The Naugatuck Railroad

A quintessential, lower-New England town, Thomaston, Connecticut, was characterized by its Saint Thomas and First Methodist churches; its single, wind-swept, leave-blanketed Main Street; and the carved, jack-o-lantern faces peering out of the windows of its 19th-century buildings on a blue, but temperature-nipping Halloween weekend.

The red brick Thomaston Station, flanked by small hills whose increasingly thread-bare trees had relinquished their colorful leaves to autumn’s wind, had been fed by a single main track and was located next to the sprawling, equally red-bricked, but now closed Plume and Atwood Brass Mill. They both had a story to tell. Like the life-representing leaves released to history and relegated to memory, the location exuded a rich past, which I eagerly listened to as I awaited the Naugatuck Railroad’s 2:00 p.m. departure. Paradoxically, the silence was the loudest speaker.

Originally part of the Farmington Proprietor’s 1684 purchase of Mattatuck Plantation, Thomaston itself had achieved independence in 1739 as the “Northbury Parish,” uniting with the Waterbury Parish in 1780 to form Watertown, but separating almost as quickly and becoming “Plymouth Hollow.”

Seth Thomas, of timepiece fame, settled in the village in 1813. Expansion intermittently earned it the unofficial name of “Thomas Town” until it was permanently changed to the present “Thomaston” in 1875 to honor the very man who had largely been responsible for its existence.

His factories, now numbering many, churned out watches and mantel and tower clocks, and he was responsible for the Naugatuck Railroad’s routing through town in order for him to be able to link it with the ever-expanding brass center in Waterbury.

Chartered in 1845, the Naugatuck Railroad itself was created to connect Bridgeport in the south with Winsted in the north on Naugatuck River-paralleling track, its initial construction commencing three years later, in April, with service from the just-completed New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad junction to Seymour subsequently inaugurated on May 15, 1849. Extensions to Waterbury followed on June 11 and Winsted on September 24.

The former line, simply designated the “New Haven,” carried more passengers than freight on a route system which, at its peak, encompassed most of New England, stretching from New York to Providence and Boston, and it eventually acquired several other, smaller companies, including the Maine Central and the Boston and Maine. The Naugatuck Railroad was one of them. Initially leasing it on May 24, 1887, it altogether absorbed it 19 years later, in 1906, but passenger service was discontinued on more than half the line, from Waterbury to Torrington and Winsted, in 1958, and five years later the track was completely abandoned between these two cities.

Because of the weakening New England industrial base during the 1960s, which reduced demand for rail services, the New Haven Railroad was forced into a merger with Penn Central in 1969, but further deterioration, due to freight customer loss and track disrepair, resulted in its own bankruptcy. The line north of Waterbury had, by this time, been renamed “Torrington Secondary Track,” after its destination.

Incorporated into the government-created and -sponsored Conrail, the former Penn Central had operated the Waterbury Branch until the Connecticut Department of Transportation had purchased the line between Devon and Torrington in 1982, leasing the track to the Boston and Maine Railroad for its own freight service north of Waterbury. Victim, like so many previous operators, to declining demand and revenue, it discontinued operations in 1995, after it itself had become part of the Guilford Rail System.

On June 7 of that year, the Railroad Museum of New England obtained a state charter for a wholly-owned operating subsidiary designated “Naugatuck Railroad” after the original, 1845 enterprise, leasing track from the Connecticut Department of Transportation.

Outlining its mission, it states, “the Railroad Museum of New England, Inc., is a not-for-profit educational and historical organization founded in January 1968. Its mission is to establish an interpretive facility where the story of the region’s railroad heritage can be effectively told. We have an extensive collection of New England rolling stock, including locomotives of all types, passenger cars, freight cars, and cabooses. We have New England railroad artifacts dating from the 1840s to the present-everything from tickets to signal towers.”

Its Naugatuck Railroad subsidiary, having turned its first wheel in September of 1996, operates historic excursion trains from Thomaston to Waterville throughout the year, including a myriad of seasonal- and holiday-appropriate rides and periodic steam engine runs.

Center of its activities is the Thomaston Station. Replacing the original, smaller, wooden depot located on the other side of the track, the 2,424-square-foot, wooden frame and brick building, with interior plaster walls and ceilings, had been constructed in 1881 by the first Naugatuck Railroad and currently occupies a 1.11-acre site on East Main Street.

After the last passenger train had departed in 1958, it had been used for several purposes: as a freight agent’s office until 1968, as a storage location for the Plume and Atwood Brass Mill, and as a small engine repair shop in the early 1990s. But a vandal-set fire in 1993, spreading from an inside corner and raging up the attic stairs, destroyed the roof.

Monetary donations from the Thomaston Savings Bank permitted roof, chimney, and upper masonry repairs to commence in 1997, followed by interior cleaning, and the installation of a ticket window, gift shop counter, and exhibit panels took place two years later, while a second grant, made in 2001, enabled a new canopy deck to be installed and the original platform canopies to be restored.

A 600-foot-long display track, located behind the building, had been lowered and reconstructed, and today cradled a stationary freight train “pulled” by New Haven diesel locomotives 6690 and 6691, which were attached to a collection of box and tank cars and the prerequisite red caboose numbered C-507. Posing on the spur line, it stood across from the station’s “Baggage Room” door.

The depot, to serve as the cornerstone of an ultimate, 1950s, working railroad station, will be joined by an extended, paved, and lighted platform; an operating control tower; hand-operated crossing gates; a crossing tender’s shanty; a mail crane; a water shed for steam engine servicing; and a hand-operated freight derrick.

The earlier, 1200 noon run, a three-coach collection pulled by diesel locomotive 2203 which somehow reflected the season with its orange and brown livery, screeched to a stop in front of the station at 1330 beneath a gray ceiling and deposited a menagerie of Halloween-costumed kids who promptly stormed the depot door to collect their pumpkins.

Replenished with a second, considerably-costumed group, the train vocally assaulted the silence with its high-shrilled whistle and released its brakes, inching past the station building and the side track-supported freight train as soon as its car couplings had tensed into weight-pulling movement, plunging into the autumnal forest in a southerly direction.

The hills sprouted bursts of burnt orange, glowing gold, auburn, and brown. Protestingly screeching as its wheels adhered to the track’s curves, the short chain of vintage coaches paralleled the almost-black reflective surface of the Naugatuck River, which was periodically highlighted by tiny, silver-sizzled rapids.

Carving out the valley of the same name, the waterway, the largest in Connecticut and a sub-basin of the Housatonic River, spans 39 miles from Norfolk to Derby, passing through the two counties of New Haven and Litchfield and 12 towns in the process. Originally used by the American Indians for sustenance and subsequently serving the English after their own settlement along it, it had facilitated post-Industrial Revolution production in the form of hydropower. Coupled with its paralleling tracks, it had enabled both manufacture and transportation of raw materials and finished products, such as vulcanized rubber, naugahide, brass, and metal clock parts. Today, after considerable revitalization, it provides recreation, fishing, and nature-related activities.

Approaching the south end of town, where the valley narrowed, the train moved under the Reynold’s Bridge, a concrete arch structure carrying Waterbury Road and constructed in the early-1920s. One of the few remaining bridges after the Great Flood of 1955, it marked the location of the small, no-longer existent station of the same name.

Trundling past the WHYCo Factory, the three coaches continued in their southerly direction, momentarily traversing the switch which led to the east side lead track to the new Thomaston Shop. The culmination of seven years of planning and construction, the five-track rail yard and 11,700-square-foot restoration building replaced the previous, 20-foot-long, deck girder bridge facility atop the former power canal one mile from Waterville where proper inspection of a four-axle locomotive had required up to six hours to complete. Tree and bush clearing at the new, two-acre site along the Naugatuck Railroad’s main line began in 1998, followed by prerequisite rock blasting and crushing, drainage, and grading. A 1,000-foot-long roadbed serves as the lead track to the area, built, as is the remainder of the yard’s track and switches, of 107-pound rails. The 65- by 180-foot shop, accessed by four 18-foot-high by 14-foot-wide main doors, is insulated, heated, and lighted for indoor, all-weather use, and two, 131-pound rail tracks run through it. A 60-foot-long, 48-inch-deep inspection pit facilitates under-car inspection and maintenance.

The concrete abutment at the north end of the Thomaston Shop indicates the location of the former Waterbury-Thomaston trolley line, which had crossed both the railroad and the river.

The Jericho Bridge, marking the spot where the flood had significantly altered the landscape, provided river-crossing access into Watertown.

Continuing to bore its way through a virtual tunnel of leaf-clinging trees and bare, skeletal, white and gray limbs, the diesel engine pulled its coaches toward Waterville, momentarily rustling the crunchy, mosaic blankets representing the collected “flesh” of the once foliage-rich trees now lying beside the track in post-life surrender. Like an oil-black mirror, the river reflected the season’s colorful denouement.

The track, reconfigured because of the flood damage, crossed Frost Bridge Road, arcing into a sharp s-curve before entering the town of Waterville over the Chase Bridge.

Threading its way through the Naugatuck Railroad’s Chase Yard, comprised of a motley collection of steam engines and coaches, the train clacked past the sprawling, former Chase Metal Works factory complex at a snail’s pace, south of which was Waterville Station.

The town itself, as evidenced by its large brass mills, had once been sustained by this industry, and was today a sub-section of greater Waterbury itself.

Ceasing motion, the train terminated its southerly, outbound journey, the locomotive disconnecting and passing its coaches on the Huntington Avenue siding before recoupling itself to the former end car.

My own coach, number 4980, had been built in 1924 by Canadian Car Foundry for Canadian National Railways and was typical of the type used for long-distance travel, inclusive of that on New England services operated by Central Vermont and Grand Trunk Railways. Converted in 1969, it served Montreal commuter routes until it had been retired in 1991, at which time it had been acquired by Thomas V. Brown and donated to the Railroad Museum of New England.

Inching away from its southern terminus, my living history excursion train recrossed the town of Waterville, moving past the Chase Metal Works Factory and the coaches lining the rail yard.

The silver rails ahead seemed to slice through the dense forest. The hills, as if torched, flamed orange, gold, and chestnut, the restored cars resettling into rhythmic, lateral rocks as their wheels screamed at every curve and track imperfection.

The Thomaston Station, soon moving by on the left side, quickly yielded to the red brick Plume and Atwood factory across the road.

Tracing its roots to the brass mill the Thomas Manufacturing Company had organized in 1854 to roll metal for clock movements, it had been known as “Holmes, Booth, and Atwood” when this concern had purchased it in 1869, adopting the “Plume and Atwood” name two years later. Incorporated in 1880, it had produced a comprehensive line of lamps, lamp trimmings, gas burners, and brass lamp parts, becoming one of the railroad’s major freight customers for more than a century-the railroad itself thus complementing and facilitating Thomaston’s very purpose. It had been the center of Plume and Atwood’s Waterbury-relocated manufacturing division and main office.

Dorset-Rex had acquired the plant in the late-1950s, but the Hurricane Diane flood had severely damaged its tooling, equipment, and buildings.

Climbing a considerable grade, the diesel engine pulled its cars between some tall rock faces, following the left-curving track past green pine and conifer to the face of Thomaston Dam, plying the eight miles of rail between Thomaston and Litchfield laid as a result of the flood. Part of a network of flood control dams constructed by the US Army Corps of Engineers in the Naugatuck Valley Basin, the $14 million project, completed in 1960, had been integral to the town’s recovery after six inches of rain had caused the river to overflow and its banks to collapse. The dam itself prevented further downstream damage.

The first train to ply the new route had been a 28-car-long freight service operated by the New Haven Railroad and pulled by Alco RS-3 diesel locomotives 561 and 533, destined for Torrington and Winsted.

Pushed by its engine, my own train slowly negotiated the track past the rock faces; the abandoned, Plume and Atwood Brass Mill; and over the road crossing in the reverse direction, ceasing motion with a gentle screech from its brakes in front of the Thomaston Station and ending its 20-mile excursion.

Descending the three steps to the platform, the adults emerged from their scenic and historic ride. Descending the same steps, the Halloween-costumed kids emerged from theirs.