Take a drive along Route 70 in Clinton past the Wachusett Dam and you could easily miss a section where the road widens just a little to allow room for a few cars to pull over and park. But if you look closely amidst the overgrown brush, you might notice a hidden path that climbs up a small hill.

At the top, you’ll find two large graffiti-covered granite walls protruding from the side of a hill. They flank a dark, mysterious tunnel that seems to go on forever before revealing a pinprick of light at the end. You are standing at a junction of history and the future.

After years of planning, the wheels are finally in motion to turn Clinton’s abandoned train tunnel into useable recreational space by improving it and connecting it to the Mass. Central Rail Trail, which, once complete, will run 104 miles from Northampton to Boston. There are 51 miles of trail completed today, a patchwork running across the state that various groups are working to connect.

But Clinton has what would likely be one of the trail’s most unique assets. The abandoned tunnel was once part of the Central Massachusetts Railroad. At 1,110 feet long, the tunnel once led to a trestle bridge that towered 113 feet above Route 70 and the Nashua River below to connect with the Worcester, Nashua, and Portland Division mainline at Clinton Junction.

Central Mass. Railroad

A train rides high above the Nashua River below the Wachusett Dam in the early 1900s.

By the late 1950′s, the last train to make its way through Clinton on the Mass. Central Railroad tracks had come and gone. The bridge lived on another 25 or so years before being torn down, leaving the trail coming out of the tunnel to an abrupt end above Route 70.

Half a century later the tunnel remains intact, although it looks a bit different. Today, flashlight-equipped visitors making their way through will find walls overwhelmed with graffiti markings, many of which forebodingly warn of terrors that lie ahead, including one which bluntly states, “You’re going to die.” And many more not suitable to print.

Adding to the spookiness of the tunnel, there are random noises that echo as you walk through. You’ll find comfort in taking a close look at the water that runs along the sides of the tunnel and seeing that it’s only frogs jumping about the puddles.

Online, the tunnel has garnered a following as a “haunted abandoned train tunnel,” and has urged many who deem themselves “ghost hunters” to visit the tunnel and document their experience.

A father and son paranormal investigation team visited the tunnel in 2007 and documented an “orb of light,” which they say is an indicator of paranormal activity.

And while paranormal activity in the tunnel is up for debate, there is one widely circulated claim about the tunnel that is true. The tunnel is an optical illusion. Walking through, you quickly realize that the light at the end of the tunnel appears to get further away as you begin walking through.

That optical illusion, however, could disappear in the coming years. A group working to revitalize the space sees a future in which the tunnel is lit with lights and connects people to a beautiful 100 plus mile-long rail trail.

Over the past 20 years, a group of dedicated conservationists has worked hard to acquire the abandoned railway section and connect it as an official part of the Mass. Central Rail Trail.

Thanks to a government grant, their envisioned future for the trail is beginning to come to fruition.

The Clinton Greenway Conservation Trust, a non-profit land trust, was recently awarded a $111,920 grant with $67,316 in matching funds that will allow them, along with the town of Clinton, to acquire the abandoned railway section that runs from Route 70 in Clinton to the town of Berlin. The purchase, which includes the train tunnel, will officially make it part of the Mass. Central Rail Trail, a repurposing of the Central Massachusetts Railroad corridor designed to connect Boston to Northampton in a shared-use trail.

“The project seeks to complete a critical Mass. Central Rail Trail segment in the town of Clinton through the acquisition of an abandoned rail bed (including a railroad tunnel) from Route 70 in the town of Clinton to the town of Berlin’s municipal line,” said a spokesperson for Mass. Department of Conservation and Recreation. “Once acquired from Boston and Main Railroad (now doing business as Pan Am Systems), a portion of the trail will be potentially opened immediately.”

Other sections will require more work.

“Our goal is to get this section in Clinton that includes the tunnel, completed and open for public use, and then work with the folks in Berlin, Hudson and to the east, to make sure that their sections get moving,” said Frances Hodge, who serves as the Trust’s clerk and chair of its trails subcommittee.

The money comes as part of the state’s recent MassTrails Grants, which paid out $4 million to 55 local trail projects throughout Massachusetts. According to the Mass. DCR, MassTrails provides matching grants to communities, public entities and non-profit organizations to design, create, and maintain the network of trails, trail systems, and trails experiences used by Massachusetts residents and visitors.

To acquire the Clinton section, the Trust will have to pay $110k to Pan Am Railways, which previously operated the Boston & Maine Railroad.

One concern, ahead of the acquisition, was the condition of the train tunnel, says Hodge.

Abandoned train tunnel in Clinton, Massachusetts

Sitting across the way from the Wachusett Dam, the largest hand-dug dam in the world, this abandoned tunnel was once part of the Central Massachusetts Railroad. (Tom Matthews/MassLive)

“One of the things that we decided to do was an inspection of the tunnel prior to the acquisition, just to confirm that it was viable, she said. “…We did that in January of this year, and they basically came back that it is feasible as a trail, but that it needs some remediation.”

First, the engineering firm says they’ll need to descale and re-profile the tunnel, a process that entails removing all debris, in this instance, loose concrete or rocks that could potentially fall. Next, they’d need to install some wire mesh to redirect any water from flowing down the center, but instead to the side of the tunnel. The following steps would be to install rock dowels, which bolts together separations in the tunnel and prevents water from seeping through, and drainage fabrics, which will be topped off with shotcrete, a sprayed concrete.

The tunnel, and the entire Clinton section which would run along the Wachusett Reservoir and the Wachusett Dam, the largest hand-dug dam in the world, is a welcomed addition to the Mass. Central Trail.

“It will be the iconic thing on this hundred-mile rail-trail,” says Mass. Central Rail Trail volunteer coordinator Craig Della Penna.

According to Della Penna, the project is in good hands.

“Those are my battle-hardened veterans there. And they are super special and they are committed to getting this thing built,” he said.

There is some question as to whether or not a new bridge will be built where the 917 ft. trestle used to stand. Hodge says the Trust is looking for a safe way to connect people coming out the west end of the tunnel, as it sits 30 or so feet above Route 70.

A new bridge would connect people to another part of the Mass. Central Rail Trail controlled by the DCR watershed.

Hodge says the Trust might host a contest with engineering schools to see who can devise the best plan — bridge or otherwise.

In the meantime, after the acquisition, once the tunnel becomes town property and remediations begin, the entrance to the tunnel will be closed off.

“I think it’s going to be disappointing for people because it’s been a become a really popular site, people visit all the time,” Hodge said. “But you know, we’ll put signage on the on the gate to say, ‘Hey, help us reopen it, we’d like to do this sooner rather than later.”

In this July 25, 2018, photograph, men climb stairs while working out at the Wachusett Reservoir Dam in Clinton, Mass. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)AP

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