When trains saved the day

Monday November 7, 2011

There's no individual to ballyhoo today, unless it's the guy responsible for the train.

Pittsfield's industry in the 1830s was beginning to outgrow the transportation needed to both send its products out of town and to bring into town the materials needed to make those products. Pittsfield industry continues to bellyache over the fact that it's not on a main and viable transportation line, and those growing pains were also heard loud and clear more than 150 years ago. Actually, concerns then and now should be perceived as valid.

The industrial talent base here was keen and the woolen products in particular were in great demand to the west in Albany, N.Y., and to the east in Boston. There were only two main routes into Pittsfield during those days; what we might know better now as Route 20 -- to Albany to the west and Boston to the east -- and Route 9 to Northampton. There were side roads into Great Barrington, but they began to dissolve at the Connecticut border. And roads in the 1830s were neither well-maintained nor easy to travel upon, so the rough terrain faced by the first Pittsfield settlers at Pontoosuc Plantation were still a big part of the landscape.

It's said that "sensible men" in Boston believed the transportation woes to be dire enough that a plan was mapped out to build a canal from Boston to the Hudson River south of Albany. A canal? The original canal plan called for the route to swish its way right through Pittsfield in order to take advantage of its many rivers, lakes and streams.

The train, however, saved the day. It was nothing more than a survey that suggested the tracks roll through Pittsfield, but that decision's impact on the evolution of the town would be felt for more than a century. General Electric, for example, brought in materials daily for years that were delivered directly to the heart of the plant.

The first train into Pittsfield -- a locomotive and one car -- crept into town on May 4, 1841. By the end of the year, two passenger trains a day swept into town on its Boston-to-Albany-and-back route, and it wasn't long before freight service became part of the schedule. It was through the freights that Pittsfield saw the first coal it ever burned arrive. Coal that people literally would have fought over 100 years later during the Great Depression spent days laying there -- like lumps of coal, you might say -- with no takers. Pittsfield, at the time, was strictly a wood-burning town. The coal slowly disappeared over time to nobody's outward protest.

The first depot, "a fantastic wooden contraption," was built on the west side of North Street. Passengers boarded or departed through a "dank, greasy, smoky" tunnel below the tracks and had to walk up steep flights of stairs to reach street level. A fire destroyed that first station in 1854 -- there were no tears shed -- and a new one was built a bit further to the west on Depot Street.

Opulent Union Station, a city jewel taken down as part of an urban renewal plan during the 1980s, was still out there on the horizon. And that canal project? Had it commenced, it might just about be in the finishing stages.


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