Trail of the Month: February 2010
Massachusetts' Bridge of Flowers
In the late 1920s, residents of Shelburne Falls, Mass., watched their Trolley Bridge disappear beneath a tangle of weeds. The 400-foot, five-arch bridge over the Deerfield River had closed when the Shelburne Falls & Colrain Street Railway (SF&C) ended service in 1927, and nature quickly took over.
Out of the overgrowth sprouted an inspiration when locals Antoinette and Walter Burnham fancied that someone might be able to tame the jungle into a community garden.
The Burnhams' concept took root a year later when the Shelburne Falls Area Women's Club decided to sponsor the garden project. Club members raised $1,000 with the help of other local organizations, and in April 1929 they poured 80 loads of loam and fertilizer onto the bridge—all using donated labor. After countless volunteer hours of planting and weeding and clipping, the Women's Club had completely transformed an eyesore into a community showpiece as the Bridge of Flowers. More than 80 years later, they remain stewards of the bridge.
"The women's club rallied and donated all the plants and time and has been managing the garden ever since," says Julie Petty, co-chair of the Bridge of Flowers Committee. The bridge was a symbol of neglect. Now it's a flourishing walkway, featuring more than 500 different kinds of plants.
"It's not exotic, and the plants are what anybody can acquire," says Petty. "But the level of design and attention to detail is what makes it such a showy garden."
In charge of those details are two part-time gardeners, whom the club employs, and the dozens of volunteers they oversee. The club raises some funding at an annual plant sale; this year, it's scheduled for May 15. Yet most of the garden budget comes from the donation box, which feeds off the bridge's enormous foot traffic. Last year, 34,000 people from all 50 states and more than 90 countries and islands visited the Bridge of Flowers—and that's with the bridge only open from April 1 through the end of October.
During those spring and summer months, the garden provides a dynamic attraction for Shelburne Falls and a fitting tribute to the original Trolley Bridge it now occupies.
When the SF&C Railway built the bridge in 1908, they created an important link between Buckland and Shelburne (together, the two towns make up Shelburne Falls). The company's 6.5 miles of trolley line tied together villages along the Deerfield and North rivers, including up to Colrain, carrying everyone from cotton mill workers and apple farmers to weekend shoppers and school children.
"There was no high school in the Colrain area, or in any of the hill towns, but they could catch the trolley down to school in Buckland," says Polly Bartlett of the Shelburne Falls Trolley Museum. "The trolley really was the lifeblood of this area."
The first trolley car the SF&C purchased was the No. 10 in 1896. It was a "combine" with separate freight and seated compartments, and one of the first cars to offer electric heat. The trolley company also ran open cars, called "breezers," for summer runs. On hot days, you would take the trolley for 15 cents up to Colrain, where they sold ice cream. That was back when ice cream was a luxury you might have once or twice a year, says Bartlett.
Highway construction eventually absorbed the trolley street corridor, ending their service in 1927. Nearly all the cars were burned for metal salvage except one—the No. 10.
A local farmer named Frank Johnson had courted his wife on the No. 10, says Bartlett, so he wanted to save it when the trolley closed. He paid $100, no small sum for a farmer in the 1920s, and moved it to his property. For 65 years, the car sat there, used alternately as a tool shed, playhouse and chicken shed. It was in pretty rough shape when Frank's son Marshall gathered some supporters in the early 1990s to restore the car as part of the Trolley Museum.
Today, you can take short rides on the original—and now nicely refurbished—No. 10 on 1,200 feet of track at the museum. Although the rest of the tracks may be gone, the SF&C left behind 400 feet of bridge that have helped Shelburne Falls bloom for more than 80 years.
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