Log In

Reset Password

Whistle Blowing In The Wind--The Last Phantom Train Through Botsford Station



Text Size

Whistle Blowing In The Wind––

The Last Phantom Train Through Botsford Station

By Dottie Evans

Few people know it, but there is a long-unused railroad siding lying deep in a swampy woods at the southern end of town. The abandoned siding is located nearby the intersection of Botsford Hill Road and Flat Swamp Road where a busy railroad station once served 45 trains a day roaring through the Connecticut countryside.

That was in the early 1900s, a peak time for freight and passenger rail travel, as the New York, New Haven & Hartford rail system linked the towns of New Haven and Bridgeport to New Milford and Pittsfield, Mass. By then, coal-fired steam engines had replaced the early wood-fired engines that were originally used by the Housatonic Railroad, founder of the line in 1840. Now, the Botsford station is gone, those passenger trains have been history since the 1940s, and the old tracks buried in leaves and underbrush lead to nowhere.

A hiker chancing upon them might wonder at the forest growing up between the rotting ties. The only sound is the chirping of winter birds or the occasional rumble of trucks coming and going from Wickes Lumber Company nearby.

In that deserted place, it is hard on a cold winter day not to think about what it was like 165 years ago. Hard not to listen for the distant roar of some ghost train from past imagining. At any moment, the Polar Express might appear loaded with passengers going to the North Pole. Iron wheels screeching, steam exploding from the boilers, and Tom Hanks as the engineer pulling on the whistle cord.

Train Travel 100 Years Ago

There is one woman, a railroad historian and avid trail-biker named Sue Delbianco, who not only imagines what might once have happened there, she has written a mystery novel about it.

Her 48-page book titled The Last Phantom Train was published in 2005. It recreates the glory days of steam engines and the New York, New Haven & Hartford railroad line that moved passengers and cargo between Albany and Bridgeport for more than 100 years. The line was begun (as Housatonic Railroad) in 1840 to connect seacoast ports to the Erie Canal, thereby providing a continuous rail and water route to Buffalo, N.Y.

“The last cargo train –– they called it The Big Milk –– went out in 1963,” said Ms Delbianco.

“They had pulled some of the tracks when they made the Merritt Parkway in the 1930s, and they shut the passenger line down in the 1940s. But they kept the Monroe and Newtown ends open –– just for freight,” she added.

Today, the single pair of tracks running through Botsford accommodates an electrically powered yellow CSX train that delivers lumber between Bridgeport and Hawleyville. The only other sign of commercial life is Wickes Lumber Company and the long-abandoned Batchelder superfund site.

Nothing remains of Botsford Station. The water tower used to fill the steam engines was moved to the Danbury Railroad Museum in 1997. The stone and sand hoppers, the sheds, the switches, the whistle stop signs, switch stand, and gravel shed all are gone.

To someone like Ms Delbianco who knows what rail travel through this area used to be like, the silence is deafening.

Building The Housatonic Line

Ezra Levan Johnson, the town’s longtime historian who compiled a History of Newtown published posthumously in 1917, devoted several pages to the early days of the Housatonic Railroad from 1835 to 1843 as the line was being built from Bridgeport up the valley.

The work progressed but slowly for it was all done with hand shovels, hand picks, hand blasting tools, wheelbarrows and one-horse dump carts….the steam drill had not taken the place of sledge hammers swung by sturdy arms of men who worked in triplets…

He described the first “through” passenger train that came from New Milford to Bridgeport on Valentine’s Day 1840, remembering being 7 years old and watching the “big boys and girls” rushing to the window. They craned their necks to see the big locomotive as it rounded the bend.

Domestic animals were more excited than were human beings…my grandfather had a colt…that scaled an eight-board fence and did not stop until it reached Zoar Bridge…The Housatonic was the first railroad built in Connecticut. It was looked upon with great interest, not only as a business proposition, but also as likely to revolutionize modes and speed of travel.

Ms Delbianco’s research into local railroad history bears out Ezra Johnson’s story.

“Train travel was considered dangerous and a hazard to animals, especially at the rail crossings before they elevated the tracks,” she commented.

“All the noise of the engines, the filth of the cinders, the roar of the steam, the accidents at the crossings when cars stalled or got stuck –– railroading in the early days was a great experiment,” she concluded.

Today’s steeply sloping Botsford Hill Road underpass beneath the train tracks was an “improvement” made shortly after 1907 when the decision was made to eliminate a dangerous grade crossing.

As Ezra Johnson predicted, railroading was the great experiment that during the years between 1840 and 1940 succeeded beyond all imagination. It would change the face of the countryside as people and commerce followed the ever-expanding rail routes.

The gradual decline of railroads began in the 1920s as automobile travel became more popular. In the 1930s, the Depression severely reduced people’s ability to pay for tickets. The establishment of the public highway system in the 1950s meant that trucks were now doing the work of freight cars.


 Maiden Voyage Disaster

Early train travel was exciting but chancy at best. In History of Newtown, Ezra Levan Johnson vividly describes an accident that happened to one of Newtown’s first rail passengers, Zalmon S. Peck. Peck was the town’s longtime postmaster from 1861 to 1867 and again from 1869 to 1885 and he was also founder in 1892 of the Pohtatuck Grange.

When a young man in his 20s, Zalmon Peck boarded the very first excursion train on the Housatonic line that left New Milford on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1840. He was one of several Newtown residents who were celebrating the completion of the railroad as far as Bridgeport.

The train reached Newtown from New Milford about noon, where it was greeted by an out-pouring of people…a few of whom boarded for Bridgeport. The run was made to Bridgeport without accident. At the end of the road…the cars were cut off to allow them to run down to the landing. Hand brakes at first were only stout planks thrust through the openings in the floor of the car and held against the wheels by the brakemen. The momentum of the train was too great for the power applied and the cars smashed into the pile of wood at the end of the track. Among those badly injured was Zalmon S. Peck of Newtown, whose right thigh was caught by the platform of the car and badly broken.

Peck was taken to a Bridgeport hotel for immediate medical treatment and he was unable to return to Newtown until April 1840, at least two months later. It was said he suffered the results of that injury until his death.

During the stagecoach era, what we now know as Botsford was called Cold Spring and given a post office in 1843. Between the years 1843 and 1883, two members of the Botsford family, Edwin and Oliver, were named postmaster, and a wealthy landowner, Daniel Botsford, became the first subscriber to Housatonic Railroad stock. Not surprisingly, the railroad junction at Cold Spring was renamed Botsford in 1883.

The pulse of life around rural Botsford Junction did not quicken, however, until the late 1880s when the Housatonic added the Derby Line to New Haven. At this point, a new station was built in 1893 followed by a hotel, a depot with a horse barn, and several new houses.

At the turn of the century, Botsford Station was the hub of a bustling railroad-centered village and the second of six railroad stations established in the town of Newtown, serving a population of less than 4,000 people.

Newtown Rail Trail Derailed

With the decline of rail travel throughout the Northeast, many lines were cancelled and their tracks pulled. This left miles and miles of graded, elevated pathways through fields and woods between the towns.

During the 1980s and 1990s, a move toward recreational use of these obsolete lines took hold as proponents pushed for a Rail-To-Trail park system that encouraged bikers and hikers to work with public and state officials in transforming the railroad right-of-ways for passive recreation.

This transformation has occurred along the southern end of the old Housatonic line, where a wide hiking and biking path has been established along the former rail bed across the eight miles linking Monroe to Trumbull. Access is at Pepper Street in Monroe.

But from Monroe to Botsford in southern Newtown is another story altogether. Issues of property rights, vandalism, and an unresolved superfund site have obstructed progress.

“Unfortunately, the trail stops at the Newtown line where access is blocked off,” said Ms Delbianco.

“Some students came in to make a film at the Batchelder site and a roof caved in, so they closed it off a couple of months ago. Last June and July, you could bike through there,” she added.

“If they could complete the project, there would be a wonderful 27-mile bike path from Bridgeport to Newtown,” she added wistfully.

She hopes that her book, The Last Phantom Train, and her many lectures delivered to local historical societies and train clubs will spur interest in the rail trail project and help remove barriers to its completion.

“My book is based on my experiences on that trail. I’ve biked the whole 22 miles (round trip) between Newtown and Monroe and it’s a whole continuous corridor. Really flat and a great ride. It’s just dirt and gravel all the way to Monroe, but better groomed at that end where they’ve got natural sand. And it’s nicely landscaped,” she said.

“I’ve been studying this place for the last seven or eight years. The Rail Trail is an up-and-coming thing. It’s got to become a reality,” she said.

“In some places, the path is right next to where the tracks were. You can find artifacts like coal, pulleys, or ties. When the bike path idea first took hold, they brought people in for tours. Now it’s stalled and I don’t know why.”

Meanwhile, Ms Delbianco is thinking of writing a sequel to The Last Phantom Train. Something along the lines of Perils of Pauline.

The Last Phantom Train is available at Linda’s Story Time on The Monroe Turnpike, and also on line at www.barnesandnoble or www.publishamerica.com, or at B. Dalton, or can be ordered at Barnes &Noble. Ms Delbianco can be reached at her email address,Sueanndel@hotmail.com

Comments are open. Be civil.

Leave a Reply