THE COMING OF THE TRAIN
Historic railway topic of local book
MARK E. RONDEAU
BENNINGTON — Meant to document important local history, “The Coming of the Train” looks at the history and impact of the Hoosac Tunnel & Wilmington Railroad, the Deerfield River Railroad, and the industries
Brian A. Donelson, a retired businessman who lives in Rowe, Mass., put more than 1,800 hours of research and writing into the book, which he started four years ago. The book is filled with historic photos, maps, diagrams and charts.
In a well-attended talk earlier this year at the Bennington Museum, Donelson explained that the Hoosac Tunnel & Wilmington Railroad “was very well-known to most people around here 50 years ago. I think it’s been forgotten by many people today, and that’s one of the reasons why I wrote this book.
“I wanted to bring it back and make sure it would be documented how valuable it was to the economy of the upper Deerfield River Valley before that value was lost forever.”
The book begins with the construction of the Hoosac Tunnel, a five-mile tunnel through the Hoosac Mountain range from North Adams to what is now Florida, Mass. At the time it was constructed, the eastern portal of the tunnel was considered to be in the village of Hoosac Tunnel, then considered part of Rowe.
“In the middle 1800s the northern tier of Massachusetts was isolated from the industries of the west, primarily New York state, because of a lack of railroad connection to the west,” Donelson said. “The Hoosac (Mountain) Range blocked the railroad from going across the northern tier of Massachusetts, until the Hoosac Tunnel was constructed.”
Tunnel opened in 1876
The tunnel was officially opened in 1876 after 25 years of work, the expenditure of $20 million and the loss of 196 lives. Much has been written about this monumental feat of civil engineering. Donelson’s main focus is on “ a railroad that started at the tunnel’s east portal and moved north into Vermont,” which has not been nearly as well-documented.
In addition to opening up the west to the industries of eastern Massachusetts and Southern Vermont and New Hampshire, the completion of the tunnel made possible a railroad line that ran north up into the upper Deerfield River Valley.
“Prior to that time, the towns in the upper Deerfield Valley were very isolated, small, they had small industries, small farms. And most of the industry was concentrated in sawmills or mills that took wood products and made ... boxes or pallets,” Donelson said. “And most of the products that were made were for local consumption ... they had no way of bringing the products out of the upper Deerfield Valley.”
In 1880, the Newton brothers, “who were industrial geniuses and had built the paper industry in Holyoke, looked to the upper Deerfield for a source of additional wood pulp,” Donelson said. “Wood pulp was needed to support these mills of Holyoke, and at the time they had to rely on the annual drive of logs down the Connecticut River, and when that drive was over, and the pulp they had made from the logs was gone, they didn’t have another source.”
The Newtons were originally from Greenfield, Mass., and they were familiar with the Deerfield River, because they had fished in it when they were young. They came to Readsboro, which in 1880 was a town of about 780 people, where there was plenty of timber and water for power “and now that the Hoosac Tunnel was completed, there was a railroad connection about 10 miles away,” he said.
The Newtons first built a dam across the Deerfield River, and they constructed a pulp mill about quarter of a mile downstream from the dam. They needed logs, and they had begun to buy timberland around Readsboro, and further north in the Somerset and Searsburg area.
“So in 1883, now that they had a supply of logs, they began production of the pulp in Readsboro, and they took the pulp from the mill to the connection with the Fitchburg Railroad in (the town of) Hoosac Tunnel by wagon. And they found that they needed 40 horses just to move the pulp every day from Readsboro to the railroad siding in Hoosac Tunnel.”
The Newtons decided this wasn’t a very practical way to go about it. “So the answer to that was to build a railroad,” he said. It was a narrow-gauge railroad, in part because the terrain was so rugged. The railroad acquired its first engine in 1884.
Before long, the new railroad started at Hoosac Tunnel, proceeded north through Rowe and Monroe Bridge and continued up to Readsboro. “In 1886, the Newtons decided that they wanted to use the railroad for more than just for their private carrying of pulp; they wanted to become a common carrier,” Donelson said. “So they incorporated the Hoosac Tunnel & Wilmington Railroad.”
Personal travel boon
This proved to be a boon to Readsboro. The Newtons, with the help of others, started the National Metal Edge Box Co. there and the Readsboro Chair Manufacturing Company, the latter of which was nationally known for its folding chairs.
Another advantage of the railroad was personal travel. Isolated before, people in Readsboro could now take the morning train from Readsboro to North Adams and return by 7 p.m.
In fact, passengers could take even more creative outings. At two otherwise inaccessible spots along the river, where the cliffs were about 1,000 feet high, called Logan’s and Haywood’s, riders could stop and have a picnic or pick berries, and be picked up when the train came back a few hours later.
The railroad was extended to Wilmington in 1891. Later, the Deerfield River Railroad extended even further north as a logging railroad to Glastenbury, Stratton and Somerset. Donelson ends his book at 1910, when a new era was beginning.
The Hoosac Tunnel & Wilmington Railroad existed for 86 years, surviving many changes in ownership, floods, track relocations and financial challenges. Donelson plans at least one more volume, following the history of the railroad into the era of numerous hydroelectric energy projects in the Deerfield River Valley. It’s clear that Donelson admires both the Newton brothers and the people who worked for them.
“This book is about more than railroads and factories, it is about a way of life that is gone in America. It gives some insight into how the entrepreneurs of the Industrial Revolution improved the lives of the citizens in a small, remote part of this great country,” he writes. “They did so with their own money, ideas, skills and hard work without the help of grants and guaranteed loans. For these men, the rewards were great, but the risks were many.
“It was a time when we welcomed immigrants because we needed their skills and their work ethic. Perhaps they suffered from a lack of political correctness, low wages, and poor housing, but they thrived and their children and grandchildren grew up to be us.”
More information about the book and how to order it can be found atwww.htandw.com/