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The Berkshire Street Railway Busses

(by Jim Shulman)
(May 2004)

Remember Pittsfield's blue busses?

Can you remember riding on the Berkshire Street railway Busses, those blue busses with the white, silver or light gray tops? They would congregate at Park Square where for a dime, a token or a nickel bus ticket for kids, we could go almost anywhere so it seemed. (See Picture 1.) 

As a youngster, Saturdays were very special. It was the time when my mother would take us (kids) downtown on the bus for shopping, lunch at one of the five and dime counters and sometimes a movie.   One of the highlights of our excursions was the bus trip itself.  We delighted in putting the coins in the clear glass part of the coin box on the bus and watching the driver, in his uniform and official cap  (See Picture 2..) , flick the money down out of sight into the bottom metal section and every once in a while  turn a crank to churn the coins.  If we gave him a quarter, fifty cent piece or a dollar, he'd reach to his coin changer near the steering wheel and give us our change which we'd then put in the box. 

Drivers would sometimes stand up and crank a lever at the top front of the bus which would change the destination on the outside sign. I was impressed how he could read the route name through a small hole with only part of the backside of the letters visible.  Then we were off and could experience a predictably, but fun, bumpy ride with squeals, gears grinding and rumbling noisy engines. 

I remember reading all the ads on the large cards posted all along both sides near to the ceiling of the bus.   I can still picture the Doublemint Gum ad, a product which I never tried until I was well into my teens.  When the busses were ever crowded and people had to stand, there were leather straps to hold. These were attached to a long pipe like bars suspended from the ceiling.  As a kid, I knew I could never reach them, but also knew I could always hold onto the handles on the backs of the seats. My favorite seats were the ones over the tires giving less leg room and perfect for a kid with shorter legs!  

Soon we were near our stop, so it was time to pull the string running above the windows on both sides. A special treat that we would love.  The bell would ring, and we were let out the front side door even though most busses had a rear side door as well.

On Saturdays we rode the hourly Dawes Ave. Bus to and from Park Square where it stopped right behind the popcorn wagon.  Sometimes we took the Elm Street bus home which left from in front of The Pittsfield National Bank and ran more frequently, every 15 or so minutes. I felt a great sense of independence when I was first able to ride the bus alone. I recall doing so in elementary school.  By sixth grade riding the big blue bus was a daily event to get from Holmes Road to Plunkett School.  Then in Junior High the busses would line up outside and l'd take one several times a week to East Street for religious classes or downtown for shopping or after school activities at the YMCA or Boys Club. (See Picture 3.)   In high school daily I walked with friends to Park Square after school and took the Dawes Ave. bus home.  Over the three years I made a lot of friends when standing alongside the Berkshire County Savings Bank where we all waited for our busses to arrive.

As a child, my favorite bus driver was Herman "Gabby" Garbowit who always had a smile and would share gum or snacks with his passengers. One time Gabby stopped a bus in front of my Kool Aid stand on Holmes Road and got out to buy my great concoction for himself and some passengers. What memories of the big blue busses and Gabby, the greatest bus driver!

The Trolleys of the Berkshires and their demise

Throughout the United States, the Great Depression largely contributed to the demise of trolley systems.   Following the depression, gasoline became more available and automobiles became more acceptable to the public.  However, few families could afford their own cars in the 30s so the door was opened for busses to operate within urban areas and interurban, between towns and cities. It was a natural move for the trolley companies to make the transition from electricity to gas, trolleys to busses.  Although some trolley companies did keep electric lines operating by having trackless trolleys that were simply busses run by electricity from the overhead wires used by the trolleys. (If the driver made too wide a turn, the bus would become disconnected from the lines and he would have to get out to reattach to the wires.)  A handful or so  cities still operate  trolleys and/or  trackless trolleys to this day.

The Berkshire Street Railway Company

When it came to the transition to gasoline powered busses  the Berkshires were right in stride with the rest of the US. Three separate trolley lines ran in the early 1900s throughout the Berkshires. One of these three, the Berkshire Street Railway (BSR) Company was incorporated in 1901 and was owned by the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad.  By 1910 the other two trolley companies (the Pittsfield Electric Street Railway and the Hoosac Valley Street Railway) were merged with the BSR and the company now had trolleys operating within Pittsfield and throughout the County.  Lines ran from Pittsfield to destinations north, e.g, Lanesboro, Cheshire, Adams, North Adams, Williamstown, Bennington, VT. and Hoosick Falls, NY., and to the northwest , e.g., Dalton and Hinsdale.  To the south the lines went to Lenox, Lee, Stockbridge, Great Barrington, South Egremont, Sheffield and Ashley Falls and Canaan, CT.  There was even a line that went west from East Lee into Hampden County. The Berkshire Street Railway was the only company in the U.S. to cover four States in its operations. (See Picture # 4. and #5 for a 1909 map of the BSR trolley routes.) For a more detailed view of the actual trolleys, check out the Bill Volkmer collection at the following website.

Berkshire Trolleys helped build the Golden Gate Bridge!

By the 1930s the BSR converted their trolley routes as much as possible to be serviced by busses. All of the trolley runs ended by September 1932. In 1933 most of the overhead lines were removed and rails were either pulled up for scrap metal or buried under asphalt.  Almost all of the trolleys were taken to Berkshire Park on the road to Cheshire and then stripped of their metal.  With bodies largely constructed of wood, they were then burnt. The remaining 25 cars of the line met their demise this way in the summer and fall of 1933.  (See Picture 6.)  Interestingly the salvaged metal from the trolleys was then sold to a company in Springfield, MA that recycled the steel into the making of the cables of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.  The end of the lines and the burning and scrapping of trolleys took place throughout the US. Only a few trolleys continued to operate, a few were sold to other countries for operation and a few made it to museums, and a few became diners or storage units.  In the Berkshires (as in the rest of the country) a 1943 drive for scrap metal due to wartime metal shortages led to the pulling up of many of the buried tracks along the Berkshire lines. Every now and then in the 50s and 60s one would still see remnants of tracks surface as pavement wore down. In the 60s some of the only Pittsfield tracks left were removed from West Street during the urban renewal work. One can still find the BSR trolley road bed off East St. in Lenox.

The Transition to Busses

In 1930, the Berkshire Street Railway began buying busses that held 21 passengers. The first busses were four Yellow Coach manufactured models and then  twenty-one Studebaker  models. These early busses looked like what we might describe today as old school buses. (Picture 7.  shows the very first bus and Picture 8.shows many of these early busses picking up skiers at the railroad station in the mid 1930s.)  The BSR stored its busses in the old trolley barns located on East Street near the intersection of Newell Street.  (See Picture 9.) The building still stands and the current owner is planning a trolley museum and family fun center in the structure. 

The Bus Routes

By 1930  the interurban bus routes ran from Pittsfield as far north as Bennington (24 miles) and then to Great Barrington (15 miles)  in the south, paralleling the railroad's Housatonic River line. Over the years the Pittsfield city bus routes expanded to include eight major routes. It was easy to go from one route to another with a free transfer, but would take a long time with all the stops.

Park Square - Dawes Avenue
Park Square - Chapman's Corner (Remember Tom's Variety Store on Holmes there)
Park Square - Plastics Avenue
Park Square - Hillcrest Hospital - Churchill Street
Elm Street- Benedict Road
Lake Avenue North - Lake Avenue West
Richmond Road - West Pittsfield - Lanesboro
Dalton Town Line - Pittsfield Country Club

In addition  BSR busses were used over the years for public school transport and charter services.  As I mentioned, I used to ride them three to four days a week in the late 50s from South Jr. High to East StreetPittsfield High School would charter these busses to bring students to athletic events in north or south county.  I remember in 1958 my ninth grade English class chartered a BSR bus to take us to Stratford, CT to see a Shakespearean play. (Quite a long jaunt in a city bus!)

The Berkshire Street Railway Busses

Over the years the Berkshire Street Railway either bought or leased 183 busses in toto.  In 1947 after acquiring seven new vehicles, the BSR was in its hey day with a total  of   78 operating busses and three trucks.  There were 145 employees with 100 drivers. (Picture 10 shows the busses in the hey day.) Over the years the BSR bought busses from many different manufacturers.  These included  vehicles made by the Yellow Coach Company, Studebaker, Erskine, Packard, Mack, Twin, Chevrolet, Ford, ACF, Beaver, GM, and  Brill.  (A complete roster appears in Pictures 11. and 12.) (Pictures 13. - 20. show many of the different styles and makes of the busses.)

The company continued to buy gasoline busses up until 1951 and did not convert to purchasing diesel busses until then. However, only two years later, in 1953, the last   busses were purchased. By then the Railroad lost interest in the bus company and  with more suburban areas growing further from the bus routes and the post WW II  boom,   automobiles began to replace busses among the Berkshire residents.  By 1963 the Berkshire Street Railway was on its "final wheels".  On November 6, 1963 the company was sold at auction to the local Yellow Coach lines. Most of the busses were sold off.  Yellow Coach continued to run their busses throughout the County until 1970. For the next few years Pittsfield and the County had no transit service.  Then from 1972 - 1974 Dufour Brothers maintained a service.  In 1974 the publicly owned Berkshire transit Authority (BRTA) began providing Berkshire County services that they maintain today (2004) with 14 busses a fraction of the 1947 fleet.

What happened to those blue busses?

Ironically the busses went the route trolleys did only 30 years earlier. Trolleys were replaced by busses that in turn were replaced by automobiles. The Berkshire Street Railway busses were old and tired when the company went bankrupt in 1963.  The newest of the company's busses were already ten years old which is considered very old for a vehicle by today's standards.

Some of the earliest retired BSR busses may have been used for homes in the late 40s and early 50s.  As a kid I remember two or three old BSR busses on the ride over Lebanon Mt.  just exiting Hancock on  the right side of the road where there were also a few ramshackle houses. I do believe people lived in the busses. Some of the earliest recreational vehicles (RVs) were converted transit busses, although I don't recall any BSR busses used for this purpose.  By the mid to late 1960s most of the BSR's blue busses seemed to have vanished.  After the BSR went belly up some of the better busses may have been bought by other transit groups out of the area.  I do remember a couple of busses parked across from the bus barns down East St. at a truck repair place, with signs painted on them for $99.  I know some of the older busses were used by auto repair and construction companies to store parts or tools.  A few vehicles found their way to Newell St. across from Hibbard School at one of the businesses, but they are no longer there.  I recall at least one in a backyard on upper Tyler St., but I had not seen it in years. A couple of busses were storage for parts at Joe Asci's car repair and sales on Fourth St. which has long been out of business.  In any event I do not believe any of the BSR busses still survived into the 2000s in Pittsfield though one or two have been spotted in the countryside around the county. (See Picture 21.)  One of the older models had been used by a farmer for growing tomatoes, i.e., like a hot house or greenhouse.  This was perhaps one of the more interesting uses. 

So once again those of us who traveled the Berkshires or Pittsfield by the blue busses of the Berkshire Street Railway can look back with fond memories. What fun, but bumpy rides.

Berkshire Street Railway .Transportation Bulletin No. 79 , January - February 172. Published by the Connecticut Valley Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society of Warehouse Point, CT

Motor Coach Age.  February 1968, Vol. XX, No. 2.  Published by the Motor Bus Society, Inc.  ( Vancouver, WA)

Special thanks to Kinsley Goodrich and Nancy Milne for assistance.