Bernard A. Drew | Our Berkshires: Fred S. Pearson, powerful innovator

Our Berkshires

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GREAT BARRINGTON — When they establish a Berkshire Industrial Hall of Fame, William Stanley (alternating-current transformer) and Frank Sprague (electric elevators and railways) are shoe-ins, as is Daniel W. Fox (Lexan). As is Fred S. Pearson, though the Great Barrington resident had only a few patents to his name and never started a factory. But wow, could he put together major transportation systems, power networks and water services, from financing and complex engineering to completion.

Fred Stark Pearson (1861-1915) thought big. He thought global. He managed projects in Massachusetts, New York and Texas; in Nova Scotia, Ontario and Quebec; in Spain, Mexico and Brazil. His works included steel, coal and hydro-electric corporations, Boston's West End Street Railway and Manhattan's Metropolitan Street Railway.

Oh, and Housatonic Water Works. He purchased the existing water purveyor in Great Barrington's northern village in 1910 but never found the time to do much with it. The water source was outside his back door: Long Pond. The family continued to operate the water company until 1984.

Pearson purchased the core of his estate Edgewood on Division Street in 1902. Since 1946 it has been home to American Institute of Economic Research (housed in a new mansion built by another owner).

Pearson's big legacy here is Beartown State Forest, which represents only a part of his enormous accumulation of Berkshire woodlands. Here again, family gradually decommissioned the intended game preserve, selling the land to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1921.


Pearson now has a biography to call his own. Or, perhaps more accurately, a bio-industrial profile, as Gilmore G. Cooke's "The Existential Joys of Fred Stark Pearson (1861-1915): Engineer, Entrepreneur, Envisioner" (2019) delves deeply into his subject's myriad technical and financial accomplishments.

I first met Cooke electronically in 2004, when he corrected my inclusion of "erick" in Pearson's first name — it really is "Fred." Cooke alerted me to the existence of a major statue to Pearson at Playa de Pedralbes, dedicated in 1928 in Barcelona, Spain. "The bronze figure carries the victory wreath in her left hand while holding her flowing gown with her right," Cooke told me. "The granite stone is engraved `A Pearson' in Spanish. This memorial was erected because of his great courage in providing hydroelectric power to Catalonia, a feat that contributed to the prosperity of the whole of Spain during and after the first World War. This landmark and memorial are permanent reminders of Pearson's historic role in the founding of great electric power and railway companies around the world."

Cooke when we first exchanged emails was looking for one of the Pearson tree bands given to the town to mark conservation efforts. The historian found one, as it is illustrated in the book; the tag declared a tree has been declared a public shade tree and should not be removed. It bears the town seal.

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Cooke describes Pearson as "an extreme entrepreneur-engineer of high character. His values were benchmarks for what is good, important, useful, beneficial and constructive Without getting too philosophical about his humanity and his behavior, he did good things for the world. He built mega-size electric utilities in the United States Canada, Brazil, Mexico and Spain and brought a sense of urgency to everything he did."

One reason Pearson may not be widely known today was his premature death — he and his wife, Mabel (Ward), were aboard the "Lusitania" the fateful day it was torpedoed by a German submarine on the eve of World War I. His death left projects unfinished — projects particularly associated with Canadian investors and engineering personnel that in Cooke's words were "hijacked," depriving Pearson of his due history. Cooke vigorously corrects that impression.

Pearson's death at sea was ironic, Cooke writes, as one of his last investigations "was a submarine detection initiative involving AMRAD." AMRAD is Amateur Radio Research and Development CorP.

Cooke first learned about Lowell-native Pearson while researching the story of Boston's pioneer electric railway system. "My curiosity about the system and its creator gradually led me to nominating the first electric power system of the `T'" for an Institute of Electric and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) Milestone award, he said.


Cooke probed the reasons for Pearson's signature of quality work. Influences included his ancestor Pearsons' and Edgerlys' adherence to Universalist beliefs; his early exposure to the intricacies and redundancies of Boston's fire alarm control system; and his successful creation while a college student of an electric circuit for the Medford Hillside Station to release a train signal remotely. Pearson held patents on pliers to splice wires and, with George Taylor, an ice-making machine. But he excelled at taking the inventions of others and applying them to broad and vital purposes.

The book is well-illustrated and contains thumbnail profiles of Pearson contemporaries and work associates.Educated at McGill University in Montreal, Cooke was an electrical engineer on numerous power plant projects for Bechtel's Industrial and Power Divisions. He has long been involved in IEEE leadership.

If you're intrigued to see another side of Pearson, Cooke will speak and sign books as part of a guided tour of Pearson's sailing yacht and seagoing testing facility "Coronet" in Newport, R.I., on Sept. 26 with a ship walk at 5:30, program at 6, at the IYRS School of Technology & Trades.

Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.


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