Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Keystone Arch Bridges Trail: Magic in the Berkshire Mountains

In a patch of forest in the Berkshire Hilltowns of Chester, Becket and Middlefield, monoliths loom: Monuments of mechanical magic, spans of spatial interpretation, stone apparitions framed in thick-treed horizons growing from gorge walls and fording a wild, steady cascade. Visionary bridges to the tomorrow of yesterday.

A walk along the Keystone Arch Bridges Trail brings a body back to a time when dreams were coming true, as the push over and through the forbidding mountain margin of Western Massachusetts taunted engineers with its impossibilities. Surmounting the granite bounds of earth raised skyward proved a test of ingenuity ne'er faced before by the architects of human expansion. In 1841, the task was met.

Cutting through the hillside, spring streams swollen with winter run-off follow the path of least resistance to the Westfield River's West Branch, the water barrier that the Keystone Arch Bridges of the Western Railroad tamed as the drive to reach the Hudson River in New York and commerce to the west reached its 19th century crescendo.

Mimicking the track of the West Branch Gorge through torturous terrain was sensible to railroad surveyor, Major George W. Whistler, its climb in altitude lower and less of a grade than hopping mountains, but it wasn't easy. Ten keystone arch bridges were required to stitch the winding slash of cold-running rapids together 'neath silver rails of American steel.

Along the trail, Chester Blue granite smoothed and shaped by human hands and machines rounding rock, shining stone to gleam; broken pieces, rejects from the quarry now shoring up roadside embankments: No less important a task than their cemetery silent siblings or Main Street curbstone cousins. The fallible human animal in nature displayed.

Modern-time, scrap-booked structures stand abandoned in tangled trees, faded Posted signs warning the curious away, a worn path outward and onward testament to bold-lettered ineffectiveness. 'Tis important to respect the rights of others while expecting your own are cherished. The tower through the woods once held a clock that ticked a creative countdown for the residents of this one-time artists colony, built in 1961 and now but a memory and a magnet.

Humans and stone are silent partners in time, measured in mossy patina.

Roadside, four granite posts once linked with plank, chain or bar, squared no longer; pondered by passerby who see perhaps funeral plots or animal enclosures or just four stones set in the earth, mum witnesses to history.

Usually it isn't until the dwelling is gone, evidence of life left behind in stone and scrap, that we wonder: What happened here? The question raises new walls atop sill plates of the past, ghosts hidden within.

From carved granite to molded recycled resin, the ages sport a chronology of divergent materials used for bridging gaps along the path of humanity, terrain-crossing advancements made with one purpose in mind: To advance.

And, beneath the span, the water drops, the wind whips and the earth moves, delineating still and forever borders of embankments tracing deep wrinkles in the earth. It is all - everything under the sun - eroded, erosion...eroding.

A well-marked trail lovingly brought to life and maintained by the Friends of the Keystone Arches, the walk is by no means casual, nor is it too taxing; but it is interesting, every step of the way.

The passing breeze of  Pontoosic Turnpike travelers surely swept the exterior of the structure that sat upon this foundation situated along the Pittsfield to Springfield road's north side. Ah...for the illuminating flash of one day a century old spent looking out a window here...

In the distance, camouflaged with initial disbelief, six stories of stacked stone rise from the earth in graceful granite elegance, the stalwart statue sharp contrast to the roiling, boiling wildness of the Westfield River's western arm.

Across the river and along the trail, the still-active CSX railroad tracks dart in and out of view, underlining the timbered horizon. Their trajectory through the Berkshire hills was redirected in 1912, for efficiency's sake, bypassing and rendering inactive the two massive spans enjoyed and explored today by visitors to the Keystone Arch Bridges Trail.

One-thousand men, most of them new to America, achieved what naysayers doubted could be done, building the world's highest railroad at the time. The Western Railroad traversed forbidding, remote terrain in a transportation engineering feat never before attempted. With each train rumbling through its carved mountain passages, it remains a testament to the human competitive spirit, both witness and participant to a fledgling nation's history.

Shards of crockery, rounded stones, new dead branches deposited atop centuries of silt; washed over with the passage of time and the changing of the sky.

Because of its isolated locale, naturally occurring elements were the preferred construction material for this arm of the Boston - Albany link. To the delight of builders - and the disdain of farmers - granite is found in great abundance here in Western Massachusetts. Still, each carved stone had to travel from the Chester Granite Works quite a distance away before it found its home for the ages.

Beautiful simplicity, one advantage to mortar-less construction is porosity and the ability to shed water through nooks and crannies, preventing ice build-up in brutal Berkshire winters and the frost-heave side-effects of the thaws and refreezes of unpredictable Berkshire springs.

A significant rock slide across the old rail bed illustrates the perils of mountain travel.

Brute force and hard labor conquered formidable walls faced by the men charged with the task of chasing the setting sun with ribbons of rail and the consumers who lived in its stead. Black powder explosions threw shards of rock skyward, each blast a step closer to the goal: Get to the other side...on to the next obstacle, each achievement a blaze on the trail westward. Expansion at the point of a pick-axe, grim determination to succeed in each shovelful of stone.

Spring comes just a bit later to the Hilltowns of Western Massachusetts...

One of a pair of old train signal marker bases that straddle the trail along the section of rail bed that went dormant in 1912, the unquestioned power to control movement faded into an anonymous concrete anomaly.

Keystone arch bridges weren't the only structures utilized to facilitate Berkshire Range rail travel, this giant, curved granite retaining wall an example of the nearly twenty other necessary engineered enhancements to the rugged landscape along the circuitous mountain leg of the Western Railroad.

Seventy soaring feet high above the river, passengers and freight moved east and west in a sweeping dance of daily destinations met per schedule, station platforms left with a puff of smoke behind for the next stop on the journey; each ticket, each package, a story waiting to be told.

A piece of coal spared the tender's fire.

'Tis a fair thing to say that the geographical confluence of Chester, Becket and Middlefield as experienced along the Keystone Arch Bridges Trail holds unparalleled beauty: A visit worth making if one hasn't yet been.

The first river in the country to be designated as part of the National Scenic & Wild Rivers System, the West Branch is the only one of the three branches of the Westfield River to flow unimpeded by a dam. Seventy feet seems much higher standing atop it rather than looking from below.

Huge granite blocks hewn from the planet edge the rail bed. Chester Blue granite is graded 'light' or 'dark' depending on how much black mica runs through the stone. The lines carved into the stones are from drilling done prior to blasting the stone free of its ancient home.

An idea of the enormity of this bridge, the tallest of the two along the trail at around seven stories, can be gleaned by comparing the hiker atop the span's right side to its overall height. Impressive, amazing, awe-inspiring...decades fade not the admiration for the hands that tamed the western wilderness of Massachusetts.

On Independence Day, 1841, the bridge spanning the Connecticut River between Springfield and West Springfield opened. On that day, it was second to none: The longest railroad bridge in the world. The 150-mile long Western Railroad was thus complete, souls and sustenance freighted along tracks once thought impossible to lay. Challenge and technical hardship, and indeed, the real hardship faced by the scores of men who labored fiercely to cross a mountain range in forest unconquered, was met with ingenuity and innovation, as stands the American spirit and the pioneering way. Still, to the west we roam and all points beyond, endlessly restless to know our own space and time.

As always, thanks for stopping by and take care.

To learn more about the Keystone Arch Bridges, the history of the Western Railroad or hiking the trail these photographs were snapped on, visit the excellent web site of the Friends of the Keystone Arches at:


(Please remember, supporting volunteer-dependent organizations is an important way to preserve the treasures of Western Massachusetts. Thanks if you do!)

For more Town of Chester history, check out the EWM post:

Map: Bird's-eye View of Chester, Mass., 1885

The parking area for the Keystone Arches Bridges Trail is at the intersection of Middlefield and Herbert Cross Roads in Chester. A helpful informational kiosk is located there, with others along the trail.

View Larger Map

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Mattenylou said...

Thanks for taking us along, this is one of the places I've always wanted to explore. Methinks it's a bit too strenuous and far for me to attempt right now... maybe someday, tho.

The history of this project fascinates me, how was all that rock moving ever accomplished back then?

This Berkshire line forever changed the history of our country, Whistler's railroad could now span rivers and valleys, moving commerce and people easier and faster than the old canals and rivers.

Thanks for the tour!

Mark T. Alamed said...

Hi Mynetta!

Glad you enjoyed the post. It is a fascinating area of Western Massachusetts, for sure. It's hard to do it justice in words or photographs.

The granite blocks were moved by horse-drawn wagon to the sections of track laid down earlier and from there, freighted to the sections they were needed along the rails. Scaffolding was set-up at construction sites, and pulleys, block and tackle, and cranes would have been used to hoist stones in place. Draft animals would also have been utilized.

On the Town of Middlefield's web site, they mention that 1,000 immigrants converged on the area during the feat, camping in Bancroft and Chester. That's a lot of manpower. From what I read while learning more about the arches, only one worker was killed on the Western end of the project, in Chester. If that's true, that would be pretty amazing considering the amount of stone that was moved.

Robert Genest said...

nice, mark. thanks for the look. i love this area.

Lou Toth said...

Went hiking on the trail today, absolutely amazing. Keep up the good work!

Mark T. Alamed said...

Thanks, Robert and Lou!

Anonymous said...

Can you tell me more about the artist colony? I remember it as a small child when nearly complete then it began to be vandalized. I recall the pool, sunken rooms, colored glass... It was amazing for me to remember that some 40 years later. Was up there yesterday hiking and found the remains. Sad. Did not realize it was private prop til I walked back out and saw the sign tucked back on a tree....It was an amazing place as I recall.