Carole Owens: Train rides will provide link to Berkshire history


STOCKBRIDGE — It's coming!

Memorial Day weekend, you can once again board the Berkshire Scenic Railway. The train rides, always fun and educational, formerly ran between Lenox and Stockbridge. Now the BSR will run between North Adams and Adams.

Christened the Hoosac Valley Service, this seasonal train service is a collaborative project between Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum, North Adams, Adams, and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. The Hoosac Valley Service is a tourist transportation link between downtown Adams, North Adams, and the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail. (For schedule and fare information go to:

All aboard, and where are we off to?

Beauty and stories

The train departs from the Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum's new platform just south of the switch connecting the Adams Industrial Track to the PanAm Southern main line. This will be the starting point for the Hoosac Valley Service. Out the windows on either side, the beauty and the stories of the Berkshire Hills unfold.

First site: the area around the zylonite factory of Adams. It was the 1880s. Ivory was very popular but becoming too expensive. Celluloid was invented as a substitute. Sadly, celluloid was unstable and highly flammable.

A British concern headed by Daniel Spill was also working to create a substitute for ivory. Spill called his invention zylonite. Zylonite looked like ivory, as did celluloid, but unlike Celluloid when two zylonite objects collided, they did not explode. Unfortunately both were highly flammable.

Nevertheless, in 1881 men in Adams, using the Spill patent, founded the first American company to manufacture zylonite. It prospered and became the largest manufacturer of zylonite in America.

The Adams founders were aware of the material's positive and negative properties. So they built their plant near a fire station. As an added degree of protection, they requested an electric fire bell be installed, and therefore, the first electric fire alarm in Berkshire County was in Adams.

Not long after the manufacturing plant was up and running, a patent fight broke out between Hyatt and Spill. In 1891 the fight was resolved in favor of Hyatt. The credit and the right to manufacture a material to replace ivory went to Hyatt. The Adams plant had backed the wrong horse.

Berkshire County lost a plant, and its employees were forced to leave Berkshire County to work at Hyatt plants in New York. Berkshire County also lost bragging rights as the site of the largest American manufacturer of this new man-made material; or did it?

A new beginning

Five years after American Zylonite was founded, in March, 1886, William Stanley made a small experiment. In Great Barrington, Stanley lit up stores on Main Street with electricity. It was the first practical application of his patented transformer that allowed the use of alternating rather than direct current. It was a success and Stanley now needed a bigger canvas on which to paint his vision of the future. He wanted to demonstrate that with alternating current he could light the world, or if not the whole world, at least a broader geographic area and greater segment of the population.

Pittsfield businessmen, William W. Gamwell, W. A. Whittlesey, and William R. Plunkett, invited Stanley to move to Pittsfield and offered to bankroll Stanley with an initial investment of $30,000. That was $5,000 more than J.P. Morgan gave Thomas Alva Edison to develop direct current. Stanley accepted and moved to Pittsfield.

By 1891, the year American Zylonite closed, Stanley Electric Manufacturing Company and the Stanley Laboratories were well established. The following year the patent wars broke out and dragged on for years. In the end, only Westinghouse and General Electric remained. By 1903, the Stanley Works were gone and electric company holdings in Berkshire County became the property of General Electric.

What did GE have to do with zylonite? In 1909, GE invented the latest incarnation of celluloid and zylonite. GE called it bakelite. Its most endearing qualities were that Bakelite did not blow up on contact nor was it likely to spontaneously combust. The substitute for ivory; the material we called celluloid then zylonite, was now called bakelite. And then? Yes, it was finally called plastic.

Berkshire County got back its bragging rights. By 1930, GE Plastics in Berkshire County was the largest plastic manufacturer in the country. Other plastic manufacturers were established in Sheffield, and Berkshire County was considered a center for plastics manufacturing in America.

The train ride is replete with stories like this. Settle back and enjoy the ride. Regularly scheduled weekend operation begins on Memorial Day weekend.

A Berkshire writer and historian, Carole Owens is a regular Eagle contributor.


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