The Western Railroad, which passes through the Berkshires of Massachusetts, radically changed the world when it opened in 1841.  

At 1,459 feet above sea level, it was the highest and longest railway ever built. The Western Railroad moved railroads from a novelty to the forefront of modern transportation.  

And reminders of that industrial age can be found today, deep in the woods of the Hilltowns, along the Keystone Arch Bridge Trail. Connecting Point Producer Dave Fraser got a walking tour recently and shares this story. 

This story originally aired on October 10, 2020.

Read the full transcript:

Brian Sullivan, Connecting Point: We’re here today in the village of Shelburne Falls at what may be its most famous attraction, The Bridge of Flowers. This former trolley bridge boasts a vast array of beautiful flowers to delight the senses, and it’s open to the public from April to October.

But our next story is about a bridge of a different kind.

The western branch of the Westfield River is home to the first keystone arch bridges built in America. These magnificent granite structures made it possible for the railroad to cross the Berkshires and open a line from Boston to Albany, New York.

Today, a hiking trail makes some of these bridges accessible to the public. And producer Dave Fraser takes us there to uncover the history behind the majesty of the Keystone Arches.

Dave Pierce, Friends of the Keystone Arches: One thing I hear a lot when I’m leading hikes out here is just how amazed people are that this could have been done at all, that this workmanship, that how could they do this out here in the middle of nowhere?

Dave Fraser, Connecting Point: Secluded stone bridges of exceptional craftsmanship, the Keystone Arch bridges are the oldest of their kind built for railroad use in the United States.

Reaching heights of 70 feet, these bridges span the West branch of the Westfield River as it serpentine its way through the towns of Middlefield, Beckett, and Chester. The arches were built around 1840 to help get the Western Railroad through the Berkshires.

Dave Pierce: But what actually started the push for the Western Railroad, it was called for Western Massachusetts, was the Erie Canal. Once that opened up, all the traffic was coming in from the West then it would go to Albany, but then float down the Hudson River to New York City.

And Boston was cut out, so they had to figure out a way to get to Albany.

Dave Fraser: Ten stone bridges were built. Three were lost to floods and seven remain today, some still in use by the railroad.

Major George Washington Whistler, father of the artist James McNeill Whistler, and William Gibbs McNeill, were the chief engineers responsible for designing the bridges, referred to by some as American cathedrals.

Dave Pierce: He was surveying on horseback. They were doing things like building towers so they could see over the trees, lighting fires at night on the next hillside so they could spot where they were heading and stuff when they were surveying. And it was pretty innovative.

Dave Fraser: Much about the Arches is on display at the Chester Rail Museum, but for an up close look at these mammoth granite structures, visitors can hike the Keystone Arch Bridges trail.

Dave Pierce: The walking west along the Keystone Arch Bridges Trail, the first bridge we come to is the double arch. It’s the only double span on the system.

This is the Bancroft Arch. This is the last one still in existence in the series. It shares that five keystone cluster with the double that we were just looking at.

We’re now at the 65-foot arch. This is the second highest bridge in the series, that — that still exists.

Okay, we’re now at what we have labeled the Gator Tail Arch. That’s due to the very distinctive ring stones, you can see. They’re all pointed, like the tail of an alligator.

Well, we’re now at the 70-foot arch, in the logical progression of the trail as you’re hiking west, this is the climax. Each bridge gets a little higher, a little more spectacular.

Dave Fraser: Over the years, the Keystone Arches have been written about, photographed, hiked on, and explored.

Recently, both the Arches and the Chester Rail Museum, which was built in 1862, were recommended for National Landmark designation.

Dave Pierce: Originally, two women in Middlefield got them on the Historic Register. And since then, they’ve been listed in the Historic American Engineering Record at the Library of Congress.

And just recently, we got National Historic Landmark status for two of them. And that’s the highest recommendation, the highest designation that there is, up in the same category as the White House or the Washington Monument.

Dave Fraser: The trail not only takes visitors to the first series of stone arch railroad bridges built in America but tracks the first wild and scenic river in Massachusetts, all within the Commonwealth’s largest roadless wilderness.

In the era of COVID, the trail has seen an increase in visitors, something Dave Pearce welcomes.

Dave Pierce: They never fail to blow me away. And they’re different in every season, every lighting.

And it’s just — it’s also wonderful to see the reaction of other people when you’re bringing them down here for the first time and they go, “Wow!”