Bernard A. Drew: Hiking in search of towers

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GREAT BARRINGTON >> You wouldn't to expect to find remnants of an old trolley power line deep in the woods. But that's the goal my Housatonic Heritage hike this year.

A horse-drawn street railway was organized in Pittsfield 1901 with ambitious plans to establish a trolley route from Adams to Sheffield. The initial 42 miles of track ran from Cheshire to the old golf course in Great Barrington. The first streetcar rolled into Great Barrington in 1905.

When Pittsfield Electric Street Railway refused to extend its rails to the Peck Manufacturing textile mill in Pittsfield, Ralph D. Gillett, a major Peck investor, recruited other industrialists, including Frank Weston of Dalton, B.D. Rising of Housatonic and John P. Pomeroy of Great Barrington to establish Berkshire Street Railway (BSR).

BSR built a system that served all of Berkshire County. In 1910 it absorbed its competitor, Pittsfield Electric Street Railway. The New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad purchased the franchise that same year just as the trolley line had started two ambitious projects: the Huckleberry Line from Lee to Westfield and extensions from Great Barrington to Egremont and to North Canaan, Conn.

Woronoco Construction Co., of which Gillett was president, secured the contract for the South Egremont and Canaan track work. Berkshire Street Railway needed more electricity and announced plans to install an electrical line from its power station in Pittsfield south to a substation in Lee, the wires to be placed along the NY, NH&H right of way. It would take less wire and fewer towers to go from Lee straight up and over Beartown, across Three Mile Hill, over Warner and East mountains and the north end of June Mountain to just beyond the Housatonic River, to connect with a power substation in Sheffield.

The trolley company surveyed its route, secured rights-of-way and installed steel rails. These the public could see. Less visible was the line of transmission towers through the woods.

The first trolley trips to Sheffield and Canaan were on June 2, 1911. To keep a long and fascinating story short, the Berkshire trolley went into a slow decline, largely due to the advent of the automobile. The last South County electric car left Pittsfield on Jan. 18, 1930. Berkshire Street Railway began bus routes. Tracks were taken up. Steel transmission towers near roads were removed. Towers deep in the woods were left behind — out of sight, out of mind.

If you are curious about the towers, I offer my Housatonic Heritage hikes (one Saturday morning, Sept. 17, at 9:30, repeated Sunday afternoon, Sept. 18, at 1 p.m.) to look at some. The hikes, sponsored by the Great Barrington Historical Society and Great Barrington Fire District, will include the longest span on the entire transmission line — 1,025 feet down a major cliff on East Mountain. If you're interested, find Pine Street, on the Brooklyn side of town, park along the road on the south side and walk to the Great Barrington Fire District gate.

I will also give some history of the town's first reservoir as we follow the Old Road Over the Mountain before diverting onto woods roads to find the towers. Dress appropriately, bring water, plan to be out for more than two hours. It's free.

Housatonic Heritage is sponsoring three weekends of hikes this year; find a brochure or check the web page for details. There are opportunities to explore the Housatonic River, stone walls at Bidwell House, the grounds at The Mount, the trees at Hilltop Orchard, Cookson State Forest and Upper Goose Pond and more.

Housatonic Heritage has offered these annual treks since 2002. With my two this year, I will have led 23 hikes. It's fun to come up with a new route each year — I'm sure there's never been an organized excursion to see these transmission towers, though the hardy explorer or deer hunter will find them in Beartown State Forest, Monument Valley, Three Mile Hill and Warner Mountain.

If you're wondering why anyone wants to go into the woods to look at dirt, water and rust they're part of our amazing heritage!

Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.


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