6-D: HISTORY OF AREA RAIL LINES

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DANBURY BRANCH RAIL LINE HISTORY

Text by HART


Interest in railroad projects developed rapidly during the early half of the 19th century on the east coast of the United States. The success of several rail projects in England, and the New York & Albany Railroad charter of 1832, inspired local Danbury leaders to draw up their own rail charter.

In 1835 a rail charter was granted by the Connecticut Legislature to an enterprise known as the "Fairfield County Railroad." The charter was established only to build a railroad between Danbury and Long Island Sound. The charter grantees, however, had much greater plans as the name implied, believing there was opportunity to link industrial towns by rail along the Housatonic River and eventually to push further north into Massachusetts.

Professor Alexander C. Twining conducted the first survey for a rail route in 1835. He surveyed three alternative routes. Twining eventually recommended a route that is similar to the route the Danbury Branch travels today. This survey was as far as it went for the Fairfield County Railroad until 1850. 

Raising the necessary construction funds, $230,000, proved difficult for the size of the population the rail line was to serve. But by 1850 the charter was renewed and renamed the "Danbury & Norwalk Railroad." Work began quickly on the new 23 mile line. In addition, in recent years steam locomotive technology had improved greatly. 

Better technology provided the impetus for the rail investment, which was now up to a cost of $330,000. Work proceeded on the line despite financial and technical problems over the next two years. In 1852, when the D&N started operation , a one-way trip took 75 minutes using Hinkley Steam Engines named "The Danbury" and "The Norwalk." 

In 1852 the trains would make two round trips daily for passenger service. The Line did well financially in the first few years, especially for passenger service.

By the 1870Ís, The D&N was competing against several other companies including the New York, New Haven & Hartford and the Housatonic Railroad. The D&N sought an advantage in freight traffic by building a rail and ferry connection at Wilson's Point in South Norwalk in 1882. That extension of the transportation system allowed for an excellent intermodal connection between steamships and freight cars ready to move goods inland or ship raw materials like ice to New York City. 

The Wilson Point extension proved to be very profitable for the D&N and made that Railroad an attractive business partner for other rail lines including the Housatonic Railroad and the New York, New Haven & Hartford.

The Housatonic seemed the most natural fit, as their service somewhat overlapped with the D&N. In 1886 a deal was struck between the D&N and the Housatonic Railroad, the Housatonic Railroad arranged a 99 year lease with the D&N. 

This was advantageous to both companies as the competition among railroads was intense at this time in the late nineteenth century. The D&N became the "Danbury and Norwalk Division of the Housatonic Railroad" (Cornwall, 53). Soon after the lease was finalized plans began for the integration of operations and trackage of the D&N and Housatonic lines. 

The key places for the interchanges were Danbury and Hawleyville in Newtown. The double track and loop system that still stands today on Downtown Danbury's White Street was developed during this time. Freight traffic was able to bypass Danbury, passing through Hawleyville and then into Brookfield.

"The Consolidated" (the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, also referred to as "The New Haven") then muscled its' way to a lease arrangement with the Housatonic Railroad in 1892. The company threatened to build a line parallel to the Housatonic's New Haven-Derby line so the Housatonic submitted. 

The Consolidated also marginalized the Wilson's Point docks for freight shipments but was offering more passenger train service on the Danbury Branch, 10 trips a day in 1904. Overall, the Consolidated's acquisition the D&N from the Housatonic Railroad proved to be a success.

From the 1890Ís "The New Haven" vastly improved its rail infrastructure. The company electrified its lines along the shore to Stamford by 1907, but did not electrify the Danbury Branch until 1925.

The New Haven then fell on hard times during the Depression. Its profits were cut in half in the five year period between 1929 and 1934. It had also made poor business decisions. 

The company acquired many unprofitable short lines railroads in its quest to dominate rail service in the Northeast in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Due to poor internal economics service on the Danbury Branch was cut to five round trips a day by 1934 (Cornwall, 1987).

The Danbury Branch then did well during WWII when fuel was rationed, but the New Haven never fully recovered financially from the decade of the depression when it declared bankruptcy. The company "de-electrified" the Danbury Branch in 1961, taking down the catenary wire, and began using FL-9 dual diesel electric locomotives.

Control of the Danbury Branch was again changed in 1968 when the New York Central and Pennsylvania Railroads were merged. The "Penn Central" reluctantly acquired the New Haven in 1968. Only two years later, in 1970, the Penn Central was also in bankruptcy court. 

Norwalk to Danbury service continued to operate, but infrastructure along the Branch was falling into disrepair. Freight business also suffered along the Branch, dwindling down about a dozen customers due to the competition of trucking .

It was in the early 1970Ís that focus switched to providing passenger service along the Danbury Branch. Fairfield County was suburbanizing rapidly. Higher cost housing in the south and lesser costs to the north set up a natural commuter market for rail. it was in this period that passenger rail service first became government sponsored. 

The Penn Central agreed to lease for a period of 60 years all the rail lines providing passenger service in the state. The Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Connecticut Department of Transportation agreed to allow Penn Central to provide passenger service in 1971. 

Penn Central was the operator the service, but infrastructure and equipment maintenance and improvements were left to Conn DOT and the MTA. Re-electrifying the branch was also actively planned during the seventies, attaining headlines in the Danbury News Times, but is still only being researched in 2002.

Freight rail service limped along on the branch as well. In the mid-70Ís Congress was attempting to reorganize the Penn Central and force the company to abandon rail lines that were unproductive. A federal study commissioned by Congress concluded that there was enough freight activity between Danbury to Norwalk to continue service. 

Conrail took over passenger rail service and freight operations on the Danbury Branch in 1976. Conrail was a freight only rail company, but took over passenger service after acquiring the operation of the Penn Central. It continued to operate the passenger service until 1983 when the Metro North Commuter Railroad was formed. in a major development, Conn DOT became the owner of the Branch Line in 1985.

Re-electrification was also discussed again in the early 1980Ís. But by the time Metro North started operating passenger service on the Branch the idea of re-electrification had been again deferred. As Fairfield County suburbanized, passenger ridership grew rapidly 1960-1990.

In 2002 passenger service continues to be provided by Metro North Railroad. Minimal freight rail service on the Danbury Branch is now supplied by the Providence & Worcester Railroad. 

Upgrading of the Danbury Branch Line has been proposed as an alternative road building strategy by the two regional planning organizations along the corridor. These are the South Western Regional Planning Agency and the Housatonic Valley Council of Elected Officials. The strategy is summarized on another page of this site.

As of 2002, the future of the Danbury Branch will be determined by a $1,000,000 study to be undertaken by Conn DOT and the policies of Connecticut's new Transportation Strategy Board.



BERKSHIRE RAIL LINE HISTORY

The roots of the Housatonic Railroad, creator of the Berkshire Line, can be traced to 1836, when plans to improve transportation between Bridgeport and points north in Massachusetts and New York were conceived. Following the granting of a charter petition by the Connecticut Legislature, the "Ousatonic Railroad Company" was created. 

One year later, construction of the first 35 mile segment of track began. By 1840, trains were traveling between Bridgeport, via Newtown and Brookfield, northerly on to New Milford along the banks of the Housatonic River. The Housatonic Railroad reached the Massachusetts state line via the Berkshire Line in 1843.

Promoters of the Housatonic Railroad initially envisioned two roles for their new line. First, to serve the iron, marble, granite and lime industries and second, to form a water-rail route between Albany and New York City. The second goal would be achieved by using steamboat service from New York to Bridgeport, where passengers would board the Housatonic Railroad for a somewhat roundabout journey to Albany. 

Although the fledgling railroad experienced some financial problems early on, by the beginning of the 1850's the business was steadily growing. In 1892, the line was acquired by the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad. It was in this period that the Housatonic's north-south route from Danbury to Pittsfield, Mass. became known as the Berkshire Line. 

Although the railroad served adjacent industries and provided freight interchange, the Berkshire soon became best known as a passenger line that brought New Yorkers up to their country retreats.

In 1969, Penn Central took over the line and continued to provide many of the services for which the line had become known. But by 1972, financial troubles led to the abandonment of a part of the once burgeoning Berkshire Line between Canaan and New Milford.

The line remained dormant until 1983 when John R. Hanlon, Jr., chartered the "new " Housatonic Railroad and began the arduous task of restoring the abandoned line. With the help of a dedicated group of volunteers, weekend tourist excursions along 16 miles of scenic track began running in 1984. The Housatonic Railroad became a Common Carrier in 1989. 

In 1991, the Housatonic purchased the north end of the Berkshire Line between Canaan, CT and Pittsfield, Mass. In 1992, the portion between Danbury and New Milford was acquired, leaving a state owned segment in between, but with operating rights granted to the Housatonic Railroad. 

Today the Housatonic Railroad provides rail service to approximately 40 customers in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Construction of a 12,000 square foot Engine House in Canaan was recently completed, a proud example of the revival of a line whose future was in doubt many times through the years.



MAYBROOK RAIL LINE HISTORY

The Maybrook Line running east-west thru the Greater Danbury Region was first envisioned by the Boston, Hartford and Erie Railroad, a company chartered in 1863. It was part of a rail line intended to link Waterbury, CT westerly to the Hudson River in New York State.

This line was to supply important access and materials from points west of New England, such as coal from Pennsylvania. Most importantly, it was envisioned to provide direct freight competition to the New York, New Haven & Hartford running roughly parallel to the south. 

The Maybrook Line was actually completed by the New York & New England R.R. in 1891 to link with ferries that took rail cars across the Hudson River in Fishkill, NY. Once the cars crossed the Hudson they were brought to Newburgh, NY where they could connect with the Erie Railroad. 

The NY&NE Railroad also built the first rail station on White St. in Danbury and had two stops along the way to New York; the Danbury Fairgrounds and Mill Plain.

In the late 1880Ís the Housatonic Railroad Company and the NY&NE cooperated extensively against the Consolidated. The Housatonic had acquired the "Danbury-Derby" line and allowed the NY&NE to ship freight on its tracks from the north through Hawleyville and onto Danbury's White Street to Brewster, N.Y., then to Manhattan or the Fishkill Piers. Later, the combination of the Danbury-Derby Line and the track the NY&NE built in Danbury would become the Maybrook Line.

By 1895 The Consolidated controlled the NY&NE and the track that became the Maybrook Line from Danbury to Derby. J.P. Morgan himself personally saw to it that the independent NY&NE would fail in the region and come under his company's control. 

Indeed, the Maybrook Line was absorbed into the Consolidated and at approximately this time the Poughkeepsie Bridge had been built, making the Maybrook a much more strategic thru route than in the past. At this point the Consolidated controlled virtually all the rail service in today's Housatonic Valley Planning Region.

The Danbury-Derby Line was also acquired by the New Haven through an acquisition/lease arrangement of all Housatonic Railroad property and assets in 1892. From 1895, what became the Maybrook Line was under control of the New Haven and suffered the same series of financial difficulties through the early twentieth century. 

Passenger service to Newtown and other Maybrook Line stations ceased in 1931 as the route became a freight only railroad. Penn Central acquired the assets of the New Haven in 1968, including the Maybrook Line, and ran freight service on it until 1974 when the Poughkeepsie bridge burned.

In 1976 the Consolidated Rail Corporation "Conrail" took control of the line from Beacon, N.Y. thru Greater Danbury to Derby, CT. Since 1992, the "new" Housatonic Railroad Company controls the Maybrook Line from Derby to the New York/Connecticut line. At the New York border Metro North assumes the trackage rights and the name now changes to the Beacon Line." 

The Housatonic Railroad has rights to operate on the Maybrook Line in New York but there currently is no freight traffic or sidings. The Danbury Railway Museum has offered rail enthusiast excursions along the line in the past few years.

DANBURY-NEW HAVEN
& DERBY RAIL LINE HISTORY


Well to the east of Greater Danbury, the railroad from Derby to New Haven was completed in 1871. It was a short line, 13 miles, but proved to be strategically valuable to rail companies such as the Housatonic Railroad. to the west. Simply, with westerly access to New Haven, the Housatonic would be able to parallel the Consolidated's New Haven Line along the Connecticut shore.

The Housatonic Railroad acquired the New Haven & Derby railroad in 1889. The Housatonic Railroad referred to this line as its "New Haven & Derby Division." 

Before taking over the New Haven & Derby, the Housatonic Railroad facilitated the merger by building an 9.8 mile (Blakeslee, 1953) extension from Danbury to Botsford and Huntington stations in Newtown. That extension was completed and opened in 1888, which allowed a seamless rail trip from New Haven, CT all the way to Pittsfield, MA.

The New York & New England (NY&NE) also expanded service in the region at this time. Rather than travel along the coast of Connecticut the NY&NE traveled through central Connecticut on to Boston and New York. 

On its way through the NY&NE went through Danbury. This route made the NY&NE a natural ally of the Housatonic Railroad since they were both competing for freight and passenger traffic with "The Consolidated" railroad on Connecticut's coast.

But then the Danbury-Derby Line was acquired in 1892 by the New Haven through an acquisition/lease arrangement of all Housatonic Railroad property and assets. From 1895, what became the Maybrook Line was under control of the New Haven and suffered the same series of financial difficulties as the parent railroad until 1968 when the Penn Central acquired the assets of the New Haven. 

Penn Central ran freight service on the Maybrook until 1974 when the Poughkeepsie bridge burned. In 1976 the Consolidated Rail Corporation "Conrail" took control of the line from Derby, CT through Beacon, NY. Since 1992, the "new" Housatonic Railroad Company controls the Maybrook from Derby to the New York/Connecticut line.


 

NEW HAVEN LINE RAIL HISTORY

The New York and New Haven Railroad began commuter rail service between New Haven, Connecticut and New York City in 1848 over what has become known as the New Haven Line. In 1872 the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad (the New Haven) was created by the merger of the New York & New Haven and the Hartford & New Haven Railroads.

As already mentioned the fortunes of the New Haven declined after World War I, with a brief resurgence during World War II, eventually resulting in the bankruptcy of the New Haven railroad in the late 1960's. 

As part of the merger of the Pennsylvania Railroad and the New York Central Railroad into the Penn Central Transportation Company (Penn Central), the New Haven Line operations were assumed by Penn Central.

In 1966, as part of demonstration project with federal funds, Connecticut and New York began subsidizing the operation of the service in order to ensure the continuation of the New Haven Line. In October of 1970, the Connecticut Department of Transportation (Conn DOT) and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority of New York (MTA) entered into an agreement effective 1/1/1971 to oversee the operation of the New Haven Line by Penn Central and to jointly fund the operating deficit.

The bankruptcy of Penn Central and seven other northeastern railroads caused the United States Congress to create Conrail which in 1976 took over the essential freight and commuter operations of the bankrupt railroads, including the New Haven Line commuter service. Conrail operated the New Haven Line through 1982. At that time the Conn DOT and MTA elected to operate the New Haven Line service themselves.

On January 1, 1983, the MTA Metro-North Railroad, which was created as a subsidiary of the MTA, took over the operation of the New Haven Line, its branch lines, and the other lines serving New York City. Conn DOT and MTA continued to share equally in funding the New Haven Line service until 1985 when the service agreement was amended.

Under the amended agreement Connecticut funds approximately 60% of the New Haven Line's operating deficit, and MTA funds the remaining 40%. The costs of New Haven Line capital projects in Connecticut are funded by Connecticut, and the costs of capital projects in New York are funded by MTA.

The costs of rolling stock are shared, 63% Conn DOT and 37% MTA. In 1985, Connecticut purchased from Penn Central the New Haven Main Line and the three branch lines (New Canaan, Danbury and Waterbury) in Connecticut, including their right of way and support facilities.

The joint Conn DOT/MTA oversight of the operation of the New Haven Line has provided the stability that has allowed for a steady improvement in the quality of service and the condition of rolling stock and facilities, which has resulted in a significant increase in ridership.


ABANDONED RAIL LINES

THE RIDGEFIELD BRANCH
The Ridgefield Branch was constructed in 1869 and 1870 as a westerly spur in Ridgefield off of the Danbury Branch. The line ran for four miles westerly up to Ridgefield Center and was difficult to construct because of the relatively steep topography. 

The line made its' connection with the Danbury branch at the Branchville Station, the source of the neighborhood's name, and made three trips a day which took about 15 minutes each way. The Ridgefield Branch was never electrified and finally abandoned in 1964. It is now a walking trail.

THE SHEPAUG LINE
The Shepaug Valley Railroad ran from Bethel through Hawleyville, where it could transfer with the Housatonic, through Washington and Roxbury ending at Litchfield. Blakeslee also refers to it as the Shepaug, Litchfield and Northern, RR or "The Great Northern." 

It was constructed in 1872 and was 32 miles long. It hauled ice from Bantam Lake and quarried stone from Roxbury that was used to build the Brooklyn Bridge. It also ran two passenger train a day at the turn of the century but the service was terminated in the 1930Ís. The travel time for the line from Bethel to Litchfield was about two hours. 

The Shepaug Line was leased to the New Haven from 1892 to 1947 when the company petitioned to discontinue service on the line. The New Haven got their wish and the line was abandoned in 1948.


 

BIBLIOGRAPHY
Cornwall, Peter L. In the Shore Lines Shadow. 1987, Flying Yankee Enterprises. Littleton, MA.

Jacobus, Ancthon W. and Turner, Gregg M. Connecticut Railroads: An Illustrated History. 1986, The Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford. 

CT. Feasibility Report for Extending Rail Passenger Service Beyond Downtown Danbury, 1995. Planning Document prepared for the Housatonic Valley Council of Elected Officials by Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc

Blakeslee, Phillip C. A Brief History Lines West of The New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, web page.

 
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