Approaching the dark portal of the Blue Bell tunnel is unsettling.
For decades, the towering passage has been slowly sinking into the forest as trees and bushes reclaim the abandoned train track leading up to it.
Walk toward its mouth and you can feel the temperature drop. The air turns from woodsy to an earthy scent, and the sounds of the surrounding forest fade away, replaced by the echoes of dripping water inside the cavern.
WATCH | Go deep into New Brunswick’s abandoned train tunnel
This hole blasted through the hill in the community of Blue Bell, near Plaster Rock in northwestern New Brunswick, is all that remains of what was once called largest tunnel in the province.
“It’s a big, dark hole in the earth,” said Jordan Lloyd, who lives nearby. He and his family have made the abandoned tunnel a destination when they explore the tangle of off-road trails in the area on their all-terrain vehicles.
“It’s pretty cool, chiseled through the rocks,” said Lloyd.
It’s still easy to walk through to the other side of the tunnel, but it’s a chilling feat under metres of rock that isn’t for the faint of heart.
“No, I won’t walk through there, no. I’m a little too scared for that,” said Lloyd. “I’m scared of the rocks falling on me.”
That’s a smart call. Despite standing for more than 110 years, there are large piles of stones inside from partial collapses in the decades since the tunnel was abandoned.
Named for the community it passes through, the Blue Bell tunnel was first blasted open back in 1910.
“It was almost certainly blasted out with dynamite,” said Josh Green of the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick. He has poured over provincial records and newspaper articles about the tunnel during its construction.
“The newspapers are full of people dynamiting everything, every public works project in any county, they were just dynamite-mad,” said Green.
On Jan. 14, 1911, an article in the Daily Mail, a Fredericton newspaper, stated that at a stockholders meeting of the Willard Kitchen Company, construction of the tunnel and the entire New Brunswick portion of the National Transcontinental Railway would be completed by late summer that year.
“The Blue Bell tunnel, which is nearly one thousand feet in length, is also included in the company’s contract. It is the longest tunnel in the province,” states the article.
But despite the title, the Blue Bell tunnel didn’t garner a lot of attention during its construction or while it was in operation, according to Green. It was dwarfed by the construction of the nearby Salmon River trestle just over five kilometres down the track. That impressive span was the second largest in Canada and dominated the newspapers of the day.
While Green says there’s not much information detailing the tunnel’s construction, the entire stretch of the National Transcontinental Railway, including both the trestle and tunnel, was up and running by the fall of 1912.
He said there are records of inspectors making the trek up the line and returning with a load of surprise guests on the return trip.
“Railway officials going up one way, hunters getting on with deer they’d killed on their way back,” said Green. “Which is the perfect New Brunswick microcosm of how the railway was an integral part of the province’s transportation at that time.”
In a testament to the tunnel’s immense size, the Blue Bell tunnel was noted for being able to take “the largest rail freight shipment ever handled in North America.”
According to the Daily Gleaner on Feb. 11, 1952, “two mammoth boilers” built in Collingwood, Ont., headed for Argentina via the port of Saint John, made it though the tunnel “with inches to spare.” They were described as “standing 19 feet from the rails and are more than 13 feet wide, with a weight of 68 tons each.”
But in the years that followed, the tunnel began to decay. In 1959 a pair of maintenance workers were inducted into the Turtle Club, a distinction awarded to Canadian National Railways employees in Edmundston for being hit on the head by falling rocks, only to be saved by their safety helmets.
According to the Telegraph Journal on Dec. 18, 1959, Aurele LaPointe was inducted into the club for surviving a 12-pound chunk of rock falling eight feet onto his head. And employee Regent Ouellette survived a blow from an eight-pound rock hitting his head from a seven-foot fall while working on top of a box car in the tunnel.
So despite its impressive size, trains stopped using the tunnel the tunnel not long after that. A bypass was eventually built around the hill and the tunnel was abandoned.
To this day trains still cross the impressive Salmon River trestle, but the Blue Bell tunnel has been left to decay. The land it rests on is now owned by Northern Construction, an asphalt company that operates nearby pits.
And it remains a local attraction. There’s a makeshift campfire pit where tracks were once laid. You can still find pieces of the old track, including rotting ties and rusty railroad spikes, surrounded by empty beer cans and graffiti.
Green counts himself as one of the few people who have ever heard of the Blue Bell tunnel. He grew up about four kilometres away in the community of Crombie Settlement. And it still holds a certain attraction for him.
“It was a place we just returned to as kids, and as teens, and then I went back there as an adult a number of times,” said Green. “It’s really impressive and frightening.”
“It’s a pretty scary, spooky, place.”