fix the problem. Other tunnels in the area were twinned, including the several we would drive through on our journey to Pittsburgh: Blue Mountain, Kittatinny, Tuscarora. But Ray’s Tunnel and its mate Sideling several miles down the road didn’t make the cut.

A new turnpike went around them and they were abandoned at the end of the 1960s, then used for a time to train snowplow drivers and test road paint and safety reflectors.

We walked about three kilometres in the rain before we were finally rewarded with the hazy outline of Ray’s Hill Tunnel.

It is deep and dark and echoes more truly than the mountains at Roger’s Pass. The doors to the control rooms are nailed shut, but have been pried apart. One can look inside, or climb the side of the tunnel to gain entry from above; while we were there, tiptoeing through the darkness using our phones as flashlights, there were a couple of souls above us, shining their lights down to try to frighten us.

The rain stopped and the far end of the tunnel was a tempting bright spot the size of a fingernail. It’s an optical illusion, my research had suggested. It’s a long, dark walk to the other side. We went about halfway, sometimes whispering, sometimes yelling, before turning back, sidestepping open manholes with rusty ladders leading the gods only know where.

Nothing left but echoes.

Walking the abandoned rail bridge of North Anson

Sometimes you have to put off spontaneity.

Like the time I rounded a corner and there was the most amazing rocky river and around the next bend was an overgrown, abandoned rail bridge.

The timing was off and there was no way we could stop, but that damn bridge wouldn’t leave my head. The next morning at our Airbnb, which we’d made a disaster of dishes and laundry, Melani did one of those things that keeps us together after so many years: She gave me a pass and told Trevor and I to go find that damn bridge.

We knew it was about 20 minutes back up the road, but we couldn’t remember exactly where. Our perspective was off, nothing looked right, and we knew for sure we’d gone too far when we came to the community hall in Anson.

We turned the car around and tried to jump-start our brains: “Remember there were those antique cars for sale? Did we pass those?”

“Oh, there’s the ‘Blind Person Ahead’ sign. I remember seeing that last night and thinking, ‘Damn, I hope he hears us coming’.”

carrabassett river north anson

Then there it was. The Carrabassett River was smooth and glassy on one side of the highway bridge, but showed a completely different face when approached from the south. Fast-running water rushed over hundreds of small boulders, sounding like static and looking like oblivion, pooling in basins that were deceptively calm. And there — crossing this menacing, narrow river — were symmetrical rusty lines against the bluest sky.

We pulled off the road directly across from the mouth of the bridge. There used to be rail where I parked the truck, but it was paved over sometime in the late ’70s, when the bridge was abandoned.

Beyond the static of the river below, the town was Sunday-morning silent. We stepped onto rail, and bounced lightly on a couple of the crossties. They were dark and veined and gave slightly under our weight. There were places farther ahead where plywood was nailed over ties to cover spots where it was rotted through.

north anson rail bridge2

Before this iron span was built, there was a covered rail bridge here, erected in 1888. There are marvelous pictures of it, and more modern ones, in a book by the Anson Bicentennial Committee. That bridge, not as impressive as this beast, was tough enough to withstand a tornado, if a letter to the editor in an 1890 edition of Engineering News is to be believed. Mr. Thompson referred to peculiarities in the bridge’s architecture and noted that iron plates on the structure had slipped.

“After the storm,” Mr. Thompson wrote, “the ends of each span were in place but their centers had been sprung about 18ins out of line so that the track formed a series of reverse curves while the top of the bridge roof and all was tipped so that the trusses were at least 4 ft out of plumb.” However, damage was quickly repaired and trains were running the next day.

On our clear day, we started a slow unsteady walk across. Trevor kept to the centre, close to the rail, while I walked on the outside edge because I could see thick reinforcement beams under the ties. The wood was spongy and invited caution.

rail spike

This bridge was built 109 years ago. The Somerset, Maine Central, and Pan Am railroads carried lumber, agricultural goods and people over the Carrabassett to the end of the line here at North Anson.

Locomotives that had roared across the track upon which we walked so gingerly were named things like Black Dinah, Moxie, and Bombazeen.

Just past the halfway point was a strange metal beast we have since learned is a buffer stop, meant to prevent locomotives from rolling farther down the end of the track. It wouldn’t stop more than ghost trains now, but it stood at attention, cool metal under a hot sun, unshaded at the centre of the bridge where even the most hardy of weeds haven’t ventured yet. Past that was the high bank of the Carrabassett and more rail, so overgrown we lost our footing more than once as we peered through the brush back over the bridge and ran our fingers over the rusted dates on a switch to the side of the track.

north anson rail switch

We were steadier on our trip back, and bold enough to venture under the bridge, where we found the water wasn’t as scary as it sounded or looked from above, and where Trevor discovered a rope attached to the ties above.

“Mom. Mom mom mom. Mom.” Back when he was little, this used to drive me nuts. “Mom has one syllable. Don’t waste all that breath.” I don’t mind so much any more. “Mom mom mom. Let’s swing on it.”

I gave him that look and he, eventually, let it go, and hardly laughed at me at all when I halfway fell into the river anyway.

somerset railway north anson

Intercolonial: The railroad that was almost a jewel in the Crown

I’m keen on the railroad, I tell people who ask, because of its role in building Canada, especially here, where Confederation could not have happened without this track being laid.

But it’s more than national pride. It’s a matter of personal history and more than 40 years of stories that touch rail to one degree or another.

I think of riding the train cross-country as an eight-year-old, with a new doll with a plastic head and plush pink body. She had a cord on the back — pull it and her head moved and body wriggled like a real baby.

As older teenagers, Melani and I boxed up our bicycles and took the overnight train to Moncton — the Hub City that is the end of the line and as far as you can go by rail if your destination is Prince Edward Island.

As a 24-year-old, this time with a real baby, four-month-old Trevor, and a deep desire to show him to spread-out family, and introduce him to the most beautiful land I know. Half a year later, he would learn to walk on a train, headed home from the Maritimes again on the Ocean, which was named here as a line on the Intercolonial Railway.

amherst nova scotia rail

Amherst, long a shipbuilding centre and home to four fathers of Confederation, was not built by the railroad, as many Canadian towns were. Yet it owes much of its growth to that technology.

Source: Public Domain, http://bit.ly/2aggmR7
Source: Public Domain, http://bit.ly/2aggmR7

The Intercolonial Railway was dreamed up around 1840. It would be a road linking Nova Scotia and New Brunswick — isolated by land, sea, and  a sliver of Maine — with the Province of Canada, then just Quebec and Ontario. Such a road would take a northern route, smoothing the transport of military supplies in case relations heated with the Americans again, as they had in 1812, and respecting the United States Act during the U.S. Civil War.

In theory it was a genius plan. But it was also a rich plan, and who on earth could pay for it? The four regions started laying track separately and hopefully, waiting for a solution to materialize.

That solution was Confederation itself, with the building of the Intercolonial Railway being inscribed as condition of the union of this eastern half of what is now Canada. It thus became the first major Crown corporation and the biggest infrastructure and transport project of its time.

amherst rail switch

There is debate over the reasons the Intercolonial wiggled and wound its way through Nova Scotia and New Brunswick: Was it to bring the railroad to logging communities and more effectively avoid the United States and their just-ended Civil War, or was it a sign of corruption, and the towns’ foresight in wanting track through their blooming towns?

Whether politically motivated or through the intelligent design of chief engineer Sir Sandford Fleming, a wooden train station was built in Amherst to accommodate the opening of the grand project, which boasted the best quality construction with raised rail beds and iron bridges. It was 1,100 kilometres long when it was deemed ready to roll in the mid-1870s.

The Canadian Guide Book in 1891 gushed, “It is a government road, admirably built and equipped, and most moderate in its charges. It runs through some of the best fishing and shooting districts of the continent and some very beautiful landscapes.”

Amherst was a boom town with the world at its feet. It replaced its little wooden train station with the lovely red sandstone building that stands today, a glory of local supplies and craftsmanship.

All good things come with a price, and for Amherst that marker was called in 1910, when its beautiful station was still fresh stone. The nation experienced a downturn, and of course those are always felt more heavily in the Maritimes. Nine years later, workers called a general strike over worsening conditions and in solidarity with the great strike in Winnipeg at that time.

amherst nova scotia mural

The Intercolonial, which in its prime had swallowed the Grand Trunk Railway, was in turn swallowed by the Canadian National Railway. The tracks were eventually turned over to passenger service Via Rail, which uses them to this day.

But the station is shuttered. Its whitewashed beams show signs of dirt as they must have when steam trains were the most heavily seen traffic. It’s a stop on the route inland, but there is no glory here except in the whisper of ghosts and the imaginings of a train whistle heralding prosperity, so very very long ago.

amherst train station inside
Further reading:
North America Railways Hall of Fame
The Canadian Encyclopedia
Historical map of the Intercolonial Railway

The failed marriage of rail and sea

henry ketchum

TIDNISH BRIDGE, N.S. — Meet Henry George Clopper Ketchum, a guy with a dream.

While this 1800s railway man laid track and made a name for himself as far away as Brazil, his heart was in the Maritimes and the problems specific to transportation in this part of the world.

One of the biggest problems, to his engineering eye, was the transport of goods between the Bay of Fundy and the Gulf of St. Lawrence at the mouth of the rest of the world. It’s that Nova Scotia was in the way, separating the two bodies of water with 17 miles of land. How to reconcile cargo ships and rail freight?

With pure Maritime ingenuity, that’s how. Ketchum devised a system whereby a cargo ship would be sailed onto a portion of track which would then be lifted hydraulically to meet the rail on land. The ship would be pulled by two engines across the 17 miles from Fort Laurence to Tidnish, then lowered by the same means back into the sea to continue its journey.

The plans were met with applause when presented in 1875 and Ketchum started drawing up blueprints. Those blueprints were stored in Saint John and were set alight during the Great Fire of 1877. Ketchum took a deep breath and started over. He financed the survey for the project and presented the results to Minister of Railways and Canals Charles Tupper, a fellow Maritimer who would enjoy a brief stint as prime minister not far into the future. The government agreed to subsidize the project so long as it was completed by 1889.

chignecto marine transport railwayKetchum got to work in 1888. The project attracted 4,000 immigrant workers and at least two churches. The flow of the Tidnish River was diverted. Bed was dug and track was laid. Then, in 1890, the project started to go off the rails, when financial troubles in Europe filtered down to the Chignecto Marine Transport Railway. Ketchum asked the government to extend their subsidy, but they had already moved back the deadline a year and it was not going to happen again.

Work stopped in 1892, a heartbreaking four miles from completion. Ketchum and his successors tried to revive the project, but to no avail. All that’s left is some rail bed, Tidnish Bridge and Ketchum’s grave overlooking the would-be dock.

tidnish bridge