Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Train Wreck on the Air Line Trail


On April 25, 1873, East Hampton (then Chatham) lost its distinction of being a backwater community as the Air Line roadbed opened rail service from New York to Boston. Although not entirely backwater, Chatham did have the benefit of travel and commerce on the Connecticut River and in its height had launched over 300 sea-going ships from the yards in Middle Haddam. Otherwise travel by road was limited and limited shipment of freight. The completion of tracks and trestles and bridges opened our town to passenger rail service with several trains running daily in each direction. Of greater importance, and something we desperately need to expand our economic base today, was the freight service that enabled our bell industry and emerging silk industry to become industrial powers. There was now an economical means of shipping the millions of bells produced by Bevin Bros., the Gong Bell, Starr Bros. and N. N. Hill among others, along with silk and thread throughout the world. Although the bell industry achieved its heyday in the early 20th century, some of those fabled companies such as Bevin Bros. continue manufacturing today. The fire at the Bevin Bros. Manufacturing Co. last May ignited (no pun intended) a renewed interest in our towns history and of the importance the bell played in it. Plans for the railroad line, running from Portland onto Willimantic were started in 1862 with construction commencing in 1867. For years, high school students took the train daily to Middletown through 1931 and was pressed into service once again after the great hurricane of 1936 when roads were washed out. During WW II the line carried strategic materials and troop trains to lighten this type of loan on the shore line which was vulnerable to submarine attack. And then August 2, 1962!


We often take for granted our accomplishments. Great buildings and other monuments to our design creativity seem indestructible. We all remember the somber reality of their vulnerability on September 11, 2001. Here, on August 2, 1962, the end of East Hampton as a manufacturing hub came to a screeching halt as three diesel engines and a freight car derailed at the siding switch about 200 feet east of Watrous Street. New Haven Railroad engineers and mechanics brought in a 250-ton crane. None of the engines or the car overturned so the task of righting them back onto stable track went quickly. A report at the time indicated that the lead engine went over the switch on the main line and two other engines and head car went into the siding at the Gong Bell spur. The heavy engines plowed into the ground like a garden plow, pushing dirt on both sides of the track and ripping ties over a 100-foot area. At the time, railroad investigators and the local EH police department consisting of Sgt. George Fowler, had two theories on the derailment. One was a poorly maintained switching mechanism. The other a vandal placing some impediment in the switching mechanism that caused a malfunction. The answer was never conclusive, but with the New York, New Haven and Hartford bleeding financially, the decision not to repair the tracks ultimately resulted in the discontinuance of the line by the Interstate Commerce Commission in February, 1965. The decision left many residents with bitter feelings over the town’s inability to either have the line revived or to acquire the roadbed since the town had underwritten $112,500 of costs of the line between 1867 and 1891. The initial investment would have been worth millions at the time the line was abandoned.


It took 4 short years after the August 1962 derailment, but by the spring of 1966 the rails from Colchester to Cobalt had been removed leaving a winding trail of rotting ties becoming overgrown with brush. This last sad act closed the final curtain on a colorful era in the town’s history, the age of the railroad in East Hampton. We reverted somewhat to an industrial backwater with the loss of rail service. Only with the advent of more versatile trailer trucks were our few local bell industries able to survive and distribute their production. Since then, East Hampton has not been blessed with any reasonable semblance of means for transporting goods as our closest highways are five miles to our east on Route 2 or ten miles our west on Route 9. As State Representative, I was able to secure the area of the trestle and abutment in the Village Center which was removed for parking. Then, after years of abandonment, the state in its “rails to trails” program in 1996 proposed the rehabilitation of the rail bed as a multipurpose trail and linear state park. The Air Line Trail is now part of 22.95 miles of recreational use walking-jogging-biking trails extending from East Hampton center to Lebanon and Willimantic. Recently, First Selectman Susan Bransfield from that spun off portion of Chatham (Portland in 1841) announced plans to begin the process of seeking funding and grants to rehabilitate the Air Line trail, connecting it to East Hampton in the hopes of extending the recreational use and park another 10 miles. Not the ending we would have liked for rail serve, but not bad either.

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