Carole Owens: The little railway that can
Talk about the little engine that could, in Berkshire County we have the little Berkshire Scenic Railway that can.
On April 30, 1971, the last passenger train stopped at the Stockbridge train station. Of course that was only one car attached to a diesel engine, "a last hurrah" for a few dedicated railroad men. The last regularly scheduled passenger train stopped at Stockbridge in 1968. After that date, excited passengers, conductors punching tickets, baggage handlers, all were gone; the station silent, its purpose a memory.
For the next 45 years, Stockbridge residents could hear a train whistle or see smoke rising in the distance a few times a week as freight trains rushed through the village on their way to someplace else. The trains had run since the mid-19th century, but after 1968, the only buzz around Stockbridge Station was endless speculation about when the trains might return.
The first Stockbridge Station was built circa 1850. There was regular passenger service in Stockbridge for the next 110 years. In the mid-19th century, Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge were transportation hubs for passengers and freight. South County was agricultural with a healthy mix of industry. Marble, wood, paper, and cloth were loaded on trains and traveled around the country from Berkshire mills and quarries. Passengers disembarked in South Berkshire to take their business to court; take their children to Berkshire private schools, and take themselves from crowded cities up and down the East coast to a Berkshire inn to relax.
In the 1850s, train stations were built of wood, so when the Stockbridge Station caught fire in 1892, it burned to the ground. It was replaced by the station that stands to this day. The stone station was fancier and so were the travelers. The Gilded Age had arrived and the trains carried many fewer products and many more tourists and cottagers. In autumn, the early morning trains to New York were loaded with produce, the Berkshire cottages provisioning the tables in the city palaces of The Four Hundred.
Once Stockbridge lost the trains there were times it feared it was bound to lose its 160-year-old train station as well. Then, in 1997, Jack and Jane Fitzpatrick purchased Stockbridge Station and restored it. The only passenger trains that stopped at the restored station were the Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum's round trips between Lenox, Lee and Stockbridge, providing charming journeys, replicating days gone by.
Last year, the Housatonic Railroad (located in Connecticut) denied BSRM use of its tracks. BSRM was stymied, its trains halted, its Lenox station silent and empty, its fate unknown.
On the last day of 2012, Jane Fitzpatrick, in a master stroke, leased the Stockbridge station to the BSRM. Now in control of both the Lenox and Stockbridge stations, the only sad note was that BSRM could not run trains between them.
So all the "exhibitions and events at the Lenox and Stockbridge Stations," according to BSRM curator Jack Trowill, "will be static."
The Eagle reported recently that images of the historic trains owned by BSRM are being used in ad copy. It is not surprising, as trains are romantic. They can symbolize adventure and exotic places, and yet there is something about the twin symbols of track and spire, train whistle and church bell, that spells New England village. I think, while the trains can't move, the people will still be moved by the experience of visiting the train stations, the trains, and BSRM exhibits.
Slowed but undaunted, BSRM negotiated in North County, and soon the trains of BSRM will run again. There will be short scenic rides from the Western Gateway Heritage Park in North Adams to the Adams train station, a journey from "downtown to downtown."
Never mind the big bad track owner or the uphill climb, talk about the little engine that could!
A Berkshire writer and historian, Carole Owens is a regular Eagle contributor.
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