The Western Mass. Hilltown Hikers will offer tours of the Granite Works at Chester on Track on May 18.

Reminder Publishing submitted photo

CHESTER — The 33rd anniversary Chester on Track on Saturday, May 18, marks the 183rd year since the Western Railroad was opened as the world’s first mountain and wilderness railroad, and the first cluster of stone arch railroad bridges built in America, two miles outside of Chester.

Chester on Track offers visitors an up close look at the historical past of the Chester Village Factory Depot, a railway station constructed in 1862 in the village of Chester adjacent to the Western Railroad line, which received a National Historic Landmark designation in 2021 along with the Keystone Arches, and the thriving present of the village of Chester, known as the “gem of the valley.”

A free bus run by the Gateway Regional School District will shuttle visitors to the various venues throughout the town, offering a wide variety of activities for all ages throughout the day.

Chester on Track will begin with a parade at 10 a.m. along Main Street, led by this year’s parade marshal Leonard Alexander, a Chester native with strong ties to the local history of the railroad.

After the parade, Alexander will be at a table in the Railway Station Museum, where a train show will be set up, to share memories of working at the Chester Roundhouse as a callboy when he was in Chester High School, and his father Gilbert Alexander’s work as a boilermaker.

A roundhouse is a circular-shaped building with a turntable bridge that allows railroad engines to be pointed to various bays. Chester had a six-stall roundhouse. There was one in Springfield that had 180 stalls, according to David Pierce, president of the Chester Foundation. Chester’s roundhouse still stands, although the roof has caved in. Next to the roundhouse a big coal tower still stands,

Alexander also was the last welder to change the teeth on the Chester Granite Saw across the street, an outdoor interpretive museum on Emery Street, which will have a soft opening during Chester on Track.

The Granite Works was started in the early 1800s to cut and finish the granite that was extracted from local quarries, including the Becket Quarry now preserved by the Trustees of Reservations. The Granite Works features a 12-foot diameter saw blade, originally operated by steam power, with some remarkable mechanisms designed to handle the massive blocks of quarried stone. 

It was purchased in September 2023 by the Western Mass. Hilltown Hikers, and since then volunteers have worked endless hours cleaning up the lot, which was unmaintained for approximately 80 years. Hilltown Hikers representatives will be at the Granite Saw property main entrance from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., at 7 Prospect St., across from the ballfield, giving tours. There is also a footpath entrance across from the Chester Railway Station.

The ballfield on Emery Street will feature children’s activities, including donkey rides, mounted police and K-9 units from the State Police and Hampden County Sheriff’s Department. There will be a “The Little Engine That Could” story walk, a bounce house, and an archery booth run by Boy Scouts of America, among other attractions.

At the station, the Blue Caboose will open at 8 a.m. for breakfast and offer a hearty railroad man’s menu throughout the day. Diners can eat “hobo-style” in an antique wooden boxcar. Carm’s and Classic Pizza in town will be open all day, as will the Village Market for take-out. There will also be a number of specialty food items available around town from visiting vendors.

The Chester postmaster will personally cancel commemorative envelopes with a special postal cancelation commemorating the Western Railroad for one day only. The design, as well as T-shirts available at the station, will celebrate the original, little-known, elaborate Egyptian-style station in Chester before the present National Historic Landmark was built in 1862.

Outside the station, antique woodworking and Revolutionary War reenactors will give demonstrations, and the Wild & Scenic Westfield River Association will make fish prints with the kids.

The station’s outdoor stage will host live music beginning at 11 a.m. with Mark Franklin and Steve Pitoniak, and “Baird Souls.” The Pioneer Valley Live Steamers will display their large-scale operating steam and diesel locomotives, and a selection of rolling stock, on the station’s south lawn.

Large-scale live steam and a CCC camp info booth will be on the north lawn of the station, and a ham radio base camp will be on hand to contact enthusiasts around the globe and give Morse code demonstrations.

A number of 1920s-era freight cars, including a 105-year-old wooden caboose and “Children’s Boxcar,” will be open to the public.

Back in town — accessible via shuttle bus — classic cars from Model Ts to the newest Corvettes will line up on Maple and Main streets after the parade, with “one-lung” steam and gas engine demonstrations, and a large craft fair by local artisans. Kids will also be entertained by the antics of Maggie the Railroad Clown, formerly of Ringling Bros. Circus.

There will be live music throughout the day by the group “Just Us” and members of the Pioneer Valley Fiddlers on the lawns of the historic Riverside Inn, where the Jacob’s Ladder Business Association is hosting a  Home Show with a number of local services and businesses.  A new art gallery, A Reason to Pause, in the former A&L Market on Main Street, will be open to visitors.

The Chester Historical Commission will be on hand for tours at the Old Jail and Chester History Museum from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

The award-winning Chester Theatre Company will present a 30-minute excerpt of “Last Train to Nibroc” by Arlene Hutton, directed by Chris Rohmann, starring Abuzar Farrukh and Hero Marguerite, at 11:30 a.m. in the Town Hall on Middlefield Street.  The Chester Council on Aging and the Hamilton Memorial Library will have a presence at the Town Hall and former elementary school lawns on Route 20 and Middlefield Street with books, food and displays.  

The Chester-Blandford Police Department, Hilltown Ambulance and Hampden County Sheriff’s Department will be on hand to introduce new community programs. The Chester Fire Department will run its annual duck race on the Westfield River beginning at 3 p.m. The booth to sign up is on River Front Drive near the inn.

A map with a list and locations of all of the activities throughout the day will be available. Chester on Track is funded in part by a grant from the Chester Cultural Council and Massachusetts Cultural Council.

amyporter@thewestfieldnews.com | + posts