Nearly 100 years separate these two photos. They are both taken from the same perspective. Note the mountains are the same in the background.
Building the Western R.R.
The most important railroad towns are junction points, where two or more lines intersect. This was not the case with Chester, Massachusetts, unless you were to count the Chester & Becket branch, which left the main line here; but it was abandoned by 1930.
Chester’s importance lies in the fact that it was at the bottom of a quite imposing grade irrespective of it’s 1.65% gradient and 52% curvature. This grade elicits respect because it is the oldest main line mountain railroad in the world.
Due to it’s location at the bottom of said grade a roundhouse with pusher engines was constructed here. Actually, for about the first twenty years of railroad operation, pushers were stationed at the top of the hill, in Washington, until they were inexplicably relocated.
These facilities being in Chester caused it to blossom into quite the railroad town. At one time 150 families had someone who worked for the railroad. This earned Chester a reputation as the “cheapest town on the railroad”, referring to the fact that very few tickets were sold here, faulting the high volume of citizens who had a pass. The practice was for the railroad to issue free passes to employees and their families.
Speculation runs that this is one reason why the Chester depot was never replaced with a more imposing stone building during the late 19th century upgrades by the Boston & Albany. Stations of this era are well known, due to the fact renowned architect Henry Hobson Richardson designed nine of them. Another 26 of “Richardsonian” design, were built by his successors at the firm of Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge.
Another reason may lie in the fact that there were tracks on both sides of the building, complicating any attempt to locate another structure in a similar position while keeping the first one open.
As big a part as the railroad was in Chester life, it was far from the only way people earned a living in these foothills of the Berkshires. Chester was the first place in America where emery was discovered and the entire grinding industry began here. Abrasive materials were produced in Chester until 1980, a hundred year run.
Finnish immigrants found work among the rich veins of granite peculiar to the area. Chester Blue is the variety found only here. That was a trade name respected throughout the industry. Three quarries in Becket, five miles distant, supplied two competing finishing works in downtown Chester. The Chester & Becket branch of the Boston & Albany Railroad carried the heavy stone down the mountain from Becket. Mica was another mineral extensively mined until, after World War II, the synthetic material, “for- mica” became available.
The railroad, here as in endless manufacturing centers across the land, serves as the trunk of the industrial tree without which mining and manufacturing fruits would wither. In view of the central placement of the railroad in the social and business lives of residents, plus the fact that the Chester Foundation is housed in the 1840 timber-framed railroad station built by the Western Railroad, we tend to present history through the railroad lens. We also are not averse to exploring other sites along the line in other towns, as no locality operated within a vacuum; such was the emerging nature of American life since the invention of the railroad.
A large part of what makes history in and around Chester so fascinating is the building of this first ever mountain railroad, which began, in earnest, the transportation revolution. Obstacles were located all along the route and a study of Chester in isolation would obscure the full impact of what the project accomplished.
Many early railroad projects have gained more notoriety. The Hoosac Tunnel comes to mind, but was it an efficient way of delivering tracks across the Berkshire Hills? It took 25 years to dig the tunnel, limiting transportation options for on-line communities during that period. The Baltimore & Ohio R.R. was the first chartered railroad in America (1827) but took 28 years to reach it’s declared terminus: the Ohio River (referenced by the ‘Ohio’ in the name). If we judge a railroad project by the measure of getting trains running ASAP, are these America’s true milestones?
By contrast, the Western R.R. was completed in 2.5 years, ahead of schedule and under budget. Oh yes, did we mention it was also the largest and most difficult railroad project ever attempted, requiring innovative methodology along almost every mile? It was created under the expert guidance of Maj. George Washington Whistler, ‘Whistler’s father’. When complete, it was the highest (1458 ft.) and longest (150 miles) railroad ever built and included the longest bridge in the world, across the Connecticut River at West Springfield, MA.
This is certainly not to infer that the Western was constructed in slap-dash fashion to push the line through and worry about longevity later. In fact, Whistler encountered opposition from directors and legislators, who espoused this very philosophy. Whistler insisted on grading the line for double track along it’s length, in anticipation of massive traffic growth. While only one track was initially laid, the second was needed within ten years. In the early 20th century, under New York Central, many miles had a third track added to relieve congestion.
There were times Whistler was at odds with towns along the line, as well. These early lines weren’t granted carte blanch, as is now the case behind eminent domain. A pivotal example concerns the Town of Middlefield, MA, which denied Whistler access to town center, afraid the belching locomotives would affect quality of life. This set into motion the gradient of a steeper route, which lead directly toward the mysterious Muddy Pond and Hinsdale Flats peat bogs. This alignment required unprecedented engineering feats (with tracks here sinking out of sight completely twice in the early history of the line).
It also led to the creation of “two Middlefields”, one, the traditional town center on the hilltop, agricultural in nature and the section, previously unsettled, which came to be known as Bancroft and derisively in town, as “the switch”; decidedly industrial in nature. Both sections had Post Offices and school districts. Today, the industrial Middlefield comprises little more than cellar holes and the agricultural center has faired little better, although there is still limited farming and the oldest hilltown country fair, The Middlefield Fair, nears it’s 150th anniversary.
This mountain crossing, since it’s opening in May, 1841, has been on the cutting edge of railroad technology and lore many times. One of the most storied, concerns the development of the 2-8-4 locomotive, on most railroads called “Berkshires”, after the mountains they were tested on, which ushered in the era of super-powered steam.
Hudsons, Mowhawks and Niagras trod here as well. The first diesels were a four unit set of Alco FA’s decked out in bunting. Within six months, the fanfare had subsided when Chester saw it’s roundhouse close, a victim of the new machines’ efficiencies. Most of the other facilities, including a manned station, shortly followed suit.
Chester maintains some unique railroad atmosphere, though. While considered a siding, the hill has remained double-tracked. One can almost believe it is the glory days as trains still pass at speed here. There is also a one-of-a-kind lineside industry, where multi-ton granite slabs are offloaded using an excavator with forks on the boom. Sounds more like a LIONEL accessory, doesn’t it?
As a living museum of contemporary railroading, the ‘Boston Line’ is a treasure. From the newest “70-Aces” locomotives to the Lake Shore Limited, from articulated stack cars,
to the rail grinding train, most of what’s exciting about 21st century railroading passes through Chester.
Within the walls of the museum and our collection of restored freight
rolling stock, are found many examples of past glories visited upon this
Circa 1840 Something?
On the question of when the station was built, an easy answer eludes us. Writings concerning the opening of the Western R.R., clearly state that there was a station in Chester in May of 1841. Were it not for a tiny drawing which appeared in 1847, we might conclude that the present station was the one of which they speak.
The drawing (reproduced below) appeared in the volume, published in1847, called A CHART & DESCRIPTION OF THE WESTERN RAILROAD. It was only two inches wide in the book and hard to decipher. There appears to be an overhead span of some sort, which crosses the tracks. There is a central monolith with two similar, but smaller structures on each side. There appears to be an arched-portico-ed building behind this, running parallel to the tracks. No other station in the book is of this design and we have seen nothing like it elsewhere.
The station now standing is a simple Italianate structure. Italianate architecture is generally thought to have been introduced in America in 1850. We also found no documents in the building older than 1850. However, they could have been moved there from an earlier structure and so cannot be relied upon for a firm date. Another wrinkle is that the Chester Depot follows a common design along the railroad.
Stations at Becket, Washington, Hinsdale, State Line, Cheshire, Winchendon, among others, all display identical architectural details. The chief difference is in the lengths of the various buildings. Chester was the longest among all of the above, because it was built as an eating station; in the days before dining cars.
It seems obvious that the design became something of a standard rural depot during the railroad’s early period and could help determine the age of Chester, if we were fortunate enough to know the built dates of any of the others, which we are not.
All the other stations were replaced by the New York Central during the 1880 to 1900 period. The wooden Hinsdale station was moved, rather than razed, and can still be seen, although not alongside the tracks. Nine replacement stations gained fame as the work of famed architect, Henry Hobson Richardson. Twenty two others are products of the firm of Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge, in the ‘Richardson style’, following the formers’ untimely demise.
The NYC wanted a more regal public persona under its management of the Boston & Albany line, and thus built the more substantial stone stations most remember. Why was the Chester station never replaced? Two possibilities come to mind. First, it was located in a rather unique way, with tracks on both sides of the building, making replacement more disruptive to rail traffic.
More plausible, is the purely political suggestion based on Chester’s reputation among employees as the “cheapest station on the line.” This referred to the fact that Chester had such a high percentage of B&A employees among the population, that nearly everyone traveled on a pass. This resulted in disproportionately low ticket receipts. Chances are management didn’t see the need to impress citizens in such a low-revenue town.
Under consideration of this, we feel reasonably certain the station was here by 1850, and possibly earlier. The overhead structure in the drawing, like many of the early wooden stations, would have been extremely vulnerable to fire from the steam locomotives and may not have lasted long.
Even though the drawing was published in 1847, lead times for publication were much longer and the drawing may well not have been contemporary upon publication. Chances are good the station was built during the 1840’s and thus represents one of the earliest examples of Italianate architecture in America.
We would be most appreciative of any information our readers might be able to impart concerning the age of any of the other wooden rural Western Railroad stations.
The Chester Railway Station Museum is open
most Saturdays thru Tuesdays July through September
from 11 AM to 3 PM or by appointment.
Being an all volunteer organization, there may be gaps,
so we recommend calling ahead to insure access.
Call (413) 354-7878.
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