Ever since childhood in the '50s, I have had a special love for old-time diners and the Berkshires had several of them. Yet only a few are still operating these days.
Fast-food eateries, pancake houses and motels with breakfasts have put a damper on the diner trade for breakfasts and lunches over the years. One of my favorite diners was the Bridge Lunch at 220 North St., located above the railroad tracks beside the Eagle Street Bridge. The diner was first opened by John "Jack" O'Laughlin, who was a conductor on the old Pittsfield-Dalton trolley line.
As a youngster, Jack experienced a lunch cart that was located by a railroad bridge in nearby Springfield. From those days he dreamed that someday he would operate his own lunch cart. In January 1907, Jack made this dream come true when he had purchased a trolley-style Franklin Lunch Cart manufactured by a former diner operator from Worcester named John Hennigan. The ten-stool wagon was hauled to Pittsfield by six horses in what must have been quite a journey. There were numerous low bridges over the route and so the cart's wheels had to be removed at each overpass and the cart was dragged or rolled to clear the spans.
On North Street, Jack got the rights from the railroad to locate his cart on the small plot on North Street and by February he was open for business, offering "basic American Cuisine." Jack's wife, Harriet, initially helped by baking beans and making pies and rice pudding, but soon Jack needed a full-time baker.
Although the dining cart was on wheels and operated like today's food trucks, it was never moved to other spots in town. Jack developed a great business at its location and feared the railroad might re-develop the land if he moved off the spot. Over the years, the lunch cart had been replaced a couple of times by bigger diners, the last being an 18-stool structure that many of us remember in Baby Boom years.
The O'Laughlins were blessed with 10 children who all worked in the family enterprise. The eatery became a social center, political forum and cafeteria of city employees, newspaper workers and other regulars with few female patrons or employees until after WWII. (Glad to say Jack became more liberated!)
Donned in silk shirts and bow ties, the diner entrepreneur worked his trade offering great hospitality to everyone who came in. His generosity was well-known as many times patrons who could not afford a meal were not turned away. Being near the railroad tracks below, the Bridge Lunch was a popular stop for passing freight trains that paused long enough for workers to climb the embankment and get a cup of fresh coffee at the back door near the tracks.
Jack passed away in 1950 after 43 years as the proprietor of the eatery. His family continued operating the busy and popular Bridge Lunch. By 1954, the restaurant was serving up to 1,400 patrons a day — not a bad patronage for a place that had space for only 18 diners to sit.
Following the O'Laughlin family management, there were a few other owners, including Harry Schreck and Louis Kronick, Joseph DiRoma, Eleanor Sonsini, Homer King, Edward G. Hall, and partners Riccardo DeLuca and Lionel Smith.
The latter men remodeled the Bridge Lunch in 1977 and changed the name to DeLuca's Dining Car. The establishment lasted a couple more years. Then it sat vacant for three years and was razed in 1982 for a revamped railroad underpass and construction of the small Sottile Park. Pittsfield lost a great piece of the city's dining history. But if we sit at the park and watch the occasional freight train roll by, we can almost smell the hot coffee from the Bridge Lunch.
Jim Shulman, a Pittsfield native, is the founder of the Berkshire Carousel and author of "Berkshire Memories: A Baby Boomer Looks Back at Growing Up in Pittsfield." For more information on the project and books (Volume I and II), go to berkshirecarousel.com.