Bernard A. Drew: H.F. Keith: A stubborn advocate of rail


GREAT BARRINGTON >> Indefatigible railroad advocate and civil engineer Herbert Fisher Keith (1842-1915), born in Grafton, Mass., was at least a part-time Mount Washington resident for three decades. Keenly interested in the past, he published histories of Mount Washington, of early Berkshire roads and of Berkshire railroads.

Keith got the railroad bug in 1874 when, as civil engineer to the Boston & Northwestern Railroad, he directed survey work on a proposed rail line from Marlboro to Framingham.

But why stop in Framingham? With construction of the Poughkeepsie bridge over the Hudson River underway, some envisioned new east-west transportation opportunities through Connecticut. Keith countered with the idea of a rail line from Otis across South Berkshire to Egremont, there to go over the mountain to join another line to be built south in New York state, altogether forming the proposed Boston & Poughkeepsie Railroad, "becoming convinced, from an examination of a topographical map of the state, that a shorter and more direct route to Poughkeepsie could be had through southwestern Massachusetts than that by the zigzag course of the New York & New England or Connecticut Western through Connecticut," he explained.

Only rudimentary Massachusetts topographical maps existed at the time. When Keith drew a line from Springfield to Egremont, he appears to have disregarded the steep hills in between.

The engineer came to the Berkshires in 1875 to check the terrain. He wasn't discouraged. "The route appearing feasible," he said, "in November a line of levels was run."

H.F. Walling published Keith's speculative "Map of the Boston and Northwestern Massachusetts Central and Boston and Poughkeepsie Railroad and Their Connections in 1877." The rail route from Granville climbs to Cold Spring, East and West Otis, Monterey through Konkapot Col then past Belcher Square into Great Barrington and on to South Egremont into New York as far as the Copake Iron Works, where it would connect with an existing rail line.

Keith liked it here. He established an office in Town Hall, Great Barrington, and he and his wife soon established residence on West Road in Mount Washington. He rounded up locals Egbert Hollister, David Dalzell and others to petition the legislature as backers and the Boston & Poughkeepsie received its charter in 1878. The plan foundered when the commonwealth, mired in debt with other, still incomplete rail lines, failed to appropriate or loan upwards of $6 million.

In 1896 Keith surveyed a line for the proposed Hudson River & Berkshire line. He estimated it would cost $2.5 million to build. It never was.

Elevations no obstacle

In 1898, Keith found new supporters including Frank H. Wright and Orlando C. Bidwell for a steam rail line "from Springfield, Mass., through Hampden and Berkshire counties to New York state." He sought a charter to establish a street railway to traverse from Monterey through Great Barrington and Egremont, over Mount Washington and then down to Copake.

A trolley line over Mount Washington? Again, elevations were no obstacle, in Keith's mind.

Here, Keith had an ulterior motive. He had purchased the former Henry Goodale Sky Farm, where the famed Apple Blossom Poets Elaine and Dora Read Goodale were reared, home-schooled and became momentary bestselling versifiers in the 1880s. Keith turned the Goodale farmhouse into a B&B. Then he schemed out a resort subdivision, and created a "Map of Taconic Woodlands" in 1892, setting out small building lots. Vacationers, he expected would use the old farmhouse as a clubhouse.

The vacation subdivision didn't fly either and the old Goodale potato farm is part of Mount Washington State Forest today.

Keith ran for state representative in 1906, in part to promote the expanded idea of a "cross-country railroad from Mount Washington to Tolland, through the towns of Great Barrington, Monterey, Sandisfield and Otis."

In 1902, as consulting engineer he still boosted a New York & Berkshire Street Railway Co. (R.C. Taft was president, William C. Dalzell secretary) for passengers and freight and succeeded so far as to receive a state charter for the proposed 65-mile road. There it ended.

Keith's standing with the Massachusetts legislature wore thin. As the Fitchburg Sentinal noted in 1909, in talking about a petition for state ownership of the Boston & Maine Railroad, Keith "has been a railroad engineer before the legislature more or less for many years. But if he represented large capital or a strong popular movement, his efforts would command more attention."

Keith was stubborn. The Berkshire Courier reported in 1891 an idea he had for Great Barrington: "H.F. Keith of Mount Washington, who owns a valuable tract of woodland on the mountain east of this town, proposes to survey a route for a carriage road to the summit of the mountain, so that pleasure seekers can visit Mount Bryant and other interesting places in the locality."

Anyone visiting Mount Bryant today — the peak above East Rock, above Quarry Street — has to walk the steep woodland trail.

Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.


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