Chester Railway Museum celebrates 19th-century innovation


CHESTER -- The man who invented the locomotive whistle was aptly named Whistler.

In fact, while his son James McNeill Whistler claims world renown as an American artist, George Washington Whistler the civil engineer left a bigger impact on the world in which we live. He connected Boston to Albany through the Berkshire Mountains over the highest railroad bridges constructed in the mid-19th century and saved Boston from becoming a backwater.

Boston needed to connect to Albany and the just-completed Erie Canal, the gateway to the West. But Whistler's place in history is as lost and remote as the site of his keystone arches, edifices that tower 70 feet above the Westfield River, the state's first wild and scenic river, and are as inaccessible as anything on the East Coast.

"Takes a three hour hike to get there," said David Pierce, director of the Chester Railway Museum. "There are no roads in or out. There's only the abandoned rail track."

The abandoned track runs alongside the CSX track that today carries freight and passengers from Boston to Chicago past the picturesque 1919 train station, moved from between the tracks in 1990 to its present location on the tracks' east side. While some of the original six arches are no longer in use, a few still are.

Two of the tallest arches were sidelined when a 1912 modernization of the line by the New York Central Railroad took out a half mile of original track. The new track bypassed two sharp curves that followed into the mountainside and out again. A waterfall tumbles 1,400 feet nearby.

Those two arches are the focus of a $1.2 million restoration effort -- or were.

"These are historic treasures for the entire state," said Christopher Curtis, chief planner at the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission. "David Pierce and I have been trying to advocate for these bridges for a really long time. They are not known to people in Boston, and these are the people who we have to get support from."

MassDOT spokesman Mike Verseckes, asked what had happened to $1.2 million earmarked for the bridges' restoration, said, "I don't know."

He said the money was awarded 10 to 15 years ago. The project started a few years after that. Then it was stopped, almost immediately.

"It was apparent early on that there wasn't enough money to restore the bridges," Verseckes said. "And there were issues of access."

Now that his interest is piqued, Verseckes said he would do some digging to find the money, which wasn't spent on the bridges.

"It's an extremely complex process," Curtis said. "MassDOT took back the funds. At the time, they said there were right-of-way problems, with some properties along the line being privately owned and others owned by CSX; there were environmental permitting issues over the Westfield River and the need to de-water to get to the base of the bridges, and access to the site is extremely complicated. There are properties out there that it's not clear who owns them."

Like Pierce, Curtis feels a deep bond with the bridges.

"I've spent 10 years of my life trying to get this funded," Curtis said. "The setting of the bridges is what makes them so beautiful."

Quarried by Finnish stonecutters and constructed by thousands of Irish immigrants, whose shantytowns evolved into the small towns dotting the mountains, the granite used in the arches' keys is monumental. The granite keys in the arches are held by schist, the name for granite slag. The schist was laid dry and was also used for the vertical walls.

Designed like the Roman aqueduct system, the arches, one of which is a rare double span, carried track along a 150-mile road of the then Western Railroad.

"It was the first modern railroad and it was built here," said Pierce, whose commitment to the railway's preservation led him to sell his home and move to a condemned building, which he fixed up, its attraction being that it is a few steps from the railroad station.

With Durango, his 10-year old Aussie shepherd, Pierce opens and closes the small museum, schedules tours and provides hikers with a place to sleep in the train caboose.

A beautiful spot by any comparison, Chester and its railway station attracted the support of Vincent Dowling, the late Irish actor and former director of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Dowling was visiting friends in the Berkshires, attended an arts event in Chester and was so impressed with the area that he made it his home. That was 20 years ago. He was a staunch supporter of the railway museum's effort to get the arches restored. The theater gave benefits to fund the mostly volunteer museum.

"I'm living the dream," said Pierce, who claims descent from President Franklin Pierce, who lost a child in an early train wreck. "Pierce was only the second President to even ride a train."

More train-related tragedy dogged the Pierce line. Pierce's grandfather was killed in 1944 in a blizzard, when a train struck him as he unloaded mail on a Springfield siding.

A train spotter since his toddler days, Pierce recalls his father taking him to watch trains and then the pair would eat at a diner.

"The train built America," Pierce said.

And yet West Point, where Whistler the civil engineer, who was trained and taught geometric drawing, received a military commission and retired as a second lieutenant, does not remember him with a monument, despite his achievements in the design of early American locomotives, including the train whistle and the construction of the Middlesex Canal, and the Boston & Lowell, Baltimore & Ohio, Baltimore & Susquehanna, Paterson & Hudson, Stonington and Western (Masachusetts) Railroads, as well as the railroad connecting Moscow and St. Petersburg in Russia.

Knicknamed "Pipes," Whistler the cadet was known for playing his flute in and around West Point. He later invented the train whistle during his term as superintendent of the Locks and Canals machine shop in Lowell.

Most importantly for the state, however, he engineered the Boston & Albany Railroad.

At West Point, there is a statue to his son the artist, whose portrait, "Whistler's Mother," immortalized the mother and son. But the artist flunked out of West Point.

If you go ...

What: Chester Railway Museum

Where: 10 Prospect St., Chester

When: Weekends through October, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Information: (413) 354-7878


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