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The Engineer's Notebook

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The North Adams Museum of History and Science

Posted January 30, 2009 12:01 AM by Steve Melito

Where do you spend a Saturday in January if you need to entertain a toddler, but can't stomach the thought of a trip to Chuck E. Cheese? If you live in western Massachusetts or a nearby community in eastern New York or southern Vermont, a trip to North Adams is worth your while. There's no Chuck E. Cheese there, of course, but you don't need an oversized mouse and a roll of game tokens so your kids can act their age. No offense, Mr. Cheese (the pizza there is great), but I'll take the North Adams Museum of History and Science instead.

About North Adams

Nestled in the Berkshire Hills, North Adams was once a vibrant industrial center and home to companies such as Sprague Electric. Today, the "Tunnel City" is known more for modern art than motor controllers. Yet the past is alive in a community that one wag wanted to flood to create lakefront property for Williamstown. Its one thing to make history come alive, of course, but quite another to host a museum where young and old can both find something of interest. That's why I like the North Adams Museum of History and Science so much.

Secrets and Railroads

Described by Fodor's as "North Adams' best kept secret", the museum spans three floors in a wooden building that was once part of a busy railroad yard. The first floor contains the requisite gift shop, but there are also novel exhibits such as "grandma's attic". It's hard to believe that a toddler could find such joy in an old-fashioned typewriter, but banging the keys is where the fun begins. The museum's second floor is even better, especially if you're a railroad buff, a model railroader, or the parent, grandparent, or guardian of a kid who loves Thomas the Tank Engine.

Charles N. Cahoon, president of the North Adams Historical Society (and a degreed mechanical engineer), was kind enough to run the museum's model railroad for nearly an hour while answering our many questions. As any three-year old who loves choo-choos can attest, a train should have a caboose. But that's not always the case. On passenger trains such as the George Washington, Cahoon explained, an observation deck on the last Pullman car enabled the conductor to keep an eye on the other cars. Today, sensors and electronics perform these safety-related functions.

From Discovery Room to Solar System

The second floor of the North Adams Museum of History and Science also has a hands-on "discovery room" for the kids, and exhibits about local architecture, ballooning, and photography. The third floor features military uniforms from hometown heroes and a speaker from a local drive-in, a type of movie theater that most people who aren't old enough to drink can't remember. Still, the crown jewel of the third floor is a "solar system gallery" with a funky blacklight and model of the first Apollo lunar lander.

This isn't a planetarium, of course, and you won't confuse the place with the Boston Museum of Science. But young and old alike can have fun watching the "stars" and looking at pictures from Martian missions. As a North Adams native and amateur historian, however, I was most impressed with the small plaque below the model of the lunar lander. During its heyday, Sprague Electric built electronic components for NASA. On such as life-or-death mission, the company truly lived up to its motto as the "mark of reliability".

The Right Price: Free

We live in tough economic times, and a trip to a place like Chuck E. Cheese is now a luxury that some follks can't afford. But the North Adams Museum of History and Science is free (donations are welcome, of course), and there are plenty of places nearby to get pizza.

Resources:

http://www.chuckecheese.com/the-experience/

http://www.fodors.com/world/north-america/usa/massachusetts/berkshires/review-163269.html

http://www.american-rails.com/george-washington.html

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Re: The North Adams Museum of History and Science

02/05/2009 11:01 PM

I've been to North Adams many times but never visited the museum. Next time I'm in-town, I will definitely check it out.

Nice post Moose.

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