In the late 1960s, Penn Central, then owner of the right of way that is now Valley Railroad State Park was planning to tear up the tracks and decommission the railroad. Thankfully, through the work of dedicated volunteers, in August 1969 the State of Connecticut received the right of way for what is now Valley Railroad State Park from the Penn Central Railroad. But the history of these rails started well before that.
In 1868 the Valley Railroad Company was chartered with the intent to build a railroad that would connect Old Saybrook to the capitol city of Hartford, a distance of 44 miles. The initial work proceeded quickly and by 1869 the mapping and surveying was complete. Construction began with groundbreaking in Higganum in April, 1870 and, because the line stayed in the relatively flat valley, there was no need for time consuming construction of tunnels and extensive bridges. Thousands of men worked on the rail line and the construction of the seventeen stations, and progress was rapid. On July 31, 1871 the first passenger train made the 44 mile run. People cheered at each of the new stations, banners and flags were hoisted, guns fired, food served and speeches given.
Both freight and passenger services were envisioned. The rail road would enable valley commerce to continue year round, with no shipping stoppage due to low-water or ice conditions in the Connecticut River. It would make a year-round connection of the lower valley towns which felt isolated from the rest of state in winter months.
By today’s standards passenger fares were inexpensive. The rail trip from Essex to Goodspeed was priced at 30 cents. But even by the standards of the day, rates must have been reasonable as passenger travel was double the early expectations from the first day the line opened.
Over the years problems common to short line railroads - economic depressions, mergers, buyouts, and the loss of passengers to the automobile - brought about the company’s failure. The last passenger stepped off the train in 1933, and 1968 saw the last of the freight business. By 1970, one hundred years after the line’s original groundbreaking in Higganum, the line was in the state’s hands.
Today the Valley Railroad Company, as an independent entity once again, leases the 136 acre, 21.7 mile, mostly linear property from the state. From the 1892 station in Essex passengers can choose from a variety of train and combination train and riverboat excursions up the river valley. Special trips including a visit to Gillette Castle State Park and ‘Your Hand On The Throttle’ are also featured. The rail yard alone is of interest to train aficionados. Depending on the season and schedules, more than two dozen pieces of vintage rolling stock can be seen, including a variety of engines.
But the actual rail excursion up the river valley and is why most people come. The nostalgia of a bygone era is rekindled through the sounds, smells and vistas that only a trip on an actual steam locomotive and train can provide.