Follow the Rail Trail: Exploring Local History Through Trains
Though Amtrak just recently made its debut in a handful of communities in western Massachusetts, mass transportation has existed in our state for centuries – since 1631 to be exact! While there’s plenty of mass transportation statewide to learn about, the railways of western Massachusetts present local folks with lots of opportunities for community-based learning. Trains have served as a means of moving both goods and people across the state and country for generations, and rail travel has played an important role in the development of industries and, as a result, communities throughout western Massachusetts. Letting railroads serve as a point of entry to community engagement, families can utilize enthusiasm for train travel as a way of connecting interests to local history, innovation and transportation.
Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum
Train-centric studies can begin in a number of places, the most logical of which would be one of two local museums. In Lenox, the Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum occupies the former Lenox Station, built in 1903 to serve Gilded Age tourists as they visited the region to enjoy the scenery. Visitors to the museum will learn about railroad history, especially as it relates to the development of the region’s economy. After learning about the history of the rails, visitors can ride the Yard Jitney – a shuttle from the station to the museum’s rail yard, where antique equipment can be seen and explored. The Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum is open on Saturdays only, from May through October.
Shelburne Falls Trolley Museum
The Shelburne Falls Trolley Museum, open on weekends from late May through October, offers visitors a chance to not only learn about this history of local train and trolley travel through exhibits, but a chance to experience it for themselves as well! The museum is home to a trolley car from 1896 that visitors can ride for themselves, imagining what it would have been like to take the trolley from Shelburne Falls to Colrain over a century ago. Additionally, visitors can test their strength by operating the museum’s antique pump car, which uses human force to travel along the rails.
Other historic railroad locations of interest include the beautiful Keystone Arch bridges and the mysterious Hoosac Tunnel. Located along the Westfield River, the Keystone Arches are railroad bridges built during the 19th century as part of the Western Railroad. Towering up to 70 feet above the river, the gigantic stone bridges made it possible for trains to follow the path of the Westfield River, allowing them to pass fairly easily through the Berkshire mountains. Today, the arches are accessible Keystone Arch Bridges Trail, managed by the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife that follows 2.5 miles of the river in Middlefield and Chester where the arches are no longer used by the railroad and are safe to explore.
Further north in Florida and North Adams, the Hoosac Tunnel sits beneath the northern end of the Hoosac Range. The tunnel, which allows trains to bypass the large hills, took 25 years to build and cost the lives of nearly 200 people. The creation of the tunnel was full of mistakes, misfortune, and outright stops to construction. The project turned out to be much more difficult than anyone imagined, and its creation was quite a feat. Today, the tunnel remains part of an active railroad, and is not suitable for exploration. However, families can read about the tunnel’s history and safely locate the east and west entrances to the tunnel to see evidence of failed attempts at boring into the hill. If you’re lucky, you might even catch sight of one of the ghosts said to haunt the tunnel!
In addition to studying the history of railroads and seeing railroad landmarks, families can explore the paths once followed by railroads during the heyday of rail transportation. Across New England, numerous abandoned railroads have left their mark on the local landscape, highlighting the paths once traveled by passenger and freight trains. By studying the former paths of trains, families can gain insight into the changes that have taken place over time in communities all over western Massachusetts. Additionally, families can further explore the former paths of trains on one of the many local bike paths. Easthampton’s Manhan Rail Trail, the Canalside Trail in Turners Falls, the Southwick Rail Trail, and the Northampton-to-Belchertown Norwottuck Rail Trail all follow the former paths of trains.
[Photo credit: (cc) MOTT/Kim Linder]