The Power Of Live Steam

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The Valley Railroad was not content with skin-deep pseudo preservation. I hope the trend continues.

As on most tourist railroads, the pace of the trains is deliberately slow, for reasons of safety but also to save the track and the rolling stock. The ride is kept short—just ten miles roundtrip—but it’s about as much as most tourists seem to want. If you’d like to ride the East Broad Top, I would say do it now, for it may not be around much longer. It is almost certain that these fine old coaches will be retired, for they are too fragile for much more service. There is hopeful talk of a state takeover, but the future of the EBT is far from assured.

New England has a goodly selection of tourist lines, but I would especially recommend the Valley Railroad, for its scenic beauty and its unique river and rail combination. This line began as the Connecticut Valley Railroad, a forty-five-mile-long trunk line that ran south from Hartford to a hamlet on Long Island Sound named Fenwick. It opened in 1871, a relative latecomer to the Northeast railroad scene. As one of those trunk lines that ran from somewhere to nowhere, it was politely classified as a “light density line,” meaning it had no traffic, or at least far too little. Receivership came early. The omnivorous New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad swallowed it up in 1887, but traffic on the Valley was never robust. The line was cut back in 1922, and passenger service vanished eleven years later. Freight service ended in 1967, but the trackage was taken over by the state of Connecticut for possible redevelopment. Some rail enthusiasts in the area, including Oliver Jensen, one of the founders of American Heritage , began to eye its rusting track as a potential tourist line. A lease was arranged with the state, and after several years of effort the Valley Railroad Company ran its first train on July 29, 1971, the centenary of the opening of the original railroad. The founders of the Connecticut Valley Railroad—if we can assume they were still somehow in touch—must have felt vindicated. The Valley Railroad, now of Essex, Connecticut, offers more than a scenic ride up the beautiful Connecticut River valley. It re-creates one of the half-forgotten imperatives of nineteenth-century travel, the necessity to use more than one mode of transportation to complete a journey. To those of us born in the automotive age (which includes just about every living person in the United States), door-to-door travel is the norm. We load up the Chevy in the driveway and hop in for a six-hundred-mile jaunt to Aunt Sara’s home in Xenia. Most domestic travel is done in this fashion, though of course there is the occasional trip by air, which means a car ride to the airport. Such easy travel was unknown in times past. It was off on the omnibus to the ferry, then onto the stagecoach, with yet another change to a railroad to steamship connection before the trip was over. All this getting on and off meant moving not just yourself but your luggage. Horace Greeley contended that this constant need to change was the chief misery of travel. Curiously, modern excursionists seem all too ready to ignore the old newspaperman’s lament and appear actually to relish the switch from steam cars to riverboat at the Deep River landing.

The managers of the Valley Railroad are convinced the dual mode of travel is their chief attraction. It is unique so far as I know, yet surely just riding along the picturesque river valley is pleasant enough. For those riders with a touch of imagination, it’s not too hard to conjure up a steady parade of handsome white steamers proudly paddling up and down the Connecticut’s broad waters; it was, after all, about the only river in New England that was navigable for any distance. Any daydream into the past can’t help being enhanced by the distant chugging of the locomotive, the rhythmic clicking of the wheels over the rail joints, and the smell of soft coal smoke emanatine from the engine up ahead.

 

The equipment of the Valley is not quite as vintage as that on the Strasburg or the EBT. The active locomotives are from the 1920s, while most of the heavyweight steel passenger cars are about a decade older. The cars have been somewhat modified over the years by their previous owners, but the Valley line has kept them in a more or less status quo condition. At least during my last visit back in the 1980s there was a conscious effort to maintain the old electrical and heating systems rather than succumb to the more common tourist railroad penchant for upgrading and modernizing the utilities while keeping the “old look” of lamps, seats, and general interior appearance. The Valley was not content with skin-deep pseudo preservation. I can only hope that this policy will continue.