Sheffield Sub-station

The old street railway sub-stations in Sheffield have seen several reuses since the trolley line closed in 1930.

Windows are cinder-blocked. Openings in the sidewalls are rebricked. A steel ladder dangles from a skylight/trap door in the ceiling. The old building has been chopped, diced, spliced and added to over the decades to accommodate new uses. But it is inching back to life.

This brick cube was the final destination of an electric power line that ran from Pittsfield to Lee to just over the Great Barrington line in Sheffield in 1911. It provided electricity to the Berkshire Street Railway, which needed a greater supply of power for a new spur to South Egremont. The substation had modest architectural features including tall, arched multi-pane windows, entrance doors with curved transoms, bump-out columns going up the sides and dentil work near the top.

Electricity was generated on East Street in Pittsfield and sent south on wires attached to wooden poles (milled by Warren H. Davis, a Great Barrington entrepreneur of African descent) along the New York, New Haven and Hartford line to a substation in Lee — a structure razed a few years ago to make way for a Big Y supermarket. From there, 30-foot steel poles carried wires across Beartown Mountain, over Monument Valley, across Three Mile Hill and East Mountain, passing East Sheffield Road near Eisner Camp for a final quick run jumping the Housatonic River to the Sheffield car barn.

The line carried 33,000 volts of electricity, anchored to 7.5-inch ceramic petticoats and attached to the tops of poles with steel pins. After the service ended in the late 1920s, most poles located roadside were removed for other uses or scrap in 1941. If you know where to start, you can follow the lines deeper into the woods — as my friends Art Stringer and Tom Barenski and Stuart Hoag have done — and find two-legged or, on corners, four-legged towers and an occasional insulator. Quite a few, standing or fallen, are tucked deep in Beartown and East Mountain State Forests.

The purpose of the sub-station? Here’s how Electric Railway Journal put it in 1913: “At Sheffield a building 40 ft. x 38 ft. in dimensions houses two sets of oil switches, there being two rooms in the installation with a 12-in fire wall between. The high-tension leads are brought into the building through multi-petticoated insulators and entrance cones … No oil switches are provided in the incoming line between the arrester equipment and the high-tension bus, but the usual automatic breakers are inserted between the latter and the transformers. Separate starting panels are provided for the rotaries in this installation.”

I didn’t understand a word of that, but assume the equipment stepped down the voltage and sent it out again to Housatonic, North Canaan, Conn., and South Egremont. From the magazine’s photos, a spider’s web of rods suspended objects from the ceiling as wires descended to a conical apparatus on the floor., thus the high ceiling. From my visit, I could see that at some point — probably when this building was used as cold storage depot — a second floor had been put in place. A leaking roof resulted in a rotten floor and it was removed. Wooden additions were attached on three sides. A chimney was added. Windows were filled in.

Donna and I toured the place after responding to an inquiry from Susan Whalen, of Sheffield, who said her brother, Tom Whalen of Sheffield Farm Products, had purchased the building along with a newer one on the other side of the Berkshire Railroad tracks, and a friend, Bob Killard, a builder from Sheffield, was cleaning the power station and doing necessary masonry work to turn it into a usable storage and work space. Sue Whalen inquired about historic photos. I sent her images, from the Kingsley Goodrich collection that were published in O.R. Cummings’ history “Berkshire Street Railway” in 1972.

When the trolley line cut back service, it leased the huge car barn that sat between this power plant and Route 7 — it burned in 1981 — to lumberman Davis, who eventually purchased it and established a sawmill inside to meet a large contract for poles and railroad ties that had come his way. “Berkshire Street Railway” filed a map with the South Berkshire Registry of Deeds.

“He has already started operations and has a large saw in operation,” The Springfield Republican said April 8, 1926. The sawmill was in the car barn; the power plant sat idle but not for long. When conditions changed, Davis leased the car barn to Palmer Lines, express truckers, and sold the building outright in 1946. Davis had already sold the powerhouse in 1929 to Joseph C. Frein. Frein’s heirs transferred it in 1936 to National Fur Dressing Co. Sheffield Produce & Foods acquired the building for wholesale and retail use. Stephen M. Leining’s estate sold it to Tom Whalen.

With my brief walk-through of the power station, long-time curiosity was satisfied.

Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.