Family Inning: The Clinton Train Tunnel

May 27, 2015 — The occasional plunk of water dropping from the ceiling of the dark tunnel startled me every time into looking over my shoulder. The weak light of my flashlight app gave monstrous form to the shapes inside instead of dispelling them. The squeaks of the bats in the crevices above proclaimed in bat-code the upside-down horrors they had witnessed. So when my daughter screamed, “She doesn’t have a head!” I very well might have jumped. I’ll admit to nothing legally binding, though.

We had already walked the full 1,100-foot-length of the old train tunnel and had almost completed the return trip. That’s always when the worst stuff happens in the movies. When you’re almost safe.

But my kid wasn’t referring to any apparition. She was talking about her doll, one of those improbably popular Monster High joints. The doll was supposed to be the daughter of the Headless Horseman, so her head was intended to come off—just not in the muddy interior of a 100-year-old abandoned train tunnel. Even after explaining to her how Wednesday Addams liked her dolls and how cool she was, my daughter still didn’t budge. So off I went back into that black throat to find a little peach-colored piece of plastic.

We were in Clinton, Massachusetts, down the road from the Wachusett Dam. I’d heard that the train tunnel was easy to access, so I had brought my whole family: wife, five-year-old, and infant. It’s not the team you’re supposed to take into an abandoned, spooky place, but it’s my team.

An old stone trestle protruding blockily from the forest above Boylston Street/Route 62 marked the entry point. A thin trail that wended uphill beside it dropped us off at the west entrance of the tunnel, a few dozen feet from the road and about the same distance above it. The tunnel just sat there yawning in the forest, conveyor of nothing but rainwater and graffiti.

The tunnel was built in 1903 for the Central Massachusetts Railroad. It was meant to replace a section of line that had gone underwater with the creation of the Wachusett Reservoir. By the 1950s, the tunnel was abandoned and the tracks ripped up. The disembodied legs of the trestle continue across the Nashua River on the far side of the street.

We parked right below the trestle on the road’s thin shoulder. After taking some photos at the entrance, my five-year-old and I decided we wanted to walk the tunnel, while my wife took the baby back to the the shelter of the car. Too many mosquitoes is what she said. Creepy tunnel full of ax-murdering ghosts is what I heard.

The maw of the tunnel was lipsticked in graffiti, but surprisingly PG graffiti. Maybe even G. I’m not sure how the ratings board judges proclamations of love for Satan. At one point my daughter spotted a depiction of Bill Cipher, that yellow, all powerful, triangle-shaped character from the Disney Channel’s Gravity Falls. See? A totally family-friendly jaunt.

The floor of the tunnel was surprisingly smooth, but—even though we could see light at the other side of the tunnel—it felt like it was taking us a long time to get to the end. I’d turn around and the western opening loomed large and bright behind us, as if we hadn’t taken very many steps. Soon, despite the light at both ends, I had to turn on my flashlight app, illuminating the dark floor to avoid puddles or any mutated vagrants lying in wait in the dark.

About half way through, the even concrete walls and ceiling changed to rough rock, making the tunnel seem more like a cave. It’s said that in winter the walls are shimmery with ice. Now, they were just drippy. The water gathered at the base of the walls in muddy pools, hiding who knows what kind of pathogen-drenched detritus.

Finally, after long enough to get a few cautious texts from my wife (that for some reason shut off my flashlight app and thrust us into blank void), we made it to the other side, which was a soggy morass that I didn’t dare tread through. Outside we could see more of the forest and a road trestle running perpendicular to the tunnel. It was green and bright and felt cheery, but that was probably in contrast to the dank shadowland that we’d walked through to get there.

The trek back was easier as we’d sucked the unknown out of it, so we stopped at some point to play around and take some pictures of her toy. It was probably during this time that we dropped the doll head. I eventually found it, and we dodged the mosquitoes and the garter snakes outside to clamber back down to the car. The tunnel was only the first adventure on our itinerary that day, but I already knew we weren’t going to top it.

Here are the GPS coordinates if you ever want to do the same: 42.405239, -71.683823. I suggest leaving any dolls with removable heads at home.