CONNECTIONS: Riding the historic Berkshire rail line
Over the weekend I attended the Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum open house in Lenox. There I learned the news.
Under the heading of “all things come to he who waits”: The Commonwealth of Massachusetts Department of Transportation is spending over $20 million to upgrade all of its Berkshire Line tracks from the Connecticut/Massachusetts state line in Sheffield to Pittsfield. That line travels through Great Barrington, Stockbridge, Lee and Lenox.
As I write this, two railroad bridges are being repaired, and new rails and ties are being laid. According to Jack Trowill, curator of the Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum, “We have leased space to them in Lenox where they have stored some 12,000 new ties. Work is being done now and not expected to be completed for over two years.”
The time of completion is calculated as between three years and infinity, but some day it will be completed. Then, once again, there will be those delightful train rides in South County—from Lenox through Lee to the Stockbridge station and back again. In the meantime, Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum recently opened train operations in Adams. In North County, they maintain two government-owned facilities, and offer train rides.
Despite inhospitable weather, the turnout at Lenox was wonderful. Parents were ushering their children around the rail yard, climbing on trains and listening to the volunteers explain the parts of a bygone era.
On display were vehicles that once operated on the Berkshire Line through the County, including an ex-New Haven Railroad FL9 diesel-electric locomotive that hauled passenger trains between Grand Central Terminal and Pittsfield; a Budd Railway Diesel Car that hauled passengers over much of the New Haven system, including the Berkshires; and a horse-and-carriage baggage car that serviced the Berkshire cottagers for many years.
The Scenic Railway has been in operation since 1984. Jack Trowill has been a board member and curator of the station since its inception. Each year, the nonprofit grew: “We began in 1984 and have expanded every year since.”
“Today,” Trowill explains, “We own or lease 11 locomotives and mechanized units, 11 passenger coaches and baggage cars, three buildings (with a fourth under contract), and various motorized vehicles including a 5-ton crane, a Dodge Durango hi-rail truck, a dump truck, a back-hoe, etc. And, we have just taken delivery of a future project: the re-creation of a 1937 bus originally owned by the Berkshire Street Railway.”
The Lenox railway station serves as a museum and tells the Berkshire railroad story. Step inside and step back in time when trains moved America. There is a reproduction of the original ticket cage. It rests on the bar from the State Line Tavern, famous for stretching over the Massachusetts/New York border—very convenient during prohibition.
There are objects such as train lanterns, old milk cans and wooden crates used for packing and transport. There are also smaller objects in glass cases. For example, look inside a model of a train station and find a telegraph. The model station is connected by track to another station, showing how messages were transmitted from station to station until they reached their final destination. The telegraph is operational, and there are instructions; take a hand at communication 19th-century style.
There is a photograph array that walks the visitor through the “old days.” There are pictures of the three Pittsfield train stations. In the mid-19th century, all things Egyptian were the rage. The station was meant to evoke Egyptian architecture. It may have, but located on Park Square, it did not blend in with New England style. It was torn down and replaced by the second station tucked downhill from North Street. Then the third station, the ultimate in luxury, was built. People who remember the third train station still mourn the loss.
Eastover, as many other Berkshire resorts, sent conveyances to the Lenox and Stockbridge stations to collect their guests, as did the cottagers. The conveyances ran the gamut from the simple cart of Tom Cary, the wagon from Eastover, to the Brewster carriages from the more upscale Aspinwall and the cottages.
The Berkshire trolley was unique in at least one way. It had a very long run. It travelled through four states: Vermont, New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut. It would more often carry the servants than the masters, but it was good for day trippers, too. Clang, clang.
The open house commemorated the 35th anniversary of Berkshire Scenic Railway, a nonprofit, all-volunteer organization. Volunteers maintain, modify and repair much of the railroad equipment and properties, and serve passengers on our train rides. They train and test their on-train crews to federal standards. They welcome new volunteers and provide on-the-job training for train mechanics, electricians, ticket agents and clerks. Their motto is “A place for everyone.”
There is also a seat for everyone who wants to ride the rails. So grab your child, your grandchild or your inner child and visit the Berkshire Scenic Railway this year.