Tim Blagg

Blagg: Railroad town at heart

Wow! That’s what I thought when I read the story in The Recorder about Gov. Patrick chugging into town on a special train to announce that the state is spending a pretty good chunk of money — $17 million, he said — to get ready for Amtrak’s Vermonter.

The train, which now runs up from Washington, D.C., and New York City through New Haven to Springfield, and then laboriously makes its way to Amherst, will take a shorter route through Northampton and on to Greenfield.

But even more exciting is the news that after Boston buys the 50 or so miles of track from Connecticut to Vermont, the plan is to use transportation bond bill funding over the next couple of years to refurbish old “T” engines and cars and establish passenger service between Greenfield and Springfield.

As projected, the trains would stop and unload on new station platforms in Greenfield, Northampton and Holyoke.

That’s exciting news.

Greenfield is, at its heart, a railroad town. It was the decision back before the Civil War to route two rail lines — one running north and south, the other east and west — right through the middle of town that created an economic boom.

Unlike many towns, which shunted the railroad off to the lower economic status side of town (hence the expression “the wrong side of the tracks”), Greenfield embraced the new technology.

Eventually a “Union Station” was built near the center of town, and thousands of cubic yards of dirt and stone — including a tunnel under Main Street — were moved to accommodate the tracks. “Union” meant it was located between two different railroad lines, rather than being dedicated to just one.

One of the town’s oldest cemeteries, just behind Second Congregational Church, was dug up and the occupants moved to Federal Street.

Today, standing in the Energy Park, which is on the site of the old station, one can look north through the tunnel or turn east and see the embankment on which stands the church.

Because of the town’s position at the crossroads, several hotels were built to handle overnight guests who paused in their trip by rail to sleep in comfortable surroundings, rather than risk the new-fangled “Pullman sleepers.”

The Mansion House, the Weldon, the American House ... all catered to railroad guests.

“Every place a train has ever stopped, it’s been good for the local economy,” Patrick said while announcing the state’s investment.

“For a long time now, there has been demand and interest in improving Amtrak service on the Vermonter line so that it included the burgeoning activities and the growing population of ‘the Knowledge Corridor’ along the Connecticut River.”

Work on the lines has been underway since last year, and it’s been extensive. According to state figures, some 95,000 rail ties, miles of new continuously welded rail, new active warning signals and crossing gates at 23 public grade crossings, upgrades to six bridges and the first phase of a new signal installation are all either completed or underway.

One important piece for Greenfield is the construction of a new parking garage across the street from the transportation center where trains will stop. The garage, as envisioned by Mayor William Martin, would not only handle passenger parking, but also include an elevator and passageway through to Main Street.

State officials said that a study has begun looking at extending passenger rail service westward along Route 2 from Fitchburg, which would allow for faster commuting east toward Boston, depending on how far west trains would come.

It’s all very interesting — and certainly a tremendously positive development for Franklin County. It’s been a long time coming, but I glad it’s finally happening.

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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