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Opinion / Analysis / Essays

Sentinels to history need more than gravity to survive

CHESTER -- When Dave Pierce was a youth in the 1960s, he and his friends wandered the woods, often along the railroad tracks, looking for cool places to hang out and party.

One of their favorite areas centered around a series of keystone arch bridges that straddle the west branch of the Westfield River where it divides Hampshire and Berkshire counties. They would sometimes camp there for a week at a time.

Not a lot of people knew about these architectural wonders lost in the woods. And that was just fine with Pierce, now 54, and others who have been enjoying the bridges for decades. But in the early 1990s railroad buffs like Pierce realized that the bridges were decaying and that, left alone, they would eventually crumble and fall.

That is how a group called Friends of the Keystone Arches came into being. Last year, they completed a trail making these sturdy yet neglected markers of days gone by accessible to anyone willing to take a 5-mile round-trip hike to some of the most arresting scenery in the Berkshires.

Sharing the bridges -- and their important role in state history -- with the wider world, Pierce realized, was vital to building support for their preservation.

In the mid-19th century, Boston's declining status relative to New York was being sealed by the Erie Canal. Opened in 1825, it offered traders and manufacturers access to the expanding Western frontier by way of the Great Lakes. To remain relevant, Boston had to overcome the main obstacle between it and the young nation's interior: the Berkshires.

The mountains blocked any reasonable chance for a rival canal. Railroad technology was still young, but the promise was evident. So for dreamers, planners, and engineers, the challenge boiled down to one question: through the mountains or over them?

The Hoosac Tunnel in northern Berkshire County was the first response. But construction, bogged down by politics and the challenges of boring a hole almost 5 miles long through hard rock, dragged on until 1875. In the meantime, investors conceived another route that would utilize the natural gorge cut by the Westfield River on the eastern slope of the Berkshires and the path of the Housatonic River on the west. But a series of 10 bridges had to be erected in the rough terrain to create a suitably straight path along the serpentine Westfield.

The man who surveyed this railroad to connect Boston to Albany and points west was Major George Washington Whistler, a West Point graduate and the father of the famed American painter. Whistler and the rest of the construction team did their work well. When it opened in 1841, according to Pierce, the railroad was the longest and highest in the world.

Five of the 10 bridges that supported what was called the Western Railroad are still standing. Two are still in use supporting the 30 freight and two passenger trains that traverse the tracks each day. The Lakeshore Limited to Chicago passes once in each direction. The three remaining bridges were bypassed when, in the early 20th century, engineers changed the course of the river at two points and straightened the track to achieve gentler curves to accommodate longer and faster trains.

All the bridges are impressive. But the three that stand alone in the forest without apparent purpose offer hikers a surprising and moving experience.

As I stood alone on one of them for the first time, a breathtaking gorge dropped away below me and the trees of the surrounding forest were stripped of leaves by the season.

Hewn from local Chester blue granite, the bridges blend almost seamlessly with their surroundings. Yet their existence is the result of the human drive to harness nature, in this case by reorganizing certain of its building blocks.

The arches are graceful and, at the apex, even dainty as they provide the ribbon across which millions of tons of rolling stock have passed. They are solid, implacable, and immobile. Yet their reason for being is all about motion and providing passage to distant places.

They are dense, yet as I learned from Pierce, their longevity is due in part to the fact that they were dry laid without mortar. Water can trickle through them. Pooling and the destructive force of expanding ice otherwise would have doomed them long ago.

The bridges were built with permanence and minimal maintenance in mind. In fact, the two still in use hardly require any care, thanks in part to the vibrations of the passing trains and the oil and other pollutants they inevitably drizzle as they go by.

The circumvented bridges have become hosts to seedlings taking root. The parasites will eventually pry their hosts apart. The bridges were engineered so that gravity itself would provide their stability. But as the creeping roots take hold they will throw bits and pieces of these hulking structures off balance until gravity inevitably takes its toll, culminating in collapse.

Volunteers blazed the KAB Trail, as the path to these lonely behemoths is called, through state land. The trail starts in Chester from a pull-off on Middlefield Road about 2 1/2 miles north of Chester Village. The trailhead is not far from where three counties -- Berkshire, Hampden, and Hampshire -- converge. The trail follows the river where it forms the line between the towns of Middlefield and Becket, veering away as it gains altitude. It rejoins the river where the abandoned rail bed crosses two of the bridges.

The trail ends at the tracks that are still in use. I got to them just as a westbound freight train was lumbering up the 1.4 percent grade. The engineer waved and gave me a toot of the horn.

Kevin Mahoney, a rail buff I had met in town, said that it was not unusual on weekends to find train enthusiasts along the line armed with scanners. They listen in on the chatter between crews and dispatchers. Mahoney recounted the time he saw a train that couldn't make it up the hill, having to retreat so that the locomotives could haul it up in sections.

Railroad lore in Chester revolves around being at the base of the easterly ascent of the Berkshires. A roundhouse, which is still standing, was home to a fleet of ''pushers." These steam engines remained stoked and at the ready to help trains make it over the hump.

A descriptive marker near the bridges includes facts such as that an average locomotive in 1840 weighed 12,000 pounds whereas today they weigh in around 415,000 pounds, a testament to engineering that encompassed tolerances unforeseeable at the time of construction.

Pierce, a bachelor who devotes most of the time he isn't working at his job as a custodian at Gateway Regional High School to documenting and heralding the virtues of these bridges, is well versed in Massachusetts railroading history. The success of this route, he explained, is the reason the southern tier cities in the state, Worcester, Springfield, and Pittsfield, grew more rapidly than Fitchburg, Greenfield, and North Adams. The bridge constructed to cross the Connecticut River in Springfield was the longest bridge in the world at the time.

The keystone arches were part of a technological feat, delivering the rails to a height of 1,458 feet above sea level, which in their day was at the cutting edge of civil engineering. Decades later techniques developed here were used to cross the Rocky Mountains.

This railroad also earned Whistler, the mastermind behind its design and construction, international notice. Soon after this line was finished, Czar Nicholas I of Russia hired him to survey a 400-mile railroad from St. Petersburg to Moscow.

Pierce sees some irony in the fact that the man who played a crucial role in sparking both the westward expansion of the United States and the eastward expansion of Russia is little remembered today. Yet the woman he hired as a nanny and then married when his first wife died is world famous. This is because their son, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, created a portrait of her sitting in a rocking chair.

''Everyone's heard of Whistler's mother," Pierce said with a wry expression, ''but no one's heard of Whistler's father."

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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