Steam & Steel
A century and a half ago, steam engines rumbled into the Connecticut River Valley on steel rails, transforming the landscape and the economy. Until then, travel had been limited to unimproved roads and to the river itself. Thanks to a series of canals, river boat traffic was common here on the Connecticut years before ground was broken for New York State’s famous Erie Canal, in 1817. Flat boats and a few steam boats traveled from Hartford, CT reaching into the northern forest as far as Barnet and Bath.
By 1850, fast new rail connections to New York, Boston, and Montreal ended the days of slow passage by water. Farmers found expanded markets for perishable products that could be delivered overnight. Manufacturers thrived with faster access to raw materials and markets. City dwellers thronged to the region to vacation at mineral springs hotels and resorts that promised good health and great scenery. Many surviving historic train stations date from the early 20th century, when passenger rail service boomed.
Today, passenger and freight trains run along riverbanks, over high trestles, and even through a tunnel under a downtown square. Amtrak’s Vermonter makes twice-daily stops in the Waypoint Communities of Brattleboro, Bellows Falls, Claremont, Windsor, and White River Junction, with service between St Albans and New York City..
Historic Train Stations
In the 19th century, when railroads were the easiest, fastest, and most popular form of travel, passenger stations were essential to community growth and vitality. Today, historic train stations still stand in the heart of several Waypoint Communities.
Brattleboro, VT – Union Station was among the last generation of major railroad passenger stations built in Vermont. It was constructed of stone in 1915-1916 for the Central Vermont and Boston and Maine Railroads. The station is now home to the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center.
Bellows Falls, VT – The Boston and Maine Railroad Passenger Station, built of brick in 1922, stands at the junction of two rail lines – the Boston and Maine’s Connecticut Valley main line and the Green Mountain (former Rutland) Railroad’s line to Rutland, Vermont. The junction turned Bellows Falls into a rail hub. The station serves both Amtrak and the Green Mountain Railroad’s excursion passenger train.
Claremont, NH – The Claremont station is located about two and a half miles west of downtown and near the municipal airport. Travelers on the Vermonter use a concrete platform abutting a former Boston and Maine Railroad (B&M) depot erected in 1920 that is currently a store. In December 2014, the town initiated a one-year pilot program in which a local Community Alliance Transportation Services (CATS) bus will meet the southbound Vermonter on weekdays.
Similar to many of its contemporaries, the one-story depot has a high hipped roof that creates deep eaves that were meant to protect passengers from inclement weather as they waited outside for the arrival of the train. In historic photographs, the station sports a distinctive two color paint scheme in which the base was a darker color than the main body, helping to visually ground the structure. The essential form of the station remains as it was a century ago but for some changes to the window and door openings.
Windsor – The Central Vermont Railway Station is an imposing building, built in 1905 in a Victorian-era fashion known as Vernacular Romanesque style. The station is now a restaurant.
White River Junction – As its name suggests, White River Junction was a crossroads for five railroads, all constructed between 1847 and 1863. Two lines survive – the Boston and Maine, and the Central Vermont. The B&M built the present large brick passenger station in 1937 in the Colonial Revival style. Amtrak stops at the station twice a day. It houses a welcome center operated by the State of Vermont and local chambers of commerce. Outside the door stands a great iron horse, “Old 494,” a restored locomotive engine that hauled passenger cars and light freight up and down the river valley from 1892 to 1938.
Fairlee, VT – The small wood framed depot, built around 1860, is the oldest surviving railroad structure along the Connecticut River. South of Fairlee village is another historic station in the hamlet of Ely. Now a private home, it was constructed about 1900 to offer full rail service to the local rural area as well as to house the station agent’s family.
Woodsville, NH – The tracks themselves may be gone these days, but the glory of Woodsville’s railroad days remains in its rail-era inspired downtown, where the train station now provides a home for shops.
St. Johnsbury, VT – St. Johnsbury also served as the junction of railroad lines – the St. Johnsbury and Lake Champlain Railroad (running east-west) and the Connecticut and Passumpsic Rivers Railroad (north-south.) The enormous Canadian Pacific depot, built as a union station in the last quarter of the 19th century, presently houses several businesses.
North Stratford, NH – When the Atlantic and Saint Lawrence Railroad designers contemplated a rail service from Portland, Maine to Montreal, Quebec in April 1853, North Stratford became the most appropriate location for a northern way point due to the emerging settlement started by the Baldwin family several years before. Brothers Elisha and William Baldwin built the area’s first saw and grist mills on Mill Brook in 1848 and at the mouth of the Nulhegan River in 1849. Shortly thereafter, their Baldwin Bridge Company built a connector across the Connecticut River, significantly increasing available jobs and the subsequent need for housing. During this period, George Van Dyke owned large tracts of land in Vermont and Quebec with a need to transport his timber commodity. Following the completion and connection of five charted rail sections, the North Stratford Railroad, known as the Upper Coos Railroad, extended track 44 miles in New Hampshire, 14 miles in Vermont, and 53 miles in Quebec.
Colebrook, NH – When the Great North Woods were logged in the second half of the 19th century, custom narrow-gauge rail lines were set deep into the forest to bring out the logs. These proved as ephemeral as the old logging camps themselves, but traces of them remain in the woods as trails, or grown back up with trees.
For more information about these and other stations go to Great American Train Stations