Swift River Valley: Rabbit Run railroad recreated in diorama

  • Ken Levine of Petersham is building a model of the Rabbit Run Railroad that ran up the Quabbin Valley to Athol in his Petersham art and framing studio. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • Ken Levine of Petersham is building a model of the Rabbit Run Railroad that will be on display at the Swift River Historical Society. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • Utility poles that will be used in new Quabbin display. Ken Levine of Petersham is building a model of the Rabbit Run Railroad that will be on display at the Swift River Historical Society. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • Barn raising that will be used in new diorama. Ken Levine of Petersham is building a model of the Rabbit Run Railroad that will be on display at the Swift River Historical Society. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • Cutting ice from a pond for a model of the Rabbit Run Railroad that will be on display at the Swift River Historical Society. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

Published: 11/27/2020 3:26:21 PM
Modified: 11/27/2020 3:26:13 PM

The Rabbit Railroad was the life blood of the Swift River Valley, according to Ken Levine, artist and co-owner of Frames/Ink in Petersham with his wife, Janet Palin. Levine is creating a model diorama of the Swift River Valley, complete with the railroad chugging its way through it, for the Swift River Valley Historical Society in New Salem.

The diorama will depict North Dana, Enfield, Greenwich and Prescott, the four towns lost during the creation of the Quabbin Reservoir. “I am recreating portions of each town — some of the factories, some of the farms, the harvesting of ice which was sent south, as well as to Boston and New York. It will depict all four seasons in the lost Quabbin towns. By the time you get down to Enfield, it’s winter,” Levine said.

“The Rabbit” Railroad was incorporated in 1871 as the Enfield Railroad. It was then bought by the Boston and Albany and became known as the Boston and Albany Athol Branch, Levine said. The train ran twice a day beginning in Athol, ending in Springfield and then returning. “School kids from the Swift River Valley took the train to attend high school in Athol, farmers used the train to ship produce out, ice went out on the train and fabric from the mills brought the cloth to the city,” he said.

“The train’s route was referred to as the Rabbit Run because it made so many stops, like a rabbit hopping from town to town. There were nine actual stops. Some were named after the towns, some were named after the villages in the towns,” Levine continued. The stops were: South Athol, Soapstone, North Dana, Morgan’s Crossing, Greenwich, Greenwich Village, Enfield, Smiths and West Ware.

Levine, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, said he has always enjoyed model trains and creating model landscapes. “I like to create little sculptures, too,” he said. He estimates that, so far, he has invested at least 50 hours on the diorama project, which is still ongoing. Levine works on his diorama in his Petersham studio, building small models for the diorama, while other sections of the diorama are being stored at the Swift River Valley Historical Society carriage barn.

Levine’s desire to create a diorama began when he was a docent at the Harvard Forest Museum and saw their miniature dioramas. Being fascinated with the history of the Quabbin Reservoir, he brought the idea of a diorama to the Swift River Valley Historical Society who, after considering it, agreed to the idea. “I began the project about two years ago and I have worked on it ever since,” Levine said.

“All the bench work is done that supports the diorama, which is 24 by 4 feet. It is plywood and over that is rigid foam. There is a backdrop of painted scenery with mountains and skies. The mountains are built and ready to be installed. This week, I installed the soapstone quarry.” Soapstone from the quarry was used for stoves, sinks, foot warmers and by Native Americans for bowls and pipes.

“I used a lot of common materials, with some of the materials being recycled,” Levine continued. He bought green fiberglass filters and pulled them apart, placing them on BBQ skewers that were painted brown to look like bark to create conifers. “For telephone poles, I once again used BBQ skewers with cross poles of balsa wood, then glued clear glass beads to look like insulators.” Levine continued that he used sawdust, which he sifted, with the finer materials becoming grass and the thicker materials becoming the foliage for trees, made with sticks of different plants. “They were made to look like an apple tree, an elm tree or an oak tree,” he added.

Levine said he researched his project by watching online videos, reading books, including those by J.R. Greene, author of books about the lost Quabbin towns and “The Rabbit” Railroad, and history books on steam railroads for reference. “I visited the Big E Train Show, which is run every year by the Amherst Railway Association. Interestingly, the group’s clubhouse in Palmer is in a former church that they bought, which was originally moved from the Swift River town of Enfield.”

He is hoping to have the diorama completed and running by June of 2021. Funding for the project has been received from Massachusetts and Local Council Grants from the towns of Petersham, Orange, New Salem, Royalston, Pelham, Hardwick and New Braintree.


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