A Brief History of the Housatonic Railroad

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(the following is a short history of the actual Housatonic Railroad my layout is based on. Everything you read is as true as I have been able to determine.)


The Housatonic Railroad was one of the first railroads that existed in the northeast. It was built, among other reasons, to take advantage of goods flowing from the many industries of Litchfield County, in the Housatonic Valley. The idea was to transport these goods to Bridgeport on Long Island Sound by rail, and then take them to the New York Markets via ferryboat.

Originally chartered mistakenly as the "Ousatonic" Railroad in 1836, the charter allowed the company to build either north towards Massachusetts, or west towards New York City. Because there was ample ferryboat service to NYC at this time at a speed very competitive with rail travel, and because of many difficulties expected in engineering an overland line to NYC, the directors chose to build north towards surer profits. Construction on the Housatonic RR was actually begun in 1837. In spite of a national financial crisis of the time, by February 1840 rails stretched from Bridgeport, CT to New Milford, CT. Almost two years later, in December of 1841, rails reached to Canaan, CT. Ten years later, the railroad had reached into Massachusetts and had forged links with the Western Railroad of Massachusetts, later to become the Boston & Albany RR.

In its haste to get the railroad built, much of the infrastructure was built to light specifications, and proved to be a problem that came back to plague railroad management for many years after the initial burst of construction. The railroad was in a constant state of rebuilding and upgrading both track and structures throughout its life. The original track was relaid, and relaid again as the locomotives and railcars got heavier and heavier. And in the early and mid 1880's, many of the stations along the line were rebuilt.

The Heyday Years

For many years the Housatonic operated as a very successful railroad. It offered some of the best passenger accommodations in New England, and in fact late in its life was host, at least partway, to two of the most famous passenger trains in history: The White Train, and the Long Island and Eastern States Line. Both these trains used the Housatonics' railcar ferry in the early 1890s to get to Wilson's Point in Danbury, CT from New York City or Oyster Bay, Long Island, respectively. (The Housatonic leased the smaller Danbury & Norwalk RR in 1885, inheriting it's Wilson's Point Ferry slips.) The White Train continued up to Boston on the New York & New Haven (Eventually to become the giant New York, New Haven & Hartford), and the LI&ESL ran up Housatonic tracks to Hawleyville, where it switched over to the tracks of the New York & New England. But that's another story...

Major freight commodities on the Housatonic in this period were lime & limestone, marble, iron railcar wheels, coal, tobacco and tools, as well as many agricultural products. And it carried another very important product -- milk. In fact, the Housatonic was the very first railroad in American history to run a scheduled milk train. These milk trains must have seemed slow as they moved from town to town, picking up hundreds of milk cans, but milk was a valuable and perishable item. Once they had made all their pickups they were among the fastest on the railroad and were expedited all the way to New York City. Creameries and milk platforms were scattered all along the Housatonic line.

Another lucrative commodity the railroad moved was ice, cut from ponds and streams fed by the railroads' namesake river in winter. Like creameries, ice warehouses were a common sight, and fed both the milk business and local customer's ice boxes. This industry, all but gone by the 1920's, was in it's prime with the milk business and the Housatonic Railroad.

The Bell Tolls

By the time of the 1890's the Housatonic was a strong and competitive railroad, but in financial trouble. The original decision to build north instead of west now had returned to plague them -- The New York, New Haven and Hartford RR (New Haven) had been chartered many years later to build the overland line to NYC, and prospered from it as advances in locomotive and engineering technology came about. By the time the Housatonic and others realized that New York City was the key to rail success in New England, it was too late. The New Haven had a stranglehold on the New York market and would soon use it to destroy or devour the competition, leaving them as the sole primary carrier east out of New York.

On the Housatonic as the gay nineties began, a recent round of upgrades to the trackage and stations, combined with a poor economy, had placed management in the red. To make matters worse, the partnership with the New York & New England, their larger but poor and desperate corporate sister, and the Long Island Railroad (in partnership via the aforementioned LI&ESL) was costing them a fortune. The railcar ferry's days were numbered, and every day the New Haven was taking business away via their faster connections through NYC.

In 1892, the Housatonic was a serious competitor to the NY & NH, hard to believe in today's time. But without a rail connection to New York City management knew the tide would turn eventually. In July of 1892, While still a viable and strong entity, the Housatonic Railroad was leased to the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad. This was a startling development at the time, since the Housatonic was considered on of the New Haven's strongest competitors. Shortly following this came a period many call the "consolidation" period, as the New Haven swept through Connecticut and bought or leased nearly all of their competition. By 1900, The New Haven was almost the only game in town.

The Ghost in the Machine

After the 1892 lease, the Housatonic became the Berkshire Division of the New Haven. It has the distinction of having lasted almost unchanged throughout it's tenure with that railroad and though a short litany of other owners: The Boston & Maine, Guilford and Conrail all owned parts of the Housatonic right-of-way at one time or another. We are fortunate today that unlike many other lines, the tracks were never torn up. Today, the line from Danbury, CT to Pittsfield, MA is run by a new, independent short line railroad -- the Housatonic. It took a little under 100 years, but the Berkshire Hills Route is once again run by the railroad of it's creation.

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