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Thursday, March 26, 2009

1848: Arrival of the Railroad

Steam locomotive pulls a single passenger car south out of the Bradford village station. It was not uncommon to have three trains each way daily (photo: Bradford Historical Society).
This 1853 double-decker bridge connected the Boston, Concord & Montreal line in Woodsville with the Connecticut and Passumpsic Wells River.
A Boston, Concord and Montreal steam locomotive.

The 38-mile track of the Montpelier and Wells River RR was constructed in 1873 (photo: Baldwin Memorial Library).
Copper ore mined in Corinth was hauled to Bradford to be shipped to manufacturing centers. This train is stopped between Bradford and Fairlee (photo: Bradford Historical Society).
 Railroad cut north of Newbury Village
  1896 Railroad Pass, Montpelier and Wells River Railroad
1914 postcard of Wells River Station



Originally published on October 8, 2008  republished Valley News, Feb. 21, 2015
Journal Opinion

In 1854, Henry David Thoreau wrote “the whistle of the locomotive penetrates my woods summer and winter.” By then, residents of our area were quite familiar with that sound. The railroad came six years earlier. The first train arrived at Bradford’s Calcutty location (Piermont Crossing) on October 11, 1848.

According to accounts of that day, the Connecticut and Passumpsic train was greeted by large crowds and a 28-gun salute, one for each of the 28 miles between White River Junction and Bradford. The anticipation had been great. Sixteen-year-old Julia Ann Davis of Bradford wrote “for months, little else had been thought or talked about.”

The line continued to be built, reaching Bradford village several days later. The company’s directors held their Third Annual Meeting in Bradford on October 31, 1848. Their report to the stockholders outlined plans for the line. By early November, the railroad was opened to Wells River, McIndoes in October, 1850 and St. Johnsbury a month later.

The Connecticut and Passumpsic Rivers Railroad Company was first chartered in 1835, rechartered in 1843 and organized in Wells River in 1846. The plan was to build from the junction of the White River to the Canadian border and a connection to Montreal. The first tracks were laid in Norwich in July, 1848. Officers included president Erastus Fairbanks of St. Johnsbury, vice president Asa Low of Bradford and directors Henry Keyes of Newbury and later Joseph Sawyer of Piermont.

It was the Low’s influence that led the railroad to build on the Vermont side of the Connecticut River. The decision to build on the New Hampshire side had been the subject of a large meeting at the Carlton Hotel in Orford, but the Vermont supporters won. For villages such as Bradford and Wells River, that made a tremendous difference in their futures. Equally significant was the decision to build the line on the flood plain at Bradford rather than through the village.

The second railroad to reach into the area was the Boston, Concord & Montreal. The line came up from Concord, through Plymouth and reached East Haverhill in the fall of 1852 and Woodsville in May, 1853. According to Katherine Blaisdell’s History of Haverhill, the route was one laid out fifty years earlier by John McDuffee of Bradford for the Coos Turnpike. Despite a battle over the extension of this line into Vermont, the BC&M connected with the Passumpsic at Wells River in May, 1853. This connection was made possible by building a double-decker bridge across the Connecticut; with rail traffic using the top level and highway traffic, the lower.

The White Mountains Railroad Company was chartered in1848, to take advantage of the lucrative mountain tourist trade. It opened a connection along the Ammonoosuc River between Wells River and Littleton on August 1, 1853. Progress beyond that connection was slow. Rail service did not reach Lancaster until 1870 and Groveton two years later.

In 1849, the Montpelier and Connecticut River Railroad Company was chartered to connect Newbury to the Vermont Central line at Montpelier. Frederic Wells’ History of Newbury mentions these plans included having the line cross the Connecticut at South Newbury and “pass up the valley of Hall’s brook, to South Ryegate.” As nothing came of this plan, the Montpelier and Wells River Railroad was chartered in 1867; work began in 1871 and the thirty-eight mile track was opened between the two communities in November, 1873.

This local growth of railroads mirrored the enthusiasm for railroads within the two-state area and throughout the nation. By the time the first construction in Vermont took place at Windsor in 1848, there were 8,000 miles of rail laid in the nation. At the beginning of the Civil War, there were 21,625 miles in the North and 9,001 in the South.

A recent visit to the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History in Kennesaw, Georgia helped this writer to understand the significant role of rail in both Southern defense and Union victory. After the war’s end, railroad track mileage grew exponentially for the rest of the century: 1870-52,922; 1880-93,267; 1890-163, 597 and 1900-193,346.

The construction of these rail lines was not without controversy. As with the building of the interstate highway a century later, some towns competed to have access while others avoided it. In New Hampshire, Orford avoided, while West Fairlee and Topsham in Vermont wanted to be included. An initial proposal to link the two to the railroads never went beyond that stage. Rail locations increased nearby land values. The location of a depot could shift the economic center within a town.

One such controversy erupted in 1875 when the Connecticut & Passumpsic was petitioned to open a depot at the Piermont Crossing. The February 20, 1875 edition of the Bradford Opinion reported when the President of the company testified that in order to comply with the petition they would have to close the Bradford village depot, it “created quite a stir among the citizens of our village.”

As rail junctions, both Wells River and Woodsville became major railroad centers for the area. According to Blaisdell, Woodsville saw tremendous growth due to the railroad. In the 1880’s and 1890’s, “new office buildings, engine houses and enlarged freight yards were built. At the same time, Woodsville kept all available workmen busy building houses, schools, stores and streets for its ever-increasing population of railroad workers.” The number of passengers changing trains in Wells River led to the growth of that village as well.

Irish workers were brought in to build the railroads, often with just picks and shovels. Admiring their work, Julia Ann Davis wrote: “We have seen the Irishmen with their carts filled with rocks and dirt and have heard their blasting, working their way through places which seem wholly impassable to us. Many of the workmen have lost their lives.”
The Vermont Watchman & State Journal of May 11, 1848 included the notice that Daniel ODonald of Stanstead or vicinity was so badly hurt on the railroad in Bradford on Monday, that he died the next day.  He was only 14 years of age.  His body was carried by stage north for interment by his friends.  Apparently he was an inexperienced worker and sat between two carts of dirt and fell off leading to his death. 

Their work was essential, but their presence created controversy. Wells relates how a “horde of men, women and children of that nationality invaded the town, where their brogue and actions excited aversion and fear.”

Once the lines were complete, they provided employment in operations and maintenance for many of these new immigrants as well as established families. Until engines began using coal, thousands of cords of wood were cut from area forests to fuel the steam locomotives. This offered employment for lumbermen and farmers and contributed the deforesting of Vermont.

It was not unusual for the companies to have money worries. Unanticipated construction delays, storms ruined rail beds and periodic recessions caused business downturns, affecting profits and dividends for investors. Periodic uncertainly plagued all rail lines well into the 20th century.

There were also train wrecks. The Bradford Opinion of March 27, 1875 reported that the Boston to Montreal express train on the BC& M “was thrown from the track Saturday night just North of Pike’s station.” Spreading of the rails was the cause. In December, 1878, the express freight train from Boston, with two engines, went into the river near Wentworth, the accident caused by the trestle having been swept away. On April 17, 1884, the north-bound night train hit a large stone on the tracks at Fairlee Mountain and was completely wrecked. The New York Times reported that “the engineer and fireman were badly bruised, but none of the twenty passengers sustained serious injury.” The Times also reported an accident in Woodsville in July 1897, when a fright train was wrecked by a washout, resulting in the death of three men.

Two head-on collisions occurred in 1876 on the Montpelier end of the M & WR. Both were “caused by an error on the part of a 16-year old assistant switchtender.” No one was seriously hurt in either accident. Later that year, the railroad began using a new telegraph line to improve the operational safety. Since most of the tracks were single lines, it is amazing that there were not more such collisions. Wagons and animals that collided with locomotives usually lost.

As was true in the nation as a whole, area railroads had tremendous social, economic and political impacts. Displacing stage, wagon and river traffic, they greatly increased the ease and speed of travel and communication. With connecting lines, the area was opened to diverse markets at a fraction of the previous cost. Copper ore from the mines at Union Village was shipped from the Ely station. The July 22, 1876 Bradford Opinion reported that 15 cars loaded with ore from the Union mines of Corinth left Bradford.

Industries grew up along all the lines, often with their own sidings. There were special stock and poultry trains and cars that carried wool, lumber and manufactured goods from the area. Refrigerated cars for butter, cheese and later fluid milk as well as berries and vegetables used ice cut each winter from area lakes and ponds. The same trains returned with manufactured products from all over the world for local consumers.

Blaisell’s Over the River and Through the Years and Robert C. Jones two-volume Railroads of Vermont provide details on the economic impact of area railroads. In the former, it was reported that “in just one week in September, 1894, William Ricker shipped from Woodsville, 1000 sheep, 290 swine, 144 calves and 27 cattle.” Mail shipment was also a major part of the rail’s impact. Letters mailed in the morning often reached their destination on the same day.

Passengers enjoyed regular and special excursion trains to and from the area. Special events such as the World Fair in 1876 and Montpelier’s Admiral Dewey homecoming in 1899 required additional trains. Through much of the period and on any given day, one could select from up to four trains in each direction. In each town, station wagons met trains and provided local transportation for salesmen and tourists. Students often rode the train to attend school in neighboring villages or for athletic meets and class trips. Even circuses came by train. It was the way to travel.

The growth of the railroad network made life different and in many cases, better. Rural areas were connected to urban, section connected to section, creating a period of change not seen again until the coming of the interstate highway system. The impact of rail transportation was felt in marriage patterns, spread of disease, migration, influence in government, home heating, building techniques and employment. Even the concept of time changed with the adoption of “railroad time” to deal with the uncertainty of local clocks. In 1883, universal standard time became official.

T. D. Seymore Bassett describes the impact of the railroad in a 1981 article in Vermont History as: “the largest Vermont enterprise until well past 1900; reoriented everything it touched, and it touched everything.” He went on to write, that railroads “transformed the human outlook. Their dominance over society and politics as the century wore on became as complete in Vermont as over transportation.” The whistle and cannon shots that announced the coming of the railroad 160 years ago this month, echoed through the years with the changes wrought by the railroads of our area.

1 comment:

  1. As a former student of Plymouth State and lifelong railroad enthusiast, I appreciated this essay.