Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum adds historic Stockbridge Station to attractions
STOCKBRIDGE -- The Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum has acquired control of the historic Stockbridge station from the High Meadow Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Fitzpatrick Companies, owners of the Red Lion Inn and Country Curtains.
Celebrating the recently finalized lease agreement with High Meadow, Pamela Green, general counsel and special events coordinator for the museum, described the upcoming new life for the vacant, 120-year-old landmark as a fitting tribute to the legacy of the late state Sen. Jack Fitzpatrick, an ardent railroad buff who would often greet riders on the tourist trains arriving in Stockbridge from Lenox and Lee.
"We're thrilled because we know how much this place meant to Jack," Green said, during an interview at the English gothic revival structure off South Main Street (Route 7) south of the Red Lion Inn. "He loved this station, came down frequently and met the trains. To be the new custodians of it, to be able to preserve it, is humbling and a great honor."
- 1850: Original station built; destroyed by fire June 30, 1892. A stop along the Stockbridge and Pittsfield Railroad, later the (original) Housatonic Railroad.
- 1893: New station constructed, English gothic revival style. A stop along the New York, New Haven and Hartford line, 1898-1968.
- 1965: A kitchen fire in the Chemin de Fer nightclub, housed inside the station, guts the structure, requiring massive interior reconstruction.
- 1968: Penn Central Railroad takes over the line but terminates passenger service in 1971 due to declining ridership.
- 1976: Conrail acquires the rail line, sells it to the Boston & Maine Railroad in 1981.
- 1984: Berkshire Scenic Railway operates tourist trains between Lee and Great Barrington, with a Stockbridge stopover, closing in 1989 because of poor track conditions.
- 1986: Guilford Transportation Industries buys the line, sells it to the Housatonic Railroad in 1991, which retains track ownership.
- 1997: Jack and Jane Fitzpatrick's High Meadow Foundation purchases the station, makes further structural improvements.
- 2003-11: Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum offers scenic rides from Lenox to Stockbridge, terminated in 2011 in a dispute with Housatonic Railroad.
- 2013: Berkshire Scenic acquires control of Stockbridge Station under a lease arrangement with High Meadow Foundation.
No longer offering its popular scenic railway rides, the Berkshire Scenic Railroad Museum also is emerging from bare-bones survival mode and reinventing itself as a repository for railroad lore. The Stockbridge station could be the opportunity that rejuvenates both interest and revenues for the Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum.
"Since these two stations, Stockbridge and Lenox, were part of the Gilded Age and with the new interest from the TV shows [such as ‘Downton Abbey'], we want to capitalize on that by holding events with the local historical groups," said Jack Trowill, curator of the Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum curator. He cited Ventfort Hall, Naumkeag and The Mount, home of the Edith Wharton Restoration, as potential event partners.
The Stockbridge station, used as a terminal for Gilded Age families arriving for their summer stays in the Berkshires, later became a destination for ski trains bearing visitors from New York during the 1940s and 1950s. But passenger service was cut back gradually until the last scheduled train operated by the old Penn Central line ended its run in 1971, according to a timeline compiled by Trowill. The Housatonic Railroad Co. still operates a freight run, once a day in each direction, on most weekdays.
The High Meadow Foundation has owned the Stockbridge station since 1997. The Berkshire Scenic Railroad Museum is based at the Lenox train station.
As of last year, tourist trains no longer ply the scenic route, since the Housatonic Railroad Co.'s owners sidetracked the Berkshire Scenic Railroad Museum's lease arrangement through the state of Massachusetts to operate the seasonal excursions.
Although the Berkshire Scenic Railroad Museum continues to maintain an extensive exhibit of vintage locomotives and rail cars at the Lenox station, its attendance and revenues plummeted sharply last year.
"The impact was incredibly drastic," Green said. "It was a very difficult year for us. The loss of train-ticket revenue was devastating to our bottom line for 2012."
The museum halted restoration projects and hosted a trickle of visitors to its Lenox site at a $5 admission charge, compared to the average $15 cost of scenic train rides. May to October attendance dropped by 90 percent -- from 12,015 in 2011 to 2,017 for 2012 -- and revenues were off by 93 percent, though expenses also declined sharply, according to Green.
With the railway excursions no longer operating, the museum adapted to offer a new experience for visitors.
"We gave [museum-goers] custom tours of the locomotive cabs, the Gilded Age coach and the caboose, along with demonstrations of how signaling worked on a one-track line," said Trowill. Visitors were offered 300-yard runs on track sidings owned by the museum at the station.
"We survived the year as a break-even operation," said Green.
But the Stockbridge station will revive the all-volunteer, nonprofit museum, Green explained, by generating much-needed revenue from special events such as weddings, business gatherings and other attractions, in addition to the local community's annual antique firetruck display, vintage car shows and other attractions that are still to be lined up. The site is expected to re-open on Memorial Day weekend with a celebratory event.
But, Green emphasized, the Lenox station will continue to be the focal point of the museum as it hosts visitors with a keen interest in the history of railroading.
The lease arrangement with High Meadow is year-by-year with automatic renewal, but is intended to be a long-term commitment by both sides, Green explained.
"We've always had an interest in the Stockbridge station because it's an important historical fixture in the history of railroading in Berkshire County," she said, adding that the museum had been discussing with High Meadow a potential acquisition of the station since 2011. Last month, the Fitzpatricks' foundation approached the museum with the no-cost lease proposal, other than maintenance for less than $10,000 a year, including insurance.
In addition to special events, the site will be a home for exhibits and displays covering the history of the station and railroading in the county. Exhibits will be housed in a storage shed when the station, with a capacity of up to 100, hosts parties on a one-acre portion of the five-acre property. Additional guests can be accommodated in tents that would be set up adjacent to the building.
During the 1970s and 1980s, John Henry's restaurant operated in the Stockbridge train station, offering macrobiotic cuisine, live bands and dance parties. An earlier nightclub, Chemin de Fer, hosted party-goers until a devastating fire gutted the station in 1965, setting the stage for an extensive interior renovation.
The Berkshire Scenic Railway operated trains from Lee to Great Barrington, with a Stockbridge stopover, from 1984 to 1989; the 90-minute round-trip rides from Lenox to Stockbridge ran for nine seasons, beginning in 2003.
"At this point in time, there has been no further discussion with Housatonic Railroad" about any potential resumption of tourist trains, Green said. "There's no optimism for our return. Long-term, way down the road, I hope that things change and we get to bring trains down here again. I'm never going to totally give up on that, but in the meantime there are so many other wonderful things we can do down here."
To contact Clarence Fanto:
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On Twitter: @BE_cfanto