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How east-west railroad changed Northwest Corner

SALISBURY — Dick Paddock likes to tell people that the bucolic scenery of the Northwest Corner is “a post-industrial landscape.”

The topography featured lots of hills and lots of water. Harnessed properly, water power was an effective, efficient and renewable power source.

Towns such as Salisbury, Norfolk, and North Canaan were home to the iron industry, mills, and lime kilns.

But the hills and valleys made transportation of goods and people difficult. Especially to the east.

And that’s where the east-west railroad came in.

Paddock, a historian and author, spoke about the Central New England (it had several other names) railroad that operated from 1871 to 1927, when passenger service ended, at the Salisbury Congregational Church Saturday, June 25. The talk was sponsored by the Salisbury Associaton Historical Society.

After the Civil War, there were seven railroads running north-south routes through Connecticut, including the Housatonic Railroad from Bridgeport to Pittsfield.

The east-west railroad was the brainchild of Edward T. Butler of Norfolk, who wanted to connect with the north-south railroads with the Northwest Corner’s industries and people.

Service began on Dec. 21, 1871, between Salisbury to the west and Hartford to the east.

The service was a hit, and changed the lives of the people who lived in the remote Northwest Corner.

There were a lot of stations. Some of them were proper stations with clerks and waiting rooms. Some were little more than tool sheds. Salisbury alone had seven stations: State Line, Ore Hill, Lakeville, Salisbury, Taconic, Twin Lakes, and Washining.

There was a big dairy operation next to the Taconic station, and the milk and other products had to be loaded and shipped every day, including Sunday.

This annoyed local clergy, who wrote stern letters to the newspapers and started petitions, all in vain.

Paddock cited an example of the railroad’s popularity. In August of 1872, a day trip to Hartford, spending the day on the Connecticut River, started off in Salisbury with a handful of people and steadily added passengers and cars,   arriveding in Hartford with 1000 passengers on a dozen cars.

“You couldn’t do any of that in 1871.”

The railroad brought vacationers to toney enclaves such as Twin Lakes. It also brought tramps, who were a rough bunch. They were also often skilled workers, and local industries hired the transients on for however long they’d stay.

Criminals took advantage of the east-west railroad too. Paddock told a story about a gent who robbed a clothing store in North Canaan, and hopped on an eastbound train to make his escape.

The thief didn’t reckon on the telegraph system that accompanied railroads. The word went over the wires and the miscreant was lugged a town or two away.

Paddock also told of a newspaper story about a North Canaan woman whose abusive husband reported her missing. The farmhand was also AWOL.

On another page in the same edition of the newspaper, there was a list of recent marriages in Millerton. And there were the missing couple, now bigamists. (The wonderfully-named Rev. T. Darlington Jester officiated.)

Paddock said the east-west railroad was always in rocky financial shape, and was reformed and renamed several times.

Railroad expansion had also taken place in Dutchess County, New York. A flat bridge across the Hudson at Poughkeepsie meant shipments of goods such as coal from Pennsylvania could now bypass Butler’s routes and go straight to Hartford or New Haven and on to points north or south.

And while initially the east-west railroad offered a much faster and more comfortable trip from the Northwest Corner east (compared to walking or riding a horse along rough roads), the advent of the automobile, and subsequent demand for better roads for shipping and personal use, spelled the end of the Central New England railroad.

But the railroad left its mark. It opened up the Northwest Corner to the rest of the state, and the world. It made significant industrial development possible.

And the next time you go to the Grove in Lakeville, remember you are driving through what used to be the railroad’s freight yard.

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