Monday, June 1, 2009

Heritage: Keystone Arch Bridges

Amtrak's Lake Shore Limited, powered by a P42DC locomotive built in 2001, crossed a Keystone Arch Bridge in Chester, Massachusetts completed one hundred sixty years earlier in 1841, on 1 June 2009

ALBANY, NEW YORK - Nestled in a somewhat remote part of the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts lies a series of engineering landmarks. The Keystone Arch Bridges of the Western Railroad, the oldest arched railroad bridges in the United States, still stand along the West Branch of the Westfield River, two of them part of a hiking trail, and one of them amazingly still in use on the CSX's Berkshire Subdivision mainline.

I became aware of these engineering gems when I first rode the Amtrak "Lake Shore Limited" route between Boston, Massachusetts and Albany, New York on a Massachusetts Bay Railroad Enthusiasts Fall Foliage Flyer special in 2001. Two of the arched bridges are visible from the current line, which bypassed all but one of the Keystone Arch Bridges in a 1912 line relocation, and the history of the bridges figured prominently in the route guide.

The Keystone Arch Bridge "B" in Becket, Massachusetts, bypassed in a 1912 line relocation and now traversed by the Keystone Arch Bridges Trail, was viewed from Amtrak's Lake Shore Limited on 14 May 2008

The bridges were built as part of the Western Railroad, chartered in 1833 as part of an effort to connect Boston to the Hudson River to try to win back traffic that was headed to the ports around New York instead of Massachusetts Bay. The Western Railroad would be the longest (150 miles) and highest (crossing the Berkshires at an elevation of 1458 feet at Washington Summit) in the world when it opened in 1841. The eastern approach to the summit followed the west branch of the Westfield River, requiring a series of bridges especially around the West Branch Gorge. The Friends of the Keystone Arches web site describes how George Washington Whistler and Alexander Birnie surveyed and built the bridges to last, obviously quite successfully.

The West Branch of the Westfield River featured clear water 70 feet beneath the Keystone Arch Bridge "B" in Becket, Massachusetts on 1 June 2009

In 1870, the Western Railroad became part of the Boston and Albany, the name under which it would operate for most of the line's existence. The Boston and Albany was part of the New York Central system, and has since been part of Penn Central, Conrail, and today is part of CSX.

The Keystone Arch Bridge Trail crossed 1841-era Bridge "A" in Becket, Massachusetts on 1 June 2009

Since 2001, the Keystone Arch Bridges have been more accessible thanks to the Keystone Arch Bridges Trail. The 2.5 mile trail in Chester and Becket, Massachusetts parallels the Westfield River partially using the rights of way of the old Pontoonsic Turnpike horse-carriage route and the original Western Railroad. The highlight of the experience is walking over the "A" and "B" Keystone Arch Bridges with their views of the West Branch of the Westfield River far below; it's hard to believe that the robust bridges have stood for more than 170 years.

The view from Keystone Arch Bridge "A" in Becket, Massachusetts included this look down the west branch of the Westfield River toward the West Branch Gorge on 1 June 2009

The Keystone Arch Bridges Trail is accessible from Middlefield Road from Chester, Massachusetts. The sight of modern freight trains and Amtrak crossing the 1841-era "Double Arch" bridge in Chester, Massachusetts was a sight worth seeing in 2009.

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