CONNECTIONS: When trolleys linked the Berkshires

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By Tuesday, Aug 22 Life In the Berkshires  9 Comments
A difficult trolley railway crossing at Route 7 in Stockbridge. Photo courtesy Jack Trowill

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 in the 21st century.

“Clang, clang, clang went the trolley”…

Horse-drawn trolleys, or “horse-cars,” appeared as early as 1832.

“Ring, ring, ring went the bell…”

The horse-cars were replaced by electric trolleys and, for almost 50 years – from 1886 to 1932, running on recessed steel tracks – trolleys crisscrossed Berkshire County

“Zing, zing, zing went my heart strings…”

Berkshire Street Railway Company trolley transfer

Berkshire Street Railway Company trolley transfer

We might romanticize the trolley but, in its day, it was simply a fast, efficient and cheap way to go to and from work, shopping or an entertainment. There were the Pittsfield Electric Street Railway, Hoosac Valley Street Railway, the Berkshire Street Railway, Pittsfield Street Railway and at least five more companies.

Even though, in the end, the trolley went the way of the icebox, some locals invested and benefited. Attorney Thomas Post bought shares in the local trolley companies either on his own behalf or on behalf of his client William Collins Whitney. Whitney was best known for creating the October Mountain Reserve; however, he also established a system of electric trolley cars in New York and Pittsfield.

Gaffney Bridge accident, 1910. Photo courtesy 'Berkshire Street Railway' by O. R. Cummings

Gaffney Bridge accident, 1910. Photo courtesy ‘Berkshire Street Railway’ by O. R. Cummings

Frank J. Sprague was credited with the invention of the electric trolley. He founded the Sprague Electric Railway and Motor Company and claimed the spoils, but not without legal battles. A Stockbridge man, Stephen Dudley Field, actually invented the electric trolley in 1874 – almost a decade earlier than Sprague. Field’s uncle was Supreme Court Justice Stephen Johnson Field, the last Supreme to be appointed by Abraham Lincoln. Unfortunately, his impeccable legal connections did not help in the lawsuit with Sprague.

Although no one disputed Field was the inventor who built the first electric streetcar, he lost in court. Why? Field ran it around his front yard in Stockbridge to the delight of the village children, but he could not get the financial backing to run it any­where else. Since he never ran a streetcar on a street, he lost his court case. He did not benefit financially from the trolley but he didn’t pout. He went on to invent the electric elevator and the fast stock ticker.

All mass transit leveled the economic playing field and the streetcar was no exception. That was the good news. Unfortunately, there was bad news as well. There were accidents.

Berkshire County did not experience as many accidents that resulted in loss of life or maiming as other parts of country, but it had its fair share. There was the odd and injurious juxtaposition of the trolley and the snow plow, and there were the unfortunate derailings.

The worst of the derailings happened Feb. 9, 1910, at 6:15 a.m. with 70 passengers aboard. When the trolley left the track, it was travelling at 50 mph. It smashed into a support abutment at the Gaffney Bridge in Dalton. One passenger was killed, many were injured, and it took 12 hours to clear the wreckage.

Accident in East Lee, 1903. Photo courtesy 'Berkshire Street Railway' by O. R. Cummings

Accident in East Lee, 1903. Photo courtesy ‘Berkshire Street Railway’ by O. R. Cummings

The accident on Sept. 4, 1902, was reported on nationally. President Theodore Roosevelt, Gov. Murray Crane and a Secret Service man named William Craig were traveling by horse and carriage down South Street in Pittsfield when they came afoul of the trolley. The President and Governor were only slightly injured but the horse was killed and so was Craig. He was the first Secret Service man to die in the line of duty.

There were other incidents. For example, in 1902, a conductor on the Dalton line attempted to eject a passenger for smoking. He refused to leave the trolley and a scuffle ensued. Eventually the passenger was arrested for disturbing the peace and maiming. He was sentenced to three months.

There were also financial problems. Streetcar companies paid ordinary business and property taxes as well as franchise fees. They maintained at least a shared right of way, provided street sweeping and snow clearance. Early electric cars had the additional expense of a two-man crew. Many franchise fees were fixed or based on gross, not net, ticket sales. All those costs created financial pressure that needed to be offset, but the fares were fixed.

The companies retained the 5-cent fare even as they lost money. In 1915 rates were raised to 6 cents and they added a 2-cent charge for transfers, but the companies continued to lose money. In 1917 rates in Berkshire County rose as high as 25–30 cents per ride; nonetheless, either the rate per ride or the number of riders was still too low. By 1918 half of the streetcar companies in the United States were in bankruptcy. The trolley was outrun by the automobile and eventually seen as obsolete and an obstruction to traffic. By the 1930s the cars were gone and the tracks were being dug up.

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9 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Teresa O'Brient says:

    Thanks, Carol. Stephen Dudley Field–a fascinating person!

  2. Susan P. Bachelder says:

    Thanks for the Clang Clang Clang! Egremont had a trolley that brought the workers to the Dalzell Axle Factory. Both gone but not forgotten. Loved the photos!

  3. Michael Forbes Wilcox says:

    Nicely done, as usual. I always learn new things from Carole’s writings. I have a vague recollection that my grandmother might have told me the story of the circular trolley, but of course that was 60 years ago or more.

    I would add one factor to the demise of the trolley systems. In the end, it was buses that provided a cheaper and more flexible means of mass transit, but, along the way, much of the financial distress of the trolley companies was attributable to self-dealing. Owners of construction companies would organize a stock company to run a trolley line, raise money from the public, and award themselves the contract to build the line. They became wealthy, but they had no interest in the trolley companies being financially viable. Overcapacity, coupled with the fixed fares that Carole mentioned, led to financial ruin for the trolley corporations. At the same time, they provided a cheap and reliable means for people to get to work. Most of the lines ran along rivers, especially the Housatonic, because that’s where the mills were located.

    My mother told me some of her recollections of the trolley era, although they stopped running while she was still a teenager.

    Thanks for the additional history lesson!

  4. Bruce Bernstein says:

    Thank you for bringing up alternative means of transportation here in Berkshire County. When I saw the headline, I was hoping your article would have shown the value and importance of public transportation, rather than a focus on the accident rate. Lack of access to an automobile remains a major concern for many living here, including seniors, young people, handicapped, new arrivals looking for work, etc. Here in Egremont I’d love to see some exploration of possible re-use of the old trolley line that took us to Great Barrington.

  5. Tony Blair says:

    When they were digging up Main Street in Great Barrington the old trolley rails were still under the pavement at least in some areas. Not any more.

  6. Norma Strassler says:

    Thank you for the interesting article! I remember the trolleys in New York City and loved to ride on them. They also went by (bye) the way of buses which I to this day do not enjoy as this means of transportation gives me some degree of motion sickness.

  7. Jack Trowill/Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum says:

    Ms Owens’ article presented a fine over-view of Berkshire trolleys, which served most of the towns and cities in Berkshire County for over 30 years. However, the competing New York, New Haven & Hartford RR resented the invasion of their “territory” in south Berkshire, bought-out the Berkshire Street Railway and eventually (1932) put it out of business by substituting the more economical and flexible buses. During their reign, the prolific trolley system, which connected all of Berkshire County; Bennington, VT; Hoosick Falls, NY; and Canaan, CT, provided reliable public services for commuting, shopping, visiting, business, and goods delivery.

  8. Caroline says:

    great article, Carol!

  9. Carole Owens says:

    Thank you all for taking the time to comment and for the additional information your provided

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