History: Holliston Trains-Trail-and Another Fire

The 4th of July is months away, but since it’s also a big travel time, I want to give you an early invitation to a  celebration of the completion of the Rail Trail and the construction on the 8 Arch Bridge. I hope you’ll come for food (in a tent outside Casey’s), presentations to the volunteers who worked on the projects, and in the evening, enjoy a laser light show playing over the stones of the 8 arch bridge. The road will be blocked off and you’re ALL invited.

But let’s look back for just a moment…Trains before Trail

Do you remember when the area around Casey’s (the original train depot) looked like this? (Photo from 1990 taken by David Bastille) The trains were there every day. Some rode farther down the line to Cross Street, the end of the spur into the 1990’s. The last freight train to Axton Cross was in 1995. The red building ahead is Casey’s and the truck is on Central Street.

The area wasn’t the same kind of quaint that it is today; it was more industrial quaint, like the difference between Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard. It was a time when there were more large industries like Axton Cross and Budweiser.

This current day photo below shows you the open space to the right of the chain link fence where State Lumber stood and the truck is parked. It was located parallel to the tracks in a string of buildings that measured 500 ft long and 300 ft wide and stretched between Central and Church Streets.

The old red building on the corner of Church and Norfolk Street (extension) today was part of the State Lumber complex. The lumber store was very close to the backs of the houses on Norfolk extension.

State Lumber was like the prototype of the Home Depot model of a hardware store – big and selling everything! It was busy every morning as contractors came in for lumber and all their supplies, and on weekends, it was crowded with the do-it-yourself homeowners.

On August 8, 1984, lightning struck the wooden building and created a fire that exploded paint cans, aerosols, fertilizers and whatnot. The sight attracted 500 onlookers as the blaze lit up the sky and destroyed the building. It had been a tinderbox and the weather gods tossed a match – more like a grenade really. 100 firefighters from seven towns waged and lost the battle. You can see the chain link fence separating the train track from the State Lumber property…then and now. 

It was devastating to the town and the owners, for sure. For more amazing photos of the fire by Dick Bartlett, check out this site.

If you have any photos of the fire or State Lumber, please share them here to archive them for posterity –  or email them to me at [email protected] One of my goals in this Blog is to engage readers in sharing their photos and memories, too.

Now to the Trail…

The Rail Trail and Blair Square are realities because volunteers stepped up to “just do it.” The Trail efforts began about 20 years ago. Robert Weidknecht was there and is still the lead champion of this effort – but he has had lots and lots of help. It took many years of negotiating with CSX to buy the land and then many more years to scrounge around for funds (from grants, the state and the local Community Preservation Fund).

Our volunteers were not only ambitious, they were fiscally prudent. They opted not to go to the Department of  Transportation (DOT) for grant funds for fear it would escalate costs. Instead they proceeded to build the Trail in small sections, one at a time, with volunteer labor as much as possible. In the end, it cost $50,000 a mile to get the Trail done their way. On the other hand, the DOT way costs about $2,000,000 a mile!!

Before Blair Square


Likewise, Blair Square was a budget operation – homespun and small town Holliston. That park happened because Bobby Blair looked at the area where people would be visiting to get on or off the Trail and was unhappy with what he saw. Not being one for process, he talked to Robert Weidknecht and Robert’s Trail-building sidekick, Herb Brockert.

Herb, like Bobby, is a “townie” of the old school who avoids meetings and process if he can. But he never shirks a request for help. So when Bobby asked if Herb could just knock back a little of the brush and clear the area “a bit” with earth-moving equipment he uses in his excavating business, Herb stepped in and so did Robert. Herb has been involved with Robert from the early days and has cleared the Trail, leveled it, prepared it and laid the stone, among many other things.

Brockert at the wheel


Then at the west end, there’s the tunnel, which went from this…

And of course, there’s the icon of all icons on the Trail…the 8 Arch Bridge

Concept drawing of finished project

Currently under construction (below) and funded by Holliston’s Community Preservation Funds and some generous donors who gave the “seed money” for the project, the bridge will be done for the 4th of July. The bridge was started in 1846 by Irish and Italian immigrants many of whom ended up settling here when the project stalled for a year to blast through Phipps Hill (Washington Street up to Highland Street) and to build the tunnel.

The First Train to Holliston

The first train was a ceremonial ride into town for the 4th of July 1847. We don’t have photos but there are news articles. It is by chance that the Trail and bridge projects are both complete this year – but how perfect to celebrate on the actual anniversary day of the first train – 171 years later!

I hope you’ll join us and honor the many, many volunteers who invested their time and energy in these projects and the public figures that provided their support and access to resources. Watch for details in Holliston Reporter and here as the date gets closer.

And please, share your memories and your photos, too, right here!
Or send them to me by email at [email protected]

All of these blogs will rely to some degree on the works and research of several people: Joanne Hulbert, author of “Holliston, A Good Town,” Dorothy Drinkwater Rees who wrote Holliston’s 250th Anniversary History, Dennis Cuddy and Paul Guidi who produced the third “Images” Book with Ms. Hulbert, or from some of the former Holliston historians – Abner Morse, Daniel Chase, and John Batchelder. Should I make an error or remember something wrong, please feel free to offer your comments and questions. I will make corrections in the original article so that it is as accurate as it can be. We’re writing history together!

6 responses to “History: Holliston Trains-Trail-and Another Fire”

  1. Robert Moore says:

    There was a high school kid working at State Lumber in the paint department back in 1984 when the lightning struck (maybe someone named Brad Curley). He indicated that he got on his bike and Got the heck out quickly after the lightning struck.

    • I emailed Brad Curley’s father, former High School teacher and coach Steve Curley, to see what Brad remembered. Steve reported, “I spoke to Brad by the way. He did work there and was there when lightning hit. He said just before it happened, the fire trucks had gone by to answer an alarm somewhere else. When the fire was going, Brad tried to get back in to get his beloved bicycle. But was stopped and not allowed to go in. He was upset that his bike got melted and lost.”

  2. Roberta Weiner says:

    This is fascinating, Mary! I feel like I’ve lived here forever but was not here at the time of the fire. I clicked through to see the additional pictures and wow, I had no idea. Thank you for this glimpse into town history!

  3. Kevin FitzGerald says:

    Was back in town last week and went by the State Lumber site. Wife who actually grew up in town, was remembering when we had artists renderings donated, showing a multi use complex there. My vision was to connect this area up to central st to Washington st, making an actual retail shopping district. Never too late.

  4. Deb Moore says:

    Love the before & after pics to appreciate all the work that has been done!

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