Connections: Waiting for a train

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By Monday, Jul 21 Life In the Berkshires, Viewpoints  6 Comments
David Scribner
The Stockbridge railroad station, where it might be quite a while before passenger trains pull up to its platform, if history is any guide.

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism.In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America 2014.

The image of the Stockbridge train station to illustrate the Berkshire Edge article, “First Step in Restoring Passenger Service” was prescient. Stockbridge led the way the first time; almost 180 years ago.

If the past is prologue it will take years for a passenger train from New York City to arrive in Berkshire County.

The first proposal for a train to Berkshire was made in 1826.Twelve years later the first train chugged into Berkshire County at West Stockbridge, or more accurately, just north of the village at the New York Massachusetts state line. It was almost 30 years after that before the battles over track routes, location of train stations, and location of locomotive inspection stations were settled. It was 1870 before the choice between cooperation and competition was made for the benefit of the passenger.

On June 4, 1826 in an article in the Pittsfield Sun, Theodore Sedgwick of Stockbridge introduced and heartily supported a proposal to establish a railroad in Berkshire County. The following year, the town of Stockbridge was the first to vote in favor of train service at their town meeting.

From our vantage point, train service may seem the obvious, inevitable, in fact, the only choice, but it was not. In 1826, the plan under serious consideration was not for train tracks but for a waterway. The Governor of Massachusetts proposed a canal be built from Boston through Berkshire County to both the Connecticut and Hudson Rivers. The Legislature appointed a commission to study feasibility.

The cost of dredging made the cost of laying track very appealing and proponents of rail travel prevailed. In 1838 the first passenger train traveled from Hudson, N.Y., to State line.

People came over from Pittsfield and up from South County in coaches to board the trains of the Hudson Berkshire Line. From Hudson, travelers could take a boat to New York City or Albany. Day-trippers could travel West Stockbridge to Hudson and home again for $1. The train moved fast enough so they could ride to Hudson, spend four hours in Hudson, and be home in time for supper. The result was a good deal of hustle and bustle at the State Line train station.

Very soon the stage coach was gone and trains were ubiquitous. Jack Trowill, curator of the Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum, draws a dizzying picture of railroads crisscrossing and converging on West Stockbridge from Albany, Boston, Springfield, Danbury, and Norwalk, and within Berkshire, from Great Barrington and Pittsfield to West Stockbridge.

As trains and train stations proliferated, there were economic consequences. It became apparent that towns on the rail line prospered; towns bypassed did not.

A competition was waged for what would become the “hub.” Where the hub would be was a function of the route. Two routes were proposed. The northern route favored Pittsfield. The southern route favored Lee, Lenox, and Stockbridge.

There were studies, and surveys, and expert reports. The number of miles over which track would have to be laid was measured to a fraction of a mile. Obstructions were identified and evaluated. Ultimately, the northern route was selected to the great benefit of Pittsfield. The northern route was actually longer in miles, but elevation played a role in calculating the expense. The steep grades on the southern route were considered too burdensome.

It was not until 1850 that a rail line connected Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge to Pittsfield.

The mathematics of success was the same for businesses as for towns. Those restaurants, hotels, and even retailers closest to the rail station, or inside the train station, were the most successful. The connection between train and profit was so clear to every businessman that a fierce competition between Berkshire towns broke out. It centered on the location of the engine inspection.

Along the rail lines, there was a mandatory stop where the engines were inspected and sometimes changed. During the inspection, passengers were required to leave the train. They milled around the station waiting, creating the perfect time for a meal or shopping in the train station or nearby. Every Berkshire town wanted the engine inspection at their station to boost business.

Actually, the economic power of the railroad was so great that it was one battle after another. In 1870, a battle raged between the Housatonic Line (the New York & New Haven Railroad) and the Western Line (the Boston & Albany Railroad) over the train stations. Each line wanted its own station. To continue their journey, passengers would have de-trained at one station and been forced to walk across town to board at another station. The railroad had their eyes fixed on their bottom lines. Pittsfield businessmen considered the passengers.

Thomas Allen stepped in, and with his considerable powers of persuasion, won a compromise. The result was the shared train station appropriately called Union Station. The single shared station was a significant contribution to the appeal of Pittsfield as the railroad hub.

The first time around, from concept to completion, it took 44 years to establish passenger train service in Berkshire. That is, it was 24 years from 1826 when Stockbridge presented and endorsed the concept of train travel until there was track from Stockbridge to the Berkshire hub in Pittsfield. It was another twenty years before the towns in Berkshire settled their battles over track routes, station locations, and engine inspections.

There is no reason to believe from concept to restoration will take less time. The first serious presentation of a proposal to restore passenger service was 24 years ago in1980. Now twenty four years later there are still obstacles. Proponents are met with the apathy of an automobile-driving generation. In the early nineteenth century one could argue that train travel was faster and safer. Today a trip Berkshire to New York City may be 2 1/2 hours by car and 4 by train. Tracks need work.

How long will it take to restore passenger service? Will the younger generation that prefers trains to cars prevail? All we can do is wait and see. We are all waiting for a train.

 

 


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6 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Steven Weisz says:

    This article makes no sense. The length of time it took to establish the railway has no bearing on the amount of time it will take to restore it. That, will depend on State & Federal Dollars and the ‘politics’ of spending them. Other influences will be the will of the people & governments to embrace non-auto modes of transportation. What might cause the errosion of this public sentiment and political will, will be silly little articles like this one.

  2. Andy Potter says:

    Gotta say, after reading the article, the last sentence is a misappropriation of history. Different time, different economics. I’m a history guy and simplistic use of an interesting story to draw such a specific outcome is a little annoying. Keep trying. Thanks.

  3. Brian says:

    That is really poor conclusion and somewhat unresearched opinion that doesn’t reflect the current state of this project. No one is putting a new track in from scratch. These are feasible upgrades to an existing line where the infrastructure is in place. Sure, this will take time, politics and the community’s support but plenty of reason to think that this can get done in in a matter of a few years, not 44.

  4. C. D. Baumann says:

    How very wise of The Berkshire Edge to include the stellar abilities of local resident, writer, lecturer and historian Dr. Carole Owens. I say bravo to your good business sense and keen eye for talent. I’ve read her books and am an avid reader of her many enlightening articles. Allow me to add to her well defined introduction of history and its impact that throughout the passage of time it has always been easier to destroy than to create. I say further that for every great artist, of whom Dr. Owens is clearly one, there have always been a plethora of critics. Dr. Owens article “Waiting for a Train,” follows in the brilliance of her long and noteworthy career. Its research is impeccable, it’s writing sublime. To your critics, those who may not understand the clarity and significance of your article I suggest “The little Train that could.” The ‘history guy,’ expresses an opinion rather than historical facts. Nowhere in your exceptionally well researched article do you state that restoration will take 44 years but pointing out this project began in 1980 this may well be true. Though since the last passenger train to this location pulled away in 1971 no doubt a period of time shall pass to evaluate the condition of the infrastructure and logistics of restoring this once prized rail line. This article points out that State and Federal funds will have their place, the track owners, railways, businesses and patrons will all need to take part. Your article points out the many complexities in such an undertaking. They were overcome once and can be again. Shall I join you on the platform for tea while awaiting the train Dr. Owens?

  5. Cathy says:

    1980 was 34 years ago.

  6. Christopher F Blair says:

    As a young man I traveled from New York City to the Great Barrington station in the 1960’s. Somewhat later, if I recall, taking the same train line, I disembarked in Connecticut, perhaps Danbury, and rode on a bus which put me off at the same train station. And then the connection stopped. While I like the bus route in the spring, I anticipate the train would be far more interesting and useful to me. Kudos to all working to advance the difficult task of restoring service on this line.

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