SHEFFIELD — Decades before passengers first hopped aboard the "B" buses, Berkshire County was home to the most far reaching public transportation system in the country.
At its peak during World War I, the Berkshire Street Railway was the only electrified trolley system in America to run trains in four states on 162 miles of track — the most of any single trolley operation, according to local historians.
The line stretched from Canaan, Conn. through the Berkshires into Bennington, Vt., and Hoosick Falls, N.Y.
But the public's desire for streetcar service was short-lived — the Ford Model T and other affordable four-wheeled vehicles at the same time began the country's love affair with the open road.
"Just as the great trolley system was installed, the introduction of the automobile doomed the trolley [because] people liked the freedom of not being tied to a railway schedule," said Great Barrington Historical Society archivist Gary Leveille.
The long-forgotten Berkshire Street Railway is briefly back in the spotlight as the Great Barrington and Sheffield historical societies have collaborated on a exhibit focusing on the trolley's heyday.
Dozens of Leveille's photographs and memorabilia from Pittsfield's Ted Wichmann — a lifelong train buff — highlight the display at the Old Stone Store, Sheffield Historical Society's gallery and gift shop on Main Street. The show runs through May 15; store hours are weekends only, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. both days.
The trolley connection, in part, prompted the first-ever joint exhibit of the two long-established historical groups who have been eager to collaborate, according to Sheffield Historical Society President Paul O'Brien.
"We share membership, we share history and we often attend each others events," he said.
The trolley service originated as horse-drawn streetcars in Pittsfield beginning in 1886, eventually evolving into one of the 10 trolley systems that would serve Pittsfield, North Berkshire, Southern Vermont and Hoosick Falls that all merged in 1901. The new Berkshire Street Railway would also serve Lee, Lenox, Stockbridge and Great Barrington, extending into Sheffield and Canaan by 1910.
Nine years later, a railway workers strike proved a death knell for the Sheffield/Canaan line that was discontinued after the labor dispute ended.
"Dismantling the overhead wires and tracks took eight years — about as long as the trolley ran on the Sheffield/Canaan line," said Jennifer Owens, Sheffield Historical Society administrator.
As the popularity of automobiles grew and roads became paved, trolley ridership declined, and by November 1932, the last electric trolleys ran over the line between Pittsfield and Dalton, according to The Eagle archives.
Streetcars gave way to buses that ran the same trolley routes over the idle tracks, all thought to have been uprooted during World War II — until a year ago. Last summer, workers reconstructing Main Street in the heart of Great Barrington unearthed the heavy metal buried under layers of gravel and asphalt.
"Everyone assumed the rails had been ripped up for the war effort," Leveille said.
Before the rusted track was hauled off for recycling, Leveille managed to save a piece of local trolley history that's included in the current exhibit.
Wichmann's contribution to the exhibit stems from his great uncle, Ernest Gallup, who was a motorman for the Berkshire Street Railway and later one of its bus drivers.
"He hated the buses," Wichmann said.
His collection includes a photograph of Gallup, a scale model of the trolley and badges he's acquired over the years.
"The hat badge from the Pittsfield Electric Street Railway is one of the oldest items I have," he said.
Contact Dick Lindsay at 413-496-6233.