As the twelve towns and the CTDEEP look toward the future for the Air Line State Park Trail, the trail experience is inspired by its history as a railroad. The name of the rail line and the trail is derived from drawing a straight line through the air between Boston and New York City, hence Air Line Railroad or Air Line Trail. Similar to the effort to build out this multi-use trail, the rail line construction from the 1840stothe1870s involved challenging terrain, bridges, voluminous cuts and fills to ensure a flat grade for a train’s journey from Boston to New York City.
The first attempt began in 1846, with the chartering of the New York and Boston Railroad Company and by 1867, a group of investors chartered the New Haven, Middletown, and Willimantic Railroad Company. Ultimately, the Air Line Railroad was leased by the rapidly growing New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad, in 1882. Despite the limited technology of the day, expansive cuts through the hillsides were accomplished in combination with equally massive “fills” in the valleys to keep the rail bed at grade.
Nowhere was this more apparent than at the expansive bridges, or viaducts, over Flat Brook and Dickenson Creek in East Hampton and Colchester respectively. Only 1.2 miles from each other, these stream valleys were first crossed by lengthy bridges. The Rapallo viaduct needed 800 feet of length to cross Flat Brook, and the Lyman Viaduct, just to the east, needed 1,000 feet to span Dickenson Creek. Today, trail users benefit from the broad scenic trail views from these bridges that were filled for safety reasons. The new railroad could only be effective if it offered time savings from the pre-existing shoreline route.
By 1885, with an hour savings on the six-hour coastal run from New York to Boston, the New England Limited on the Air Line Railroad was established. This rail journey attracted wealthy travelers. Pullman cars were painted white with gold trim, yielding the title of “Ghost Train” and engine crews and staff wore white uniforms. The train carried businessmen and famous passengers including President Benjamin Harrison and authors Charles Dickens and Rudyard Kipling over the 213 mile, six-hour journey. But ultimately, time, new technology and cost conspired toward the demise of the Air Line Railroad. This winding bucolic engineered train route required continued upgrades. The cost for new infrastructure was prohibitive. In1898, the NH Railroad system that operated the shoreline rail system purchased the line which hasten the downfall of the Air Line Railroad. Passenger service of the Ghost Train era concluded on May 17,1902,when service defaulted to the Boston to New York City shoreline rail system.
The now abandoned rail corridor between East Hampton and the Massachusetts state line was acquired by the Connecticut and designated as a state park. The section from Route 66 in Windham to Route 44 in Pomfret opened to the public in 1969 as a bridle trail. In 1976, the trail designation and associated improvement in conditions was extended north to Town Farm Road in Putnam. The southern section from East Hampton to Willimantic opened as a trail in 1986. The Thompson section was opened in 1992 and the bridge over the Willimantic River to Bridge St. was opened in 2015. An extension south to Portland opened in 2018 and currently, a connector project between Portland and East Hampton will begin in 2023-2024. Thompson has completed enhanced sections to the Tri-State marker recently. There is significant work ahead to create a trail that supports reliable and consistent conditions for the full length from Thompson to Portland. As the trail conditions and opportunities change, this website will update visitors to new amenities on and near the trail.
In November 2018, a group of forty-five enthusiastic Air Line State Park Trail stakeholders and supporters from each of the twelve towns in the Region, influence areas and representatives of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (CTDEEP) convened a roundtable discussion in Hebron, Connecticut. The attendees gathered to identify the merits, issues and concerns associated with the Air Line State Park Trail (ALSPT), the ongoing connection of the towns with CT DEEP, owner of the ALSPT. Discussion and questions, some without clear answers, focused on the following:
- How could towns work collaboratively with the CTDEEP to implement continuity of maintenance and conditions on the trail?
- How does CTDEEP successfully manage a linear state park for increased use by trail users?
- What is the value of the Air Line State Park Trail to the twelve towns as an economic driver for tourism and tourist-based business?
- Are the towns supporting business growth and land use that supports the trail?
- What are the strength and weakness of the trails infrastructure system
- How can towns and CT DEEP improve the trail infrastructure to promote a fun, safe and reliable experience for the trail user?
In May 2023, the ALSPT Region was awarded a grant of $75,000 to organize into a formal nonprofit. This new organization will coordinate with CT DEEP and lead the towns as well as organizational stakeholders toward cost effective and timely maintenance and improvements of the trail. Another goal of the new ALSPT Region is to highlight for the visitor all the “stay and play” options and amenities near the trail, coordinating with the State Office of Tourism. Lastly, the region will work to support trail-oriented business growth in the region with support from local economic development commissions, local business associations, local colleges and universities and business enterprise districts.
Please revisit this page to see new updates in the list of Board of Directors and new developments for the ALSPT Region.