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This is the 2014 Massachusetts Fish & Wildlife Guide

This guide contains regulations effective today through December 31st, 2014. For regulations effective January 1st, 2015, please refer to the 2015 Massachusetts Fish & Wildlife Guide.

Keystone Arches

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The Walnut Hill Wildlife Management Area not only conserves wildlife resources, but also conserves some remarkable construction of a unique and historic nature.

Hidden deep in the hills along the West Branch of the Westfield River stand two remarkable testaments to engineering and bold vision known as the Keystone Arches. Rising 70 feet above the river, the arches are a must-see for historians and railroad enthusiasts, but also offer a wonderful diversion for all who enjoy visiting the wilder places in Massachusetts. The Division of Fisheries and Wildlife’s (DFW) land/habitat protection mission includes the principle that all lands we manage will be open for the public in perpetuity. It is, after all, the public who truly owns them. Hunters, anglers, trappers, hikers, birders, and other outdoor recreationists can therefore capitalize on our habitat protection efforts and freely access all of our wildlife properties.

The Walnut Hill WMA was acquired to protect the Westfield River and the surrounding upland habitat, but a wonderful side benefit of the acquisition is that it also provides the public with the ability to experience the Keystone Arches. Anyone willing to do a little hiking can enjoy some truly spectacular examples of architectural and railroad history set against the backdrop of one of Massachusetts’ most beautiful waterways.

The Westfield watershed drains over 500 square miles, transitioning from the Berkshire’s eastern slopes to the Pioneer Valley. The Upper Westfield consists of three branches (West, East, and Middle) that flow through an area commonly referred to as “the Hilltowns.” The physical geography of the Hilltowns is characterized by steep, rounded hills separated by deep stream and river valleys. Rain events and high snowpack can produce incredible flows in the Upper Westfield, among the flashiest rivers in the Commonwealth, and over millions of years the flowing water has cut steep and winding courses.

The economic incentive for westward railway expansion must have provided intense motivation to attempt to cross this area, which by 19th century standards was surely viewed as insurmountable terrain. Crossing the West Branch through the towns of Chester, Becket, and Middlefield was likely the greatest part of this challenge. Despite the logistical and physical obstacles, however, the Keystone Arches were completed by 1841, allowing passage along the historically important Western Railroad.

Major George Washington Whistler is credited with the design and implementation of the bold plan to extend the rail through the Central Berkshires by spanning the West Branch of the Westfield River in multiple locations. A compelling historical figure, Whistler drew on his engineering education at West Point in his decision to utilize a keystone arch design to cross the river. Whistler and his team managed to make the cut and construct the arches in just 2½ years ­– without the use of dynamite! A major railroad figure in his day, Whistler went on to design rail lines throughout the world before his death in Russia at the age of 49. Whistler was surpassed in fame by his son, painter James McNeill Whistler, best remembered for a painting of his mother titled Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 1 (and better known as Whistler’s Mother), but it seems likely that the senior Whistler’s monumental works in stone will eventually outlast the son’s works in oil on canvas.

The keystone arch design dates back to Roman times. The bridges over the Upper Westfield River represent the largest cluster of such arches in the country, and remain some of the oldest keystone rail arches in the nation. The bridges are dry laid, meaning that no mortar was used in their construction. The weight of the stone and the shape of the arch give the bridges their structural integrity. Using primarily local Chester granite, the stonework was cut and laid by the Birnie Brothers, stone masons of Stockbridge, Mass. The original rail line had 10 bridges crossing the Westfield. In 1910 the line was rerouted to accommodate modern locomotives, leaving many of the bridges unused and abandoned. The floodwaters of 1927 destroyed three of the arches. The remaining bridges that have survived for more than 170 years over the fast-flowing Westfield River are a credit to the engineers, craftsmen, and laborers who built them. The most impressive of the arches are the two abandoned bridges on the Walnut Hill WMA. Rather than standing in defiance of nature, these bridges seem to blend into the valley walls and give the impression of being almost a natural part of the landscape.

river.jpgThe DFW acquired the land now known as the Walnut Hill Wildlife Management Area in 1987, with a primary conservation and recreational focus on the river. The longest free-flowing stretch of river in the entire Commonwealth, the West Branch and its tributaries are home to reproducing trout and other coldwater fish species. The WMA contributes to an area which comprises one of the largest roadless tracts in the state and supports abundant populations of turkey, bear, moose, and deer, as well as habitat for several rare and endangered species. Semi-aquatic mammals such as river otter and mink frequent the valley bottoms. Each spring we stock the river with thousands of trout, and the deep pools beneath the arches provide cool water, helping to sustain trout through the dry, warm summer months. This great fishing resource, set against the spectacular backdrop of the Keystone Arches, provides one of the most rewarding coldwater fishing experiences to be found anywhere in the Commonwealth.

Strong advocacy from groups such as the Friends of the Keystone Arches and the Westfield River Wild and Scenic Advisory Committee have brought public attention to the bridges. Currently listed on the Register of Historic Places, efforts are underway to nominate the arches for designation as a National Historic Landmark, a designation that would further raise their profile. Advocates hope that funding opportunities will arise from this recognition because, despite the incredible construction of the arches, restoration actions will likely be necessary to ensure their continued integrity. Attempts to begin restoration actions have been made over the years, but funding and access complications have, so far, always derailed such efforts.

Recognizing the historical and cultural significance of the arches, the DFW has allowed the development of the Keystone Arch Bridge (KAB) Trail, with walking path and informational signage to educate visitors about the bridges. The property is first and foremost a Wildlife Management Area, however, so visitors should expect a primitive setting. This further enhances the effect when one encounters the first arch. DFW’s land mission to protect wildlife habitat has been remarkably successful, conserving tens of thousands of acres to protect the biodiversity of our state and the rights of hunters, anglers, and other passive recreationists to enjoy the outdoors. At Walnut Hill WMA the land comes with a spectacular added benefit, which is sure to be appreciated by all who visit.

The West Branch of the Westfield River is a superb coldwater resource and the longest stretch of free-flowing river in the Commonwealth.

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Regulations in red are new this year.

Purple text indicates an important note.

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