John M. Hyde: Riding 'The Creeper' to college
WILLIAMSTOWN — Having followed with great interest the plan to restore passenger train service between New York and Berkshire County, I recall my own experiences beginning 70 years ago of riding trains on the three rail lines that served the county — the New Haven, the Boston and Maine, and the New York Central. My favorite was a train run by the New York Central from New York to North Adams. We tend to associate that railroad with great, streamlined trains such as the Twentieth Century Limited. A little-known branch of the New York Central — referred to by management as the Harmon Division — ran parallel to the western boundary of Berkshire County, branching off at Chatham. N.Y. to cross into Massachusetts and then proceeding to Pittsfield and North Adams.
I entered Williams College in the fall of 1948. My home was in Delaware which meant that I had to travel to Williamstown by train. Freshmen were not allowed to have automobiles. Each of the rail options from New York to Berkshire County therefore required a careful evaluation of time and expense. The New Haven train was the most comfortable but upon arrival in Pittsfield, it required hiring a taxi at considerable expense or a lengthy, uncomfortable bus ride. Although the Boston and Maine trains from Albany to Boston stopped in Williamstown, it meant taking the New York Central to Albany, hiring a taxi cab or taking a local bus to the Troy Union Station in order to catch the east-bound train.
It was the Harmon Division train on the New York Central that provided the most affordable and convenient option. The train bore no name — only a number which was #59. It left New York City's Grand Central Station on Sunday evenings at 7:50 p.m. and arrived in North Adams at 01:05 a.m. By the time it reached White Plains, the sun was setting and the remainder of the trip was in darkness. The depots were closed and the lights of small towns slowly disappeared as the night wore on.
The Union Station in Pittsfield was dark by the time the train arrived at midnight, arriving in North Adams an hour later. It was the "speed" at which the train traveled that led students to refer to it as "The Creeper."
INTRODUCTION TO BEER
The train itself was composed of dated and uncomfortable coaches, but one car more than made up for this flaw. The term used in the timetable was "Diner Lounge" but it was usually referred to as the "bar car" serving hamburgers, hot dogs, potato chips, beer and wine. Coming from a home in which liquor was not served, I was unfamiliar with bars and their contents, but being curious and young I decided to try a Budweiser or whatever beer the New York Central offered. One was sufficient — and at the age of 89, I still consider one beer "sufficient!"
After leaving Chatham, N.Y. at 11:30 p.m., the bar tender began walking through the cars reminding the passengers that the "Diner Lounge" would be closing after the train crossed into Massachusetts. He repeated the "call" with louder voice and more drama as we drew nearer the state line. The importance of this event — which I did not understand — related to the age at which young people could purchase liquor. In New York State the age was 18; in Massachusetts it was 21 — and many of his customers who were on the train were under 21.
As we started north from Pittsfield on the last leg of our trip, I was surprised to see people beginning to take their luggage down from the racks over the seats, putting on their coats, and even beginning to line up in the corridor in preparation for arrival. Few if any left the train at Cheshire and Adams, and it was only when we arrived at our destination that I discovered the reason. As with other stations along the route, the North Adams Union Station was closed for the night, but lights were turned on along the station platform, the weather was cold, with snow often falling and all passengers had to leave the train.
Confronting the passengers was a row of taxis and cars, each of whose driver was offering a trip to Williamstown at a bargain rate of from $1.50 to $2.50. Once a sufficient number of passengers had been squeezed into the "taxi," the driver left for Williamstown where he deposited each customer — mostly students— at the dorm or fraternity of his choice and then returned to North Adams to pick up the less fortunate second group — including me — and drove them to Williamstown.
Having become a "veteran" of "The Creeper," I continued to use it until my college career was interrupted by four years in the U.S. Navy. When I returned, the "Creeper" was history — and I had a Ford!
John M. Hyde is the Brown Professor of History, Emeritus at Williams College.
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