Arts: The Beauty of Keystone Arches

The Western Railroad of Massachusetts, with construction commenced in 1830 and completed in 1841, was derided as “a railroad to the moon” by one Boston newspaper at the time it was proposed. It was intended to link Boston to Albany, New York and there to the connection there with commercial traffic including the Erie Canal going west and the Hudson River going south to New York City.  With the evolution of the railroads, however, that connection came to include those rail lines that linked Albany with New York City, Chicago and the rest of the nation.

The Western Railroad confronted a great wilderness in the so-called ‘hills’ of Western Massachusetts known as the Berkshire Range, rising to an elevation of only several thousand feet. It is considered to have been the first mountain-climbing railroad in the world. At the time, this region was considered impenetrable, odd-sounding today since it is only 20 miles across, while the highest point of the line itself is only 1,458 feet.

But the need for a railroad was clear. Without it, Boston would in effect be cut off from American trade except by sea. Only a railroad would do.

The route of the Western was surveyed by the ingenious engineer Maj. George Washington Whistler (1800-1849), a West Point graduate. One of the courses of study for engineering at West Point was bridge building.

Whistler earlier had worked on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, running through mountainous areas of Maryland and Pennsylvania, and on canals.



Top: The tallest of the Arches is 70 feet. It no longer carries trains. In summertime, the swimming underneath it in the cool, lazy pool is like a trip into another world, a unique venue in all of New England. Notice the massive leaning buttress wall visible through the arch. Center: These leaning buttresses keep the structure from shifting by their sheer weight. It is a show of brute force. Notice the ‘sharp’ corners on the blocks. Those corners line up perfectly, and were intended to quickly reveal any shift in the structure. There has been none except for the lower corner where the Westfield River has eroded the base. Bottom: The easternmost bridge, this double-arch span still carries the railroad tracks. Talk about form and function! Beauty is the hallmark of these structures.

The rail route roughly follows the serpentine Westfield River from Springfield, Massachusetts westward up into the hills. It bridges the river repeatedly, requiring 10 keystone arch bridges. Whistler insisted on a more expensive double-track width for the route, a configuration which eventually came into heavy use, as it is today. At the time of its construction, the grade was so steep that there was no locomotive that could climb it, and engines were designed specifically for it.

The Arches themselves are based on Roman designs developed 1,700 years previous. They are constructed of local granite without any mortar using a ‘keystone’ design where the arch’s own weight and that of the train on top is dissipated through its legs through simple geometry. Every single stone in the arch is a perfect sub-form that joins with other perfect sub-forms to create a functioning arch form.

In 1830, small steam locomotive weighed only 12,000 lbs. The heaviest locomotives to have crossed the Arches in the early 20th century were 215,000 pounds, while today modern diesels using the route weigh more than 400,000 pounds and cross the arches with no ill effect.

Arch construction was expensive and therefore was used only in remote locations where there was no alternative. They were built block by block atop wooden forms that were the shape of the arch. After the keystone was set, the wooden forms were removed and gravity held the arches in place.

The grade along the route of the Arches is one of the steeper slopes in the Eastern United States at 1.65% (1.65 feet of rise for every 100 feet in length). The famous Berkshire steam locomotives were built in nearby Schenectady, New York and tested on this grade, thus their name.

Eight of the original ten Keystone Arches still are in use. The main track was realigned in 1912 leading to the abandonment of the structure pictured in the top photo above, and another nearby arch 65 feet in height.

The Arches themselves were constructed under the supervision of stonemason Alexander Birnie of nearby Stockbridge, Massachusetts who also built the culverts and retaining walls. Part of the massive stone retaining wall is visible in the upper right corner of the top photo. It extends several hundred feet down the line and has prevented the trackbed from tumbling into the river.

If the name Whistler sounds familiar, it should. Maj. Whistler was the father of James Abbot McNeil Whistler, the artist of the portrait called Whistler’s Mother, also known as Portrait of a Painter’s Mother

Engineer Whistler’s accomplishment in Massachusetts was duly noted and he was commissioned in 1842 by the Russian czar to construct the Moscow-St. Petersburg rail line, which eventually became a leg of the Trans-Siberian Railroad.

Whistler died of cholera in Russia in 1849.

Today, the Keystone Arches are accessible along hiking trails. Many hikers access the Arches along the railroad right-of-way which is trespassing and is discouraged. Trains can be moving downhill quickly without making much noise.

The artistic elegance of the Arches shows once again that form and function always rise together, and that a great engineer also is an artist. The Arches are structures of great beauty in a fantastic rural setting. They are technically located in Middlefield, Massachusetts if you would like to do a MapQuest search.


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