By Steve Sokoloski
Many of us know the story of the New York and New England Limited, the Air Line’s famous all white “Ghost Train” express that brought luminaries like Charles Dickens and Rudyard Kipling from New York to Boston in just six hours. Did you know that the Limited only ran for just four years, from 1891-1895? The full rail line served eastern Connecticut for almost a century with freight and passenger service, shaping the lives of rural farmers and city workers.
Today, when we use the trail for recreation, its origins in the age of railroads are obscured by time. However, there are still visible reminders of rail history to appreciate. We can stand on the buried trestles of the Lyman and Rapallo Viaducts. We can still use the Willimantic Footbridge that was built to safely take pedestrians over the railyards. The Willimantic Freight House stands shuttered, but still sports its mansard roof, the last existing building from what was once a busy railyard. The Connecticut Eastern Railroad Museum has a rebuilt version of the Columbia Junction Roundhouse. At Pomfret Station, you can read about the April 10, 1918 two train crash that killed five. In downtown Putnam, the Gertrude Chandler Warner “Boxcar Children” Museum is scheduled to reopen in summer 2021 in its renovated home, an authentic boxcar. At the north end of the trail, you can learn about the Great East Thompson Train Wreck of December 4, 1891. It stands as one of the nation’s greatest train tragedies. The intrepid folks of the Thompson Trails Committee are working to develop this site into a park.
I enjoy looking for the smaller, less visible pieces of rail history that still exist along the trail. The remains of an old multi-armed telegraph pole, the concrete block near RT 44 that was the base of an iron “telltale”, warning about the upcoming bridge. Sharp eyes can see old, rusted iron signal arms near Modock Road, and Station Road. Look closely in the rock cuts to see the drill channels from left from blasting. Easy to see in the big cut in East Hampton, but still visible in smaller cuts along the trail.
Why is the street called Railroad Street or Station Road or Depot Road? Was there a station stop there? A friend passed along a picture of a “conductors map” that shows the stations along northern end of the line. I think I know where they all were located. At least, I have found the commemorative rock that marks where Elliott’s Station once was at Brooklyn Road.
The artifacts tell us about times gone by. The farmer using a siding to load milk. The student being transported to Pomfret School for start of term. The immigrant coming to live with existing family and to work in the mill. As we work to enhance the trail, we would do well to weave its special past into its modern incarnation.