I grew up in Chester, Mass., a small railroad town in the Berkshire Hills halfway between Westfield and Lee on US Route 20. Chester was noteworthy because it was where Boston & Albany Railroad trains heading west over the mountains stopped for pusher locomotives to help them get over the steep grade. That section of the railroad was called Whistler’s Western because it was designed and built by George Washington Whistler, (artist James McNeil Whistler’s father) to go over the mountains instead of through tunnels.
My own father was a fireman, then an engineer on those pusher locomotives, walking down to the roundhouse to go to work. Once diesel locomotives came on the scene to replace the old steam engines, however, Chester’s role in railroading faded. My father then had to drive to West Springfield to run the long diesel freight trains on the Boston & Albany (later Conrail) main line to Selkirk, N.Y.
But Chester’s railroad legacy lived on. The classic old depot became a railway museum maintained by the Chester Foundation. A nearby restored boxcar was turned into a classroom for sharing railroad information and a caboose became a kitchen for dining events held at the station. A Baker’s Chocolate tanker is also located on the grounds. Railroad enthusiasts have the added pleasure of watching CSX and Amtrak trains passing by regularly on the adjacent track.
For the past 28 years now, the town has held a Chester On Track celebration in May to recall its glory days. The event is like our Meriden Daffodil Festival, free, bursting with entertainment -- and subject to the weather. Also, like the Daffodil Festival, Chester On Track has experienced its share of rain.
This year, my husband and I were asked to be the Grand Marshals of the parade that kicked off the festivities at 10 a.m. yesterday. By the time you read this, you will know if we got to ride in the ‘50s vintage Chevrolet convertible as planned. But the weather forecast is positive.
After the parade featuring the Berkshire Shriners, the main part of town is always hopping with activities to please any taste. Mass 10th Civil War re-enactors, Pioneer Valley Live Steamers, antique fire engines and classic cars are staples of the festivities. A crafts fair, K-9 demonstration and petting zoo, hayrides, tractor pulls and a duck race are popular offerings.
Tours are also offered to the town’s famous Keystone Arches or granite quarry. Even walking tours of the town by the Chester Historical Society were on the agenda. The Historical Society opens the Old Jail for the event as well as its new headquarters across the street. And the Hamilton Memorial Library holds a book and bake sale and offers tours of its impressive mineral collection.
Several bands perform throughout the day both on the porch of the historic Chester Inn or the railway station where model trains and train vendors are featured. A variety of food is available all day along Main Street from restaurants or church and local service groups.
The day is always a grand celebration of the town’s railroad past. Having written a history of the town for the Chester Historical Society which was published in 2008, I was immersed in the town’s past for many years so was eager to take part in this particular celebration.
My husband called it an example of small-town New England at its best. I only hope that after practicing “the Queen’s Wave” for a while before the parade, I remembered also to smile and let people know how delighted I was just to be there. It was truly an honor for this former “Chester Girl” to be Grand Marshal of the event and I know my family and I will never forget it.
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