Phipps Tunnel

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Fall is well advanced, but the weather has remained reasonably warm. It’s jacket weather now, but still quite comfortable. Photographs of interest haven’t been too common though; I’ve been revisiting familiar places on my weekend hikes, and inspiration has been wanting. This week though, I have something new and interesting.

This is Phipps Tunnel (also known as the Highland Street Tunnel), on the Upper Charles Trail, a bike/pedestrian trail network slowly being assembled by five towns. The tunnel is located in Holliston, Mass., on a section of railway that saw its last train sometime before 1987 when it was formally abandoned (the section beyond here to Milford was saw its last train in 1972 and the rails were lifted in 1974). This portion, south of the town center, has a hard-packed gravel pavement now, new in the last couple of years. It’s easily accessible too: there’s a parking lot in the center of town at one end, and another (less well marked) a few miles away on Cross St. (that one isn’t marked, but appears on a town map of a local woodland preserve).

The railroad was originally the Milford branch of the Boston and Worcester Railroad, built in 1848, although it changes hands and names a number of times after that. It was a small branch, and the first of several railroads to reach Milford, drawn by the potential of the granite quarries in the region. Milford was known for producing both “pink” and gray granite. This tunnel, like several other structures on the railroad, is made of granite from the railroad’s own quarry in Milford.

I read in one place that this was the “pink” granite that the region was famous for, but apparently that wasn’t discovered until 22 years after the tunnel was built, and it looks gray anyway so I’m guessing that this is ordinary gray granite.

Other sources have said that apparently it can vary from gray to pink and still be called “pink”, although this may simply be confusion over the fact that Milford produced more than one kind of granite. Regardless of which stone it used, the railroad branch actually picked up a nickname from the stone: the “Pink Granite Line”. If you’re interested in more about the railroad, there’s a PDF of interesting information, including an article on the history, linked off the Massachusetts Historical Commission page about the tunnel (the link isn’t obvious, you have to click on an icon).

The tunnel is an interesting structure, dating from the early years of railroading in America. The ovoid shape is something I’m more used to seeing in images from overseas; later American structures tended to be more a simple inverted “U” shape. The cup-shaped abutments are odd, too: I’ve never seen anything else shaped like that.

The tunnel is 70′ (21 m) long and 15′ (4.6 m) high. Small enough that the final locomotives to work the line fit through “with inches to spare” according to one report. It (and the hill through which it cuts) was named for Eli Phipps, the farmer who sold the land here to the railroad. The rail trail is probably the only thing that saved the tunnel. It was beginning to be eroded by water and ice, due to the poor drainage in the cutting (not very good even when the railroad was operating). It’s not on the National Register of Historic Places, but it is eligible and really ought to be: this is a rare piece of history.

I’m a bit confused as to the actual structure of the tunnel. The arch at each end is clearly a keystone arch, but it only extends one course into the tunnel. The rest of the lining is brick. And the facing stones, although made of the rough-cut rectangular blocks common to mid-century work, have mortar between them, which isn’t typical of other structures from that period. Perhaps that was a later repair, or perhaps it was required due to the mass of hill being held back.  On the other side of the hill, a more modern concrete retaining wall holds back the hillside above the tunnel. The hill there is steeper, perhaps due to a later widening of the road. On this side, the hill is more gently angled, but still quite steep.

I like the photo for the fall scenery, with the fallen leaves, some plastic icicles hung above the tunnel mouth, and the splash of color from the leaves on the right.  I was particularly fortunate to capture two people in silhouette as they exited the tunnel, which I think improves the image considerably.  The splash of late-afternoon sun illuminating the inside of the tunnel, revealing the brickwork, is a nice feature.  It’s not all good: if you look close, my focus was off enough that even sharpening doesn’t help much.  In smaller sizes it’s not noticeable, but at full size it’s quite obvious. The light was rather dim and autofocus wasn’t working so I switched to manual, then I moved and forgot to re-focus.

The image is, as usual, an HDR from a bracket of five exposures. The bracket was centered at 1/100th-second exposure, with ISO 1600 and f/11, with the lens at 60 mm. Processing was limited to a boost to exposure, contrast and saturation, a slight shift to the yellow (the cool diffuse light on this side of the hill became an icy blue in the HDR processing) and a slight adjustment of tilt. Although I also had to do much more than the usual level of ghost removal and retry several times with different choices of key frame, due to the walking people (the one on the left kept coming out with three legs, or no head). The final image was cropped to better frame the tunnel, and sharpening was performed, although without much effect.

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