THE NORFOLK COUNTY RAILROAD
One of the first ventures in linking the suburbs west of Boston by rail began in 1835 when the Boston and Providence Railroad built a branch line connecting Dedham to Readville (Hyde Park), which enabled connection with the main rail line from Boston to Providence.
In 1846 the Walpole Railroad was charted to build a railroad from Dedham to Walpole, a distance of seven miles further extending the RR lines westward.
In 1847 the Norfolk County Railroad was charted to continue this line on to Blackstone, MA - 26 miles of track - passing through the towns of Norfolk, Franklin, Bellingham and intersecting with the Providence and Worcester Railroad in in the town of Blackstone - 26 miles distant from Dedham - bringing Norfolk into the age of the Iron Horse with stops at Highland Lake, North Wrentham (Norfolk Center) and City Mills. A few months later the Walpole RR and Norfolk County RR companies merged under the name of the Norfolk County Railroad. The existence of quick freight service tended to prompt a burst of industrial development in towns with access to the rail lines and likewise could put at a disadvantage and further isolate those without. Passengers arrived daily at the Norfolk Depot at 9:00 AM by wagon or on horseback from Wrentham, East Medway (Millis) and Rockville for the trip in to Boston. The ladies ticket room at the depot was noteworthy as it was papered with a great variety of sample strips of wallpaper - a topic of conversation for many a passer through. Norfolk Town Warrants posted at the station were sometimes taken as souvenirs and amusement by passengers returning to Norfolk, CT.
By 1875 the RR had passed through a series of companies the Boston, Hartford and Erie, followed by the New York and New England Railroad.
THE OLD COLONY RAILROAD
On May 1, 1870, the Mansfield & Framingham Railroad Company opened a north-south RR line through Walpole Center, crossing the old Norfolk county line at grade. The M&F became the Boston, Clinton & Fitchburg RR when opened and was absorbed in turn by the Old Colony Railroad in 1879, and the New York, New Haven & Hartford RR in 1898.
On December 1, 1890, the Old Colony Railroad opened a single-track rail line from Walpole Junction - later to be called Cedar - to North Attleboro via Wrentham and Plainville. This - the Wrentham Branch - connected with the 4.6 mile Attleboro Branch RR opened in 1871, between North Attleboro and Attleboro, where a connection was then made with the Boston & Providence RR main line.
On February 15, 1892, the Old Colony extended its Wrentham Branch further easterly by building a 5.7 mile line from Cedar through East Walpole to Norwood Central, connecting at that point with the New York & New England RR - the later Midland Division of the NYNH&H RR. On June 27, 1903, the New Haven opened another extension of the Wrentham Branch, building a 4.6 mile line from North Attleboro to Adamsdale Junction. Now, a through train could run from South Station in Boston to Providence, via Norwood, East Walpole, Wrentham, North Attleboro and Pawtucket. Passenger service ended on the Wrentham Branch in 1938 but freight and gravel trains continued to ran on the line somewhat haphazardly for a while thereafter. In 1965 the rails were taken up from a point about one mile north of Valley Falls, RI to a gravel pit in Plainville, MA. The entire Wrentham Branch was later abandoned in the mid-1980s.
Passenger service on the Wrentham Branch ended in 1938 in the famous New Haven RR "88 Stations case" - through 1937, as part of the fall out of the Great Depression, the railroad continued to fall on hard times - the parent company of the Old Colony Railroad, the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad Company, announced that due to company deficits the railroad would be abandoning 88 stations in eastern Massachusetts, including selected stations on the Blackstone line - all Old Colony passenger service was discontinued in June, 1959.
THE MEDWAY BRANCH RAILROAD
Many smaller branch lines would come and go hoping to make viable businesses from the advantages that local freight transportation a line connection could bring. In Norfolk one of these lines was The Medway Branch Railroad incorporated in 1849; organized in 1850 and opened for service in Jan 1853. A little engine - the "Hooksett" built in June of 1842 and 2 wooden coaches, ran 26 round trips between North Wrentham (Norfolk) and Medway, via Rockville (Medway) where stage connections could be made to East Medway. Wood was burned for fuel. The other locomotive used on this line was named Queechee (probably the Otta Queechee), after the town of the same name in Vermont. In addition to the aforementioned rolling stock there were also 2 boxcars. The coaches were dimly lit with coal-oil lamps and heated by sheet-iron stoves. There was also a turntable built in Norfolk used to turn the locomotives around. This line connected to the Norfolk County RR, in Norfolk and although the textile and cotton shipments were sizable, and the line helped to distribute other area products and goods, the passenger traffic was insufficient to keep the line profitable. This RR eventually went bankrupt and the rails and stock were sold in 1864 to Boston, Hartford and Erie Railroad Company. The tracks were torn-up in 1864, during the night but there are still many signs of the former RR right of way in trails to be found in the backyards and woods of Norfolk and Medway.
THE NEW ENGLAND LIMITED - "THE WHITE TRAIN"
During the years 1891 to 1895 one of the truly legendary passenger trains of the Northeast, the New York to Boston - New England Limited, known as "The White Train", proudly ran on the old Norfolk County RR line.
The Limited was inaugurated in 1885 and ran two simultaneous trains, one leaving Boston and the other departing New York City each day at 3 pm. A powerful steam locomotive pulled two plush Pullman cars for the 213 mile journey in 6 hours, shaving an hour or more off the shoreline route. Six years later in 1891, the Pullman company delivered new luxury cars painted in white with gold trim. In a marketing move that would impress today's Madison Avenue executives, the remainder of the train was white washed and the engine crews and staff were dressed in tropical white overalls. The White Train as it was now called became an instant success, carrying businessmen and the wealthy between the two cities. For people watching the locomotive and cars speeding through their sleepy towns, the train became known as the Ghost Train.
The N Y & N E's New England Limited used this route and on March 16, 1891, this train was succeeded by the White Train, or Ghost Train.
No doubt there has been more written about the Ghost Train and the Fall River Line Express than any other trains in the country. Engineer Gene Potter ran the train, and in a letter stated that the train crew wore white caps and gloves. This train was a beautiful sight, especially when the setting sun shone on it and also on a moonlit night. The train was very popular, but it was hard to keep clean and it made its last run on November 20, 1895. See below for more extensive history of the White Train and the Air Line RR.
THE NEW HAVEN RAILROAD
In April of 1966 the New Haven RR was given permission to discontinue commuter service between Blackstone and Boston. Since the outer towns serviced by this rail line were outside of the MBTA service area, the railroad would only continue to service those towns that would provide local subsidies. Both Blackstone and Bellingham opted against this and the line was truncated with the town of Franklin as the last stop.
More of the History of "THE WHITE TRAIN"
There has been almost as much written about Gene Potter as has been about Casey Jones. Gene made his last trip on trains 45 and 56, round trip Boston to Waterbury, on December 18, 1922
The first run of the White Train left Summer Street station in Boston on March 16, 1891, and the Boston Herald newspaper wrote:
Rolling out of the New York and New England Railroad station at 3 pm yesterday afternoon, the New England Limited took all the glories that could be attached in a complete new train resplendent in white and gold.
For three months past, items have appeared in the daily papers about a new departure in car decoration that the NY&NE Railroad was about to inaugurate, and yesterday saw the fulfillment of those announcements.
The Pullman Palace Car Company has built for the service seven parlor cars, four passenger coaches, and two royal buffet smokers. These cars are divided into two trains, owned by the New England and the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroads. The New England road has provided a dining car of the same general design to run between Boston and Willimantic, Connecticut. The cars are heated by steam directly from the locomotive and are lighted by the Pintsch system of gas. The parlor cars are furnished with velvet carpets, silk draperies, and white silk curtains. The chairs are upholstered in old gold plush, and large plate glass mirrors set off the car handsomely. Three of them have each a stateroom and 26 chairs in the main salon, while the other four have 30 chair each. The royal buffet
smokers which will be run in addition to the ordinary smoking cars are decorated in the same manner as the parlor cars and contain 20 handsome upholstered chairs for the passengers.
Two cards tables with stationary seats, and writing desks with all needed stationery for letters of telegrams are also provided. The regular passenger coaches seat 60 persons and are comfortable and easy riding. The train that left Boston yesterday was seen by crowds and people who were lined enroute to gaze with mingled curiosity and delight at its handsome appearance.
The White Train attracted national attention, and President Benjamin Harrison rode the line from New York to Boston. Rudyard Kipling also rode these rails from Boston to New York. The following verse was widely circulated:
Without a jar, or roll or antic,
Without a stop to Willimantic,
The New England Limited takes its way
At three o'clock each day,
Maids and Matrons, daintily dimited,
Ride every day on the New England Limited;
Rain nor snow ne'er stops its flight,
It makes New York at nine each night.
One half the glories have not been told
Of that wonderful train of white and gold
Which leaves each day for New York at three
Over the N.Y. & N.E.
Part of the reason that the White Train could make the run from New York City to Boston in such a short time was the innovative 'pan trays' that were used in Putnam, CT. Pan trays were troughs of water bolted between the tracks. A steam locomotive would lower a scoop to draw in from 1,500 to 2,500 gallons of water without stopping. The White Train would speed at 45 miles per hour through Putnam and not stop until arriving at Willimantic. Pan trays had been invented and deployed in England, but this was their first use in the United States.
The Air Line Railroad had opened a more or less direct route between New Haven and Willimantic, and it had come under the control of the New Haven. Clark realized that this link now created the shortest route between Boston and New York. He convinced the New Haven management to cooperate in the establishment of fast, deluxe service over this route, and the two roads jointly commissioned two sets of the finest cars available from the Pullman Company to equip it. In 1885, these beautiful olive green "Palace Drawing Room Cars" began running between Boston and New York on a schedule faster than had ever been run before - six hours even. Six years later, Pullman produced a new pair of even more luxurious trains. Painted in white and gold, they made an impressive sight racing through the Connecticut landscape. Each train
had three or four parlor cars, two coaches and a "royal buffet smoker". A dining car in matching colors ran from Boston to Willimantic, where it was switched out to return to Boston on the eastbound train. The cars were lighted by gas, and had velvet carpets, silk draperies and white silk curtains. The seats were upholstered in old gold plush and the walls had large plate glass mirrors. Card tables and writing desks were supplied for passenger use. Even the locomotives were painted white, the engine crews wore white overalls, and for the inaugural run on March 16, 1891, the coal in the tender was whitewashed. So that the train would not have to make the traditional water stops, Clark had track pans installed along the line. Scoops beneath the locomotive's tender could, according to reports, gather 2500 gallons of water in thirty seconds while the train was traveling at 45 miles an hour. Clark had seen track pans of this type in use in England, and while they later became
quite common in America, the New York and New England was one of the first, if not actually the first, railroads to use them on this side of the Atlantic. In deference to New England winters, the track pans were provided with steam heating pipes so that the water would not freeze. The reequipped "New England Limited" became famous as "The White Train", and was often popularly called "The Ghost Train". It ran only until 1895, when new managers of the road replaced it with more conventionally painted but probably equally luxurious equipment, renaming the train the "Air Line Limited".
The New England Limited proved to provide the highest profit margin to the New York & New England Railroad, and helped the company out of receivership. But in 1895, the high costs of keeping the White Train white from the dust, smoke, and cinders resulted in its replacement by the Air Line Limited.
The Ghost Train was succeeded by the Air Line Limited, the first five hour train to run between New York and Boston. Later, N Y & N E engine #2 was built for this train. Engineer Potter, who ran the train, said she was a corker, built by Schenectady, the engine became New Haven 902, later 1410. Middletown was the only stop the train made between Boston and New York and was said to have been the longest nonstop run in the country at that time. The engines scooped water at track-pans at Rowayton and Putnam and were equipped with two headlights. Hartford newspapers gave New Haven an awful razzing because the train didn't stop there. Mr. Potter said that because of its growing popularity it became too heavy for the grades on the Air Line and made its last trip over this route on May 17, 1902. It was routed over the Shore Line
and was known as the Knickerbocker.
This was the last New York-Boston service over the Air Line. Later for a while, there was a train, to New York from Fitchburg, which came via Worcester, Putnam, and Willimantic, over the Air Line to New Haven.
For a while the famous Cannonball fish train ran over the Air Line. This train was made up solid with cars of fish every night, from Boston to New York.
THE AIR LINE RAILROAD HISTORY
The Norfolk County Railroad, had intended to be a part of the Air-line railroad from Boston to New York.
The Air Line Railroad is proof that some times a good idea on paper is not necessarily a good idea when built.
Two of the most important cities in the United States in the mid-1800s were Boston and New York City. Railroads had been built along the New England shoreline to connect the two cities, but trains had to frequently stop for draw bridges on the many navigable rivers or discharge passengers and freight to cross rivers on ferryboats and re-board trains on the other side. This was very time consuming. Another option was to ride a train far inland to cross Massachusetts from west to east. Finally, steamships connected the two cities by plying the costal waters of Long Island and Rhode Island sound, and rounding Cape Cod. But to build a railroad on the straight line between the two cities, diagonally through Connecticut and Southeast Massachusetts, had long been a dream of various railroad
investors and engineers. The straight line would be faster and better, with less river crossings and passing through scenic Connecticut farm lands and forests. Connecticut had no mountains, just ridges which paralleled each other from north to south. Railroad dreamers, financers, and "great numbers of normally shrewd and cautious Yankees" fell into the trap of the straight line.
The "Air Line" route got it name from the idea that the railroad would follow a path as "if a line had been drawn through the air" between the two cities. It was planned to run diagonally across Connecticut, starting in New Haven and running northeast to Woonsocket, R.I. and then on to Boston. It specialized in connecting hamlets, and was remarkable for its engineering originality and desire to run "fast passenger trains"
In 1846, a charter created the NEW YORK AND BOSTON RAILROAD COMPANY. Immediately, there was opposition to the Air Line. Steamship companies with the lucrative Boston to New York lines also steamed the Connecticut River all the way to Hartford. Not wanting to lose passengers on their ships to the faster rail line, they influenced the Connecticut legislature to block the railroad. Hartford merchants also opposed the railroad because it bypassed that capital city completely. Governor Isaac Toucey revoked the charter of the New York and Boston Railroad Company at the behest of steamship companies, but the state General Assembly later overrode this action. The railroad company pushed on to construct the line.
Edwin Ferry Johnson, a railroad civil engineer who had worked on the Erie and Champlain canals and the Erie and Northern Pacific railroads, surveyed the route in 1846. He planned the best route through Connecticut to the Rhode Island state line where the railroad would connect with the Woonsocket Union line, linking with the Charles River Railroad and ultimately into the city of Boston. The cost of building the railroad, according to Johnson's estimate, would be $2,565,000 or approximately $31,000 per mile.
Problems kept interfering with the railroads construction and these construction delays caused the railroads directors to continuously ask the legislature for extensions of their charter. By 1857, the state declared that the New York and Boston Railroad Company was "in a deranged condition" In 1862, the railroad company had only completed track between Brookline, Massachusetts and Woonsocket, Rhode Island. Nothing was completed west of Woonsocket and only a small fraction had been completed in Connecticut. The railroad company was then ordered audited, but records were missing and presumed destroyed. The company flailed until 1865, when it was bought out by another faltering endeavor, the Boston, Hartford, and Erie Railroad. Itself in trouble, this new company dropped the idea of
the Air Line Railroad until the charter expired in 1867.
That year, David Lyman, revived the idea of the Air Line Railroad, and formed the NEW HAVEN, MIDDLETOWN AND WILLIMANTIC RAILROAD COMPANy and construction began in earnest in Connecticut. Unable to pay the interest on their bonds, the New Haven, Middletown, and Willimantic Railroad Company went bankrupt and was reorganized as the BOSTON AND NEW YORK AIR LINE RAILROAD in 1875.
In the meantime while Lyman built the connection from New Haven to Willimantic, another company had inadvertently picked up the baton to connect Boston to Willimantic. Several companies, including the Boston and New York Central and the Norfolk County Railroad, had built lines from Boston to Blackstone, Massachusetts. Another company, the Southbridge and Blackstone was chartered in 1849 to build a railroad between Blackstone and Southbridge, Massachusetts passing through the northeast corner of Connecticut in East Thompson. After a series of financial problems and scandals, many of these smaller companies were absorbed into the BOSTON & NEW YORK CENTRAL. The new company revised the ending point of the Blackstone & Southbridge, moving the terminus from Southbridge to Mechanicsville,
Connecticut, just north of Putnam, Connecticut. Here, the new line intersected an existing rail line which traveled north-south from New London, Connecticut to Worcester, Massachusetts. The railroad company had the dream to continue building westward to Willimantic, but did not have the funds nor the investor backing to do so. Despite its pretentious title, the Boston & New York Central was a "decrepit railroad". It saw little traffic on the lines, and was reorganized several times, until acquired by the BOSTON, HARTFORD AND ERIE RAILROAD COMPANY in 1863 as part of a multiple company purchase. The Boston, Hartford and Erie planned to build a line which would run from the Hudson River to Willimantic, and then branch to Boston and Providence, Rhode Island. After raising millions in grants and loans, the money was looted and bilked by the unprincipled owners of the Boston, Hartford and Erie. From the bankrupt Boston, Hartford and Erie Railroad Company, a new railroad was
born, the NEW YORK & NEW ENGLAND RAILROAD and by 1873 the dream held by so many in the 1840s but which had been so elusive for years finally had been realized - arriving 24 years late, costing many times the original estimates and following a path significantly different than the first design.
With construction complete, a direct inland route from New York City to Boston was now in place. For several years, sporadic passenger traffic passed over the route. The first regularly scheduled passenger train began in 1876, called The Federal Express, sometimes known as The Washington Night Express. It ran from Boston to New York. However, due to the frequent stops it made to take on passengers and water, the train was not usually any quicker than the shoreline route.
In 1885, the famous train New England Limited was inaugurated.
The new management of the New York and New England developed an alliance with the New York, Lake Erie, & Western Railroad as well as the Housatonic Railroad, giving them a path from New York that would avoid using any rails of the rival New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad. The Long Island & Eastern States Express train was put into service from New York to Boston following a new route. For the New York and New England Railroad, this fulfilled a goal to avoid any rail lines of the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad. This round about way to reach New York City did capture the public's attention for a short time, but it set the resolve of the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad to somehow crush their rivals. Internal problems arose at the New York & New England, and the New York, New Haven, and
Hartford Railroad cut off the N.Y. & N.E.'s access at New Haven. This forced them into receivership, and the railroad company returned as the NEW ENGLAND RAILROAD for a brief time before being leased in its entirety to the NEW YORK, NEW HAVEN AND HARTFORD RAILROAD in 1898. The New York and New England had ceased to exist, but was praised: "the New York & New England did some of the most spectacular railroading; and how it managed to put on so brave a show, to do so much with so little, is still a matter of wonder."
The New York, New Haven, and Hartford continued to run passenger trains over the newly re-organized Airline Division, as it was called within the company. It was still popular and both the Air Line Limited and Long Island & Eastern States Express were frequently filled to capacity. But its popularity helped bring it to an end, the trains were unable to load more passengers and add more cars because they became to heavy for the grades and bridges along the route. The Boston to New York passenger service last used the Air Line through Connecticut on May 17, 1902. Both trains were suspended and replaced with service on the shore line route. The grand days of fast passenger trains hurtling through the eastern countryside had come to and end.
While all these passenger trains had come and gone, freight service to and from the towns on the line had filled the rails with chugging trains and clattering box cars. One famous train was called the Cannonball Fish Train, and was made up solid with cars of fish, 5 nights a week, and were shipped from Boston to New York City. In the late summer, peach trains ran via the Air Line. At one time, 26 trains per day passed through to New York. A schedule for engine crews once showed the following messages:
The Air Line railroad at the turn of the century had been designed 54 years earlier, when locomotives were smaller, trains lighter, and fewer cars pulled. By this time, however, new technology in railroading was resulting in the Air Line being avoided. The grades of the railroad were too steep, many of the bridges were low to the water and could not carry the weight of fully loaded modern trains, and the two trestle viaducts swayed and groaned under the weight of heavy freight trains. The numerous curves hampered the operation of freight trains on the line.
The railroad company recognizing that there was still profit to be made on the Air Line began by strengthening and raising low bridges.
The New York, New Haven and Hartford concentrated their passenger lines on the shore line route from Boston to New York, however, passenger trains from Boston to New Haven were still run on the Air Line, stopping at many of the smaller towns along the route. Freight continued to be carried across the line, relieving the shore line routes of slower traffic. Thru passenger service between Boston and New York via Willimantic and New Haven ended in 1924, and all passenger service on the Air Line west of Willimantic was discontinued in 1937. Passenger trains continued to run from Boston to Willimantic, and then to Hartford until 1955.
In August, 1955, a bridge on the Air Line just west of Putnam was washed out during a flood. All rail service between Putnam and Pomfret was halted, as well as all passenger service on the line from connections in Blackstone and Hartford. The NEW HAVEN RAILROAD, successor to the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad company, reasoned that there was no economic justification to replace the bridge for the $110,000 it would cost, and abandoned the line from Putnam to Pomfret, about 4 miles, in 1959. The link from Boston to New York designed in 1846 and completed in 1873 had been broken after operating for 86 years. "The route of The Ghost Train had itself become a phantom."
Thru freight traffic was no longer possible, and this spelled the end for the Air Line between Willimantic and Putnam. There was simply not enough industry and commercial interests in the small towns the line now passed through to justify the maintenance and upgrading of the line. The New Haven Railroad went bankrupt in 1962, and this resulted in a large scale abandonment of unprofitable or marginally profitable rail lines.
In March, 1968, another flood destroyed a bridge over the Blackstone River east of the Blackstone railroad station. The New Haven Railroad again suspended all service west of Blackstone on the line, through some freight service was still run sporadically from the connection in Putnam. Financially strapped, the company could not justify the $225,000 cost to repair the Blackstone River bridge and applied for abandonment of the line from Blackstone to Putnam in 1969. In 1970, the New Haven Railroad company was absorbed into the PENN CENTRAL RAILROAD, which itself went bankrupt in 1976.
Today, small sections of the Air Line remain in service. The section from New Haven to Middletown and Portland is operated by the Connecticut Central Railroad and the Providence and Worcester railroad. Similarly, small remaining sections are still operated near Willimantic, Putnam, and in southeast Massachusetts by Conrail, the Providence and Worcester railroad, and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA).
In the 1990s, the Air Line was briefly in the news again as a potential path for high speed rail service from New York to Boston. Railroad consultants and regional transportation experts envisioned that the Air Line route was the only feasible way to establish passenger connections that would compete with airlines and interstate highways. But, just like at the turn of the century, the enormous cost of straightening the line's sharp curves and moderating the steep grades proved the end of the consideration. The Federal government instead funneled the funding to electrification of the shore line route, now overseen by Amtrak.
( ......to be researched - The Norfolk County Railroad merged into the old Hartford & Erie. The Boston and New York Central Railroad Company was formed in 1852 by the consolidation of Norfolk County Railroad Company, Midland Railroad Company and Southbridge and Blackstone Railroad Company; organized in 1853 and deeded in 1858 to Midland Railroad Company.)