Herewith are various recollections about the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railway, chiefly concerning its operations through Andover, Connecticut from about 1915 to 1965 as reported to the
ANDOVER HISTORICAL SOCIETY
by Nathan B., Gatchell in the year 1977. Requested by the archivist.
In all candor, some if this material came to Mr. Gatchell from other
persons now deceased. In no sense is this a research project.
The Highland Division of the New Haven ceased operation in 1960. It connected Hartford and Waterbury with Boston via Willimantic and Putnam. At Willimantic it joined with the Air Line from New Haven via Middletown, with the Providence Line through Plainfield, and with the north-south Central Vermont (Grand Trunk), New London to Montreal. This made Willimantic an important center with a large station, water tanks, round house (at Columbia) and generous yards and sidings. The line was opened in about 1847 with controlling grades Andover to Bolton Notch westbound (335 to 583 feet) and Vernon Depot to Bolton Notch eastbound (350 to 583 feet). East of Willimantic a heavy grade stretched from North Windham to Hampton and Pomfret. Bolton Notch may have been the highest point between New York and Boston via the two connectors, Waterbury and New Haven.
When first planned as the Hartford, Providence and Fishkill, the line tapped many small industries along the way. Preliminary surveys showed 37 such industries in Andover alone. Irish laborers did much of the work although black powder was used to blast out the great cuts. Housing went up to house the workers, one such building stood close to the Bailey Road crossing. Existing houses also sheltered the workers. For instance the large Hendee House in Andover Center took care of at least a score. Hendee had been a sea captain in the China trade and had stored chests of elegant Oriental items in the attic. On a mad Saturday night the boys got a bit polluted and were known to scale lovely pieces of China off the back porch into the night. The liquor may have come from that house whose cellar is connected by a tunnel with ther Norwich-Hartford Turnpike. There was also a jail cell down there with bars of hickory. Small bridges (or large culverts, perhaps) were built of stone blocks quarried near the right-of-way, expertly shaped and solid to this day. Granite was quarried atop what we know as Bingham Hill in Andover Center.
This item is a rather delightful aside. Mr. Hendee had two daughters who never married, perhaps because they were supremely modest. The town line between Hebron and Coventry from which towns Andover was later set aside ran through the back yard of the Hendee House. The facility or privy stood in Coventry. The modest daughters never went to the privy; they went to Coventry. That same town line cut through another area in the village. In fact it bisected the old house occupied in the earlier years of this century by Leonard Porter. Liquor laws varied from time to time. Hebron might be dry; Coventry might be wet. The liquor closet in that house was mounted on a pole so that it could be swung into the "wet" town if the law showed up, swung back when the other town went "wet". The Yankees seemed capable of almost any ingenuity. Survival depended upon it.
In the 1920's before buses, Andover youngsters rode to Windham High School on the train - 116 eastbound and 55 westbound - a trip of ten miles each way. It was always an interesting trip. 116 originated in Waterbury, 55 in Boston en route to New York. "Chicken" sold his New Haven Dairy brick ice cream and other delicacies from a large basket as he swayed from car to car. "Ice cream. Spoon in every box. New Haven Dairy brick ice cream. Sandwiches and candy." Where is that hard-working young man now that chap named "Chicken"? We stopped at Hop River to pick up the Johnson girl. I never knew how she got home for 55 did not stop at Hop River. Or did it? One morning the engine lost a side rod under the Flanders Road bridge, three and a half miles from Willimantic. We sat out the long delay until an engine came up from the round house at Columbia, a block station, and towed us grandly into Union Station. Ultimately we got to the high school several hours late where we lined up in the office to get late passes from Pop Case or Miss Howie. Those trains consisted of about five cars. 55 boasted a parlor car. On holidays the trains stretched out to seven or eight cars all well filled.
On certain occasions a heavy parlor-observation car carried some important party. I recall Woodrow Wilson once and Sir Harry Lauder another time. Ray Halstead or Elmer Balcom, agents and operators at the station, would send word of these dignitaries up to the grammar school, eight grades in two class rooms, and we would run down to the station for a look. Once it was Billy Sunday, a famous evangelist. Another time it was James M. Cox, Democratic nominee for president. That day Danny Dunn, a prominent Willimantic politician, glared at us from the observation platform in grand and solitary majesty. The three men who manned that station were important to the community but especially so to us kids. On November 10, 1918, Mrs. Sackett, just off 122 from Hartford, came to the stone wall at the edge of the school yard - it was during the 2:30 recess - to tell us of the Armistice. That was the so-called "False Armistice". The news of the real one came over the station telegraph the next day, the 11th. On both days we all went wild with Joy. Important service, that!
Once the railway station or depot (never the train station) became a morgue of sorts with three badly burned bodies laid out on the freight platform. The three men, well loaded, had slept in hay in the old hotel barn, set it on fire and died in the flames. Of course, we kids inspected them - and we were pretty young too. Very little was left of Bates, DuCharme and Reidy. The evening before at about nine the blazing hotel had been sighted by an alert engine crew eastbound at or near Steele's Crossing. The engineer held down his whistle cord for 4 1/2 miles thus alerting the entire valley. When they arrived at Andover, he and the fireman made available all the water in the tender to help fight the fire. Another engine came from Willimantic to provide additional water. But the hotel and its attached structures burned to the ground. A Grange meeting, in the town hall broke up with the mistaken belief that Lucius Post's store was on fire. The old hotel was terminus of the stagecoach from Colchester. Andover was the first railway station in a rather large territory, people coming there from at least five directions to catch the train. Elmer Findley walked down from South Bolton every morning, and back at night for the four years he was a student at Trinity College in Hartford. Dirt road and cows to be milked. A picture of the railroad as an important element of life in these parts emerges. And that is just what it had been since the first engine chugged through about 1848 when Amanda White waved to the enginemen from her father's shoulders. She recalled this in vivid terms before her death in the 1930's.
I once tried to beat 45 from Willimantic to Andover. On the old blacktop road black-top road built in 1913-15, now U.S. 6, our 1927 Chrysler hit 75 mph. now and then, but when I got to Andover the train had made stop and was disappearing around the curve behind the Case Sanitarium. The speed limit was 60 over that stretch of track and 40 from Andover to Vernon Depot. Both limits were exceeded often, especially when time had to be made up. One train dropped down from Steele's in four minutes - four miles. Ray Halstead recalled trains out of Springfield reaching Thompsonville in 4 1/2 minutes - over five miles. That was fast travel over tracks controlled manually before the advent of anything resembling automatic train control.
An engineer was all but killed at Hop River. He was at the head end of the State of Maine Express west and south bound from Bangor to New York. His fireman noticed that he had failed to whistle for a crossing, or two and went across the cab to see if the head man was all right. He found the engineer unconscious and hanging, well out of his window, blood running, down one side of his face. The fireman took over and stopped the train at Andover, reported to the conductor and the dispatcher, and drove the train to Hartford where the injured man was hospitalized. It was determined that the engineer had been leaning out into the night for a better view of the track ahead and had hit the first of a string of freight cars standing on the side track at Hop River. It was 2:30 A.M. The sleeping passengers slept on.
OOne evening a top-notch express was roaring through North Westchester on the Air Line running about 20 minutes late. They were to change engines at Willimantic. In a Pullman parlor car two important looking men commented on the lateness and said, "This railroad never makes up time. We'll be late into Boston." But a railway official overhead the remark and made a decision. As the fresh engine was tied on, he went forward to sneak to Engineer Potter then in his twenties. "Potter, this train will get into Boston on time." Potter probably gulped, but replied, "Yes, Sir." Potter brought the train with 200 passengers into Boston on time. To do so he had to run well above the limit up and down hills, over flat stretches, around curves and over the long tangent east of Putnam where they picked up water from pans set between the rails. Young Mr. Potter from North Windham later handled 55 and 56 on a regular basis and retired about twenty years ago. Good man.
Charlie Faulkner, a badly crippled man, held down the third trick at Andover for many years. He moved slowly and with great difficulty. One night a freight dropping down from Steele's in just over 5 minutes, the run was nowhere on tangent and including the famous Three Rail Curve on its high embankment overlooking the valley of the Hop River, left the rails at the Andover station on a curve. Only the concrete curb kept it from ploughing into the station and wiping Charlie out. He recalled to his dying day the roar and flying sparks. A narrow escape to say the least.
We youngsters loved the Highland Division,. the bells, the chugging of steam locomotives, the dust, the smell of bituminous coal smoke, the entrancing voice of whistles in the quiet night and the convenience of sixteen passenger trains daily, each of which stopped at Andover. But freights were also convenient on occasions. My first date as a teen-ager in a nearby town was at Bolton Town Hall with Jeanette Sumner. Decked out in white flannels, I hitched a ride on the local freight and hopped off at Steele's Crossing. My hands got dirty, but everything else came through nicely and we had a pleasant evening. My ride home was in a 1923 Model T Ford With a friend. Did someone remark that times have changed?
The section hands under Tom Skinner of Bolton kept a small flat platform on four wheels in the Andover freight yard. Loaded with material and tools it could be pushed along the rails by the workers or towed at a decent speed by Tom's gasoline powered put-put. This bit of equipment inspired five of us to a wild adventure one moon-lit night. We pushed it up the siding about 2000 feet, and it pushed hard. Then we climbed aboard and coasted back down the siding to the point where it entered the main line. This entry was protected by a derailer which flipped off the iron when the switch was properly aligned for a train go onto the main line. Because of the hard push we had no idea that any degree of speed would be attained so we were without a pole or plank for braking. We hit the derailer at about 35 miles per hour, flew into the air and three boys and two girls became involved with rough coal cinders in most intimate areas of the anatomy.
Judge Edward Yeomans commuted by train to and from Hartford back in the 1920's and we credit him with this delightful tale. One night coming home on 56 a man named Talcott boarded at Hartford without having bought a ticket. He planned to pay his fare in cash to the conductor who in those times was somewhat of a god. Talcott, who cut much ice in Talcottville, or thought he did, said, "I will get off at Talcottville." The conductor stated firmly, "This train does not stop at Talcottville." The passenger replied, "I am John Talcott of Talcottville. I will get off at Talcottville." In serene majesty the conductor reiterated, "I don't care if you're Jesus Christ of Christville. This train will not stop at Talcottville." A totally adequate response. God had spoken.
Another custom now abandoned comes to mind. On Saturday nights a late westbound train would unload three or four besotted characters who had been too long in Willimantic bars by simply rolling them off the train on a baggage cart like logs of wood via a ramp to the freight platform. There hours later the rising sun brought them to a condition of relative sobriety and they betook themselves home to a scolding spouse. Indeed yes. Times have changed. Andover, we may add, was a dry town.
The New Haven Railroad would stop a train at Andover for anyone going a. long distance such as to Boston or New York if a request had been made long enough in advance for word to reach all concerned parties. This, of course, was done often after some trains had eliminated the Andover stop in the 1930s and 1940s. This was good service for so small a town - about 500 people lived here then. Non-stop trains often picked up orders from a hoop held by the local operators. For a time mail bags were picked up on the fly. They were held on a metal stand beside the tracks in such a manner that an arm of steel thrust out by the mail car crew could seize the mail bag, and then bring it into the car. This was abandoned after several bags of first class mail were torn open and the mail tossed about along the right of way. Little wonder. The train would often be rolling along at sixty to get a good run for Bolton Hill.
Earlier I referred to this hill as the controlling grade. That meant that a train could be made up of as many tons as an engine or engines could pull up that grade. Now and then some foolish yard superintendent would tie on too many tons and the train
would have to be cut in half. This was time-consuming and inefficient to say the least. Now and then two engines at the head end would be helped by a pusher at the rear. The pusher often cut loose at Bolton Notch and ran light back to the roundhouse in Columbia just west of Willimantic. The great voice of those engines roaring against the rocky hills was not easily forgotten. Control of these critical grades was maintained by the dispatcher at Hartford through operators at the block stations at Vernon, Club House, Steele's and Andover. In early times he used telegraph; by 1925 the telephone system was in operation. This single-track line at times handled 26 or more trains daily, 18 of which carried passengers. In times of an interruption on the Shore Line, a dozen additional trains would travel over the Highland Division rails. It was important indeed to keep the line operating safely and steadily.
An interesting incident occurred on the Shore Line during the 1938 hurricane. A New York-Boston train had slowed because the sea water covered the rails. Near Stonington the engineer noted a small house on the tracks probably carried there by high water and the 125 mph winds. Obviously one cannot ask passengers to get off into swirling salt water. Reversing, to Mystic seemed inadvisable. The engineer gently nudged his engine into the house, opened the throttle a bit and pushed the house until it fell off the track. No one was disturbed or inconvenienced. Railroaders often went all out to provide service. A splendid bunch of people.
Sometime around 1919, an Airline express, New York to Boston via Middletown, was running, late. An important sort of a fellow sent a telegraph ahead to the Willimantic station master requesting him to hold a Central Vermont connection for a party of 58. The train waited. Our hero strode in great dignity over to the train which would take him to Eagleville and thence by stage to Storrs. Impatient at the delay, the C.V. conductor demanded to know what had happened to the party of 58. "You're looking at him," said Professor Monteith of UConn and climbed aboard. One night the State of Maine eastbound out of Hartford carried another UConn personality in one of the coaches. Armed with a cane or umbrella, he was well in his cups and worked it off by cruising up and down the car pretending to shoot rabbits he claimed were hiding behind and beneath the seats, each pretended shot accompanied by a loud verbal BANG. How Professor Kristoff got to Storrs from Willimantic after midnight is not recorded. Nor do we know how he addressed his eight o'clock class next morning
Railroaders in my youth displayed unflagging loyalty to their duties and responsibilities. I'm sure they earned their pay and the trust and confidence of those who used the railways. They were in fact a sort of institution. We needed them; they were there when needed. They seemed to feel a responsibility to communities along the right of way. Memories are warm and welcome. Has a era really ended? Will AMTRAK succeed in bringing back the service we once enjoyed? Can a great nation remain great without a viable rail system?
To Return to the Main History Page