GOSHEN — Wednesday’s hot temperatures and blistering sun did not deter Dave Willliams of Middlebury from making a stop on his way to Syracuse for an Independence Day party.
Shortly after noon, he stood looking through the chain-link fence at the workers who were installing the pedestrian underpass beneath the railroad tracks on the Goshen College campus. By then, a large crane was lifting sections of the preformed tunnel and placing them gently in a deep hole dug in the center of the track bed.
“I think this is a really good idea,” said Williams, whose daughter and son are both Goshen graduates. “It’s amazing they could go this long without some way to cross the tracks.”
Workers wearing bright yellow T-shirts guided the sections into place then ground the edges smooth, sending puffs of white smoke floating into the air. When they were ready to continue, the crane, sounding high-pitched beeps, swung around where workers attached the cables to another piece, then hoisted the block into the air and over to the hole.
The construction project is the culmination of five years of planning. Trains regularly travel across the Norfolk Southern tracks that slice the campus in half which create safety concerns for the students who have to cross the rails to get to and from class.
Like Williams, many onlookers stopped by the campus to see Goshen College’s big dig. It resembled a lazy summer day at a park with people relaxing in the shade, standing on the bleachers that were provided for the crowd and getting refreshed in the two misting tents supplied by the Goshen Parks and Recreation Department.
Ryan Rittenhouse, a Goshen College alumnus and a staff member of the college’s IT department, decided to turn the event into a picnic. Anticipating that the dramatic parts of the construction would be surrounded by long periods of boredom, he pitched a canopy, lit his grill and invited “a whole pile” of friends to join him and his family near the work site.
A few minutes before midnight, the last train rumbled along the tracks. Once it had passed, Norfolk Southern crews descended upon the rails to begin cutting a 100-foot section of the track and lifting it from its gravel bed.
Next, construction workers moved to the spot and started to dig.
Even before the work began in earnest, a crowd had gathered in the darkness to watch. Chris Gerig Way and her husband, Dale Way, arrived about 10:30 p.m. and spent their time waiting more than an hour to see the final train travel through and for two excavator to lift the tracks.
She recalled her student days at Goshen College during the 1970s when she heard the locomotives chugging along the tracks while she tried to sleep in her dorm room or while she was in music classes in Wyse Hall.
“Mostly I remember when it was time to go to the cafeteria and we were on the wrong side of the tracks,” she said.
Chris and Greg Way were able to snag a souvenir to commemorate the underpass construction. Just after the tracks were moved, a construction worker passed out the railroad spikes to people in the crowd including the Ways.
Glenn Gilbert, utilities manager at Goshen College, spent much of his holiday at the site. He was keeping tabs on the progression of the construction and passing out information sheets detailing the project to the visitors.
At midday, he estimated he had handed out 300 of the paper sheets. Also, at 10 p.m. July 3, the webcam set up at the site had 212 viewers.
Through the night, Rittenhouse kept his eye on the webcam and when he saw the crane come in preparation of the tunnel installation, he gathered his family and picnic paraphernalia and headed to the campus.
He agrees with the college about the need for the underpass. As a student he was often delayed getting to class or the cafeteria because of a train. As an employee, his schedule is interrupted by the traffic on the tracks.
“Nothing’s a bigger pain in the butt than going to fix something in the dorms and you have to wait 20 minutes,” Rittenhouse said.
Moreover, he frequently sees bikers and walkers dashing across the tracks to beat an oncoming train and he is surprised no one has been clipped.
Conversely Bob Bender of Goshen questioned the need behind the nearly $2 million project. The tracks transverse the entire campus and he wonders if students will walk the extra steps to the pedestrian tunnel.
“It’s a major project,” he said. “I struggle a little bit with the amount of money they’re spending to do it. To my knowledge no one has ever been hurt or killed crossing the tracks. One of the worries is if our tax money is being well spent.”
After the tunnel was in place, layers of sand were piled and packed on top. The underpass construction finished about an hour and a half ahead of schedule and by 11 p.m. the tracks had been reattached, Gilbert said.
Work will continue for several more months to pour the steps leading down to the pathway and to install the electrical system as well as a sump pump. The project is scheduled to be completely finished in early November, he said.
Truth reporter Marlys Weaver-Stoesz contributed to this story.