“Then I heard that long whistle whine
And I dropped to my knees, hung my head and cried
Now I swing a sledge hammer on a railroad gang
Knocking down them cross ties, working in the rain
Now, don’t it feel like you’re a rider on a downbound train” -Downbound Train, Bruce Springsteen
The end of the Civil War ushered in the beginning of the Golden Age of American railroads. By 1916, there were over 254,000 miles of railroad track in the United States, and over 85,000 railroad stations dotting the map of the nation. The gauge (distance between rails) of tracks became standardized, four standard timezones were established across the country to allow for accurate train schedules, and major technological innovations increased the speed of trains. However, after the end of the first World War, trains began to face competition from river traffic, long distance trucks and buses, cars, and airplanes (via
the University of Iowa Libraries). Add to it the steady decline of American manufacturing in the 20th century, and railroads steadily decreased in importance. As train usage fades, however, our fascination with this old form of transportation does not, and many museums around the country seek to preserve and remember the Golden Age of trains. One such museum is a former train station in Connecticut that is now home to a noteworthy collection of engines, cars, and cabooses.
With warmer temperatures finally returning to the East Coast, my wife and I set out on a beautiful Saturday morning to meet up with a relative in western Connecticut to watch bald eagles in their natural habitat. Wildlife follows its own schedule, however, and so the eagles decided to not venture out of their nests for us. After lunch, we looked to see if there were other places to visit nearby, and came across the Danbury Railway Museum in Danbury, Connecticut. What started out as a fun, if slightly disappointing, journey to see birds of prey turned into a fascinating exploration of an old train yard.
Before I begin this week’s photo essay, however, I wanted to provide a few more updates:
My wife and I recently attended a Rutgers University basketball game. Currently ranked 11th out of 14 teams in the Big 10 Conference, Rutgers probably won’t selected for March Madness, the NCAA championship tournament… but it was still an entertaining game, and the large, energetic crowd made it a fun evening.
On a recent day off, I was on my way to visit family when I decided to pass through a town from my past. My Dad was the minister of Grenloch First Presbyterian Church (pictured) for most of my childhood. The church, built in 1908, is part of Grenloch, a manufacturing town established in the 19th century. In this small town, the Bateman Manufacturing Company mass-produced farm equipment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Despite New Jersey’s reputation for the Turnpike, oil refineries, strip malls, and warehouses, the southern half of the state is far more rural, and so it is fitting that one of the most successful businesses in 19th century New Jersey was Bateman Manufacturing Company, whose Iron Age Tools were found in farms across the nation (image labeled for reuse via the Internet Archive). They would sell tens of thousands of pieces of farm equipment each year. However, one innovation from Bateman Manufacturing especially warranted inclusion in this blog…
…Grenloch was also home to the Frontmobile, one of the first commercially available cars with front wheel drive. Bateman Manufacturing established Camden Motors Corporation to produce the Frontmobile in 1917. One of the early advantages of front wheel drive was a lower ride height, which reduced the center of gravity and made it less likely to overturn (a real problem in the early days of motoring!). The car retailed for $900 – about $17,000 in 2019 money. Two doors, front wheel drive, good handling… this is like my Accord’s great-great-grandfather (image from T he Horseless Age, a publication available as public domain from Google Books).
While spending some time recently with my Mom, we were perusing the listings on the Goodwill auction site and came across something I’ve never seen before… a Honda Collectors’ Train Set. A little sleuthing on the web helped me figure out that it was only available at Honda dealers. Given that the boxcars list different Honda models including the CR-V and the Prelude, I’d guess that this set was produced in the late 90’s or early 2000s (the CR-V was available in the U.S. in 1997, the Prelude ended production in 2001… and yes, it’s a little scary how much I know about Honda). But this kit leads us into our most recent trip…
The Danbury Railway Museum is located in western Connecticut, about seventy miles northeast of New York City.
With temperatures reaching into the low 50’s, winter in our part of the country is officially leaving us. That said, there was still some snow and ice on the ground. We left the Accord at home and traveled north in my wife’s Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Our first stop was the Shepaug Dam Eagle Observatory. The dam is home to several bald eagles who feed in the warm waters of the Housatonic River. Open during the winter months, the observatory allows visitors to view eagles in their natural habitat. This small building allows visitors to look for eagles while being protected from the elements. We met up with my wife’s aunt, who lives not too far away.
The Shepaug Dam (right) helps to power Connecticut’s electric grid. The continuous operation of its turbines churn the waters below, attracting the eagles who feed on fish in the river.
Unfortunately, the eagles did not venture forth today, and so the only birds we saw were those that a member of the Audubon Society (center) brought with her to show to the visitors.
This hawk, injured when it was hit by a car, is now permanently kept by the Audubon Society. It would not be able to survive in the wild, and instead spends its time as part of the society’s educational program.
Alas, the only eagle we would see this day was one carved from wood. It was a very cool place to visit, and the drive was scenic, but it was a little disappointing to leave without seeing any of the birds we had come to observe.
We set off for a relaxed lunch at Samui, a Thai restaurant in Southbury. The lunch specials allow you to order soup, an appetizer, and a main course. I had the tom yum soup, pork and shrimp dumplings, and Thai fried rice (fried rice with chicken, shrimp, egg, scallions, onions, tomatoes, carrots, and peas). All of our dishes were delicious! Full of yummy food, we said our goodbyes to my wife’s aunt and began our journey home.
As we drove away, we realized that it was still early in the day. We looked at each other and said, “There’s got to be something else we can do while we’re up here.” I searched the map and… bingo. Trains. Lots of trains.
Danbury Station was built in 1903 and thrived through the 1960s. Owing to reduced use, the station closed in 1993, only to reopen two years later as the Danbury Railway Museum, dedicated to preserving the history of rail travel in the northeastern United States. MTA commuter trains still pass through the station on their way to South Norwalk.
After a year-long restoration, the museum retains much of the atmosphere and charm of an early 20th century station. The interior houses exhibits about the rail industry.
I have long felt like I was born in the wrong generation – I would have loved to have sat down to dinner in a dining car aboard the Santa Fe or Pennsylvania railroads in the 1930s and have been served with tableware like this.
We headed out to the rail yard, which houses approximately 60 pieces of equipment.
The EMD FL9 locomotive can be run either with its large V16 diesel engine or by an electrified third rail. These locomotives came into production in the mid-1950s, and the last one was retired in 2009. They traveled between New York, New Haven, and Hartford.
The centerpiece of the collection is this B&M (Boston and Maine) steam locomotive. It was built in 1907, and was in service in the Boston area until 1956.
Despite being built in 1907, the design of #1455 stretches back to the 1860s. That this design was still in use as late as the 1950s attests to the reliability and sturdiness of these locomotives.
One of my favorite shots from the trip – the interior of the #1455 steam locomotive.
Built in 1914, this is a GCT-1 double-ended crane. Capable of lifting 100 tons, it was used to place derailed trains back on track. This is the only survivor of its class of car – all the others have been scrapped.
This is what is known as a “truck,” upon which the railroad car sits. The only things that attached a car to the truck are the small pin in the center of the truck (pictured) and gravity. 50 or more tons of freight car, held in place by a three-inch pin and the force of gravity. And nothing else.
Many of the cars are succumbing to rust, fading paint, and decay… but it certainly made for some interesting photos.
Several cars were open to tour, such as this caboose, which acted as the quarters for the crew.
Beside acting as the accommodations for the crew, the caboose served another vital function: from the rear of the train, the crew could monitor the other cars to make sure that everything was operating normally.
Another car open to touring was this Railway Post Office Car. Built in 1910, it was a rolling post office, delivering mail around the country. This one operated on the Pennsylvania Railroad.
Before air travel, this is how mail would be shipped around the nation.
Towns would leave their mail in canvas bags attached to these poles, and it would be the job of mail clerk to reach out with a hook and grab the bag while the train was moving at speeds of 30 miles per hour or faster.
This wooden caboose, built in 1909, served in the New York Central System until 1968.
We spent about a half hour wandering the yard… and there were still many more trains to see.
MTA trains still run past the Danbury Railway Station every day. The curved platform might be recognizable to film fans – several scenes of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 movie Strangers on a Train were filmed here.
By the time we arrived home, the Jeep had achieved its own milestone: we passed the 34,000 mile mark along the way.
Despite our initial plans not quite working out the way we envisioned them, we had a wonderful adventure, enjoying a beautiful late winter day. The Shepaug Dam Eagle Observation Area is open during the winter months. Attendance is free, but reservations are required to visit. The Danbury Railway Museum is open Sunday from 12:00 – 4:00 pm, and Wednesday through Saturday from 10:00 am – 4:00 pm. Admission is $7 for visitors age 3 and older, and is free for little visitors under 3.
As always, thanks for coming along on another journey down the open road ahead!
‘Til next time.
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2 thoughts on “Downbound Train.”
Congrats on 34k! That ‘frontmobile’ is pretty innovative for its time. Definitely enjoy seeing some of the old trains & equipment being appreciated – years ago a friend and I used to go “train chasing” when noteworthy old steam locomotives like UP 844 would go on excursions. Pretty fun! Thanks for taking us along for the ride!
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It was a fun trip, and there is something magical about old trains. I had no knowledge of the Frontmobile until I started digging into this post – I had heard older people in the church talk about front wheel drive being “invented” in Grenloch, and although that wasn’t quite the case, it is still a cool story! Glad you enjoyed the write-up.