The tracks are still there. And they are used (by freight trains that come through several times a day) under the Housatonic Railroad banner as a reminder of things past. One particular event from 1971 was the inspiration of a story Dan Hubbard wrote for the August edition of the Chronicle. Which inspired another member of the editorial team to look into how the old line survived in the minds and hearts of a different group of people: model railroad aficionados. That web exclusive story will be published next.

Our very own railroad week will be topped off with another web exclusive about the state of the ambition of people in our area to bring passenger service back.

The schedule of the last trains which maintained regular passenger service along the Housatonic River. To be honest, it wasn’t all that much of a service anymore. The daily transportation between Danbury and Pittsfield during the week were provided by busses. The trains only ran on weekends.

The End of a Line

One Friday evening 50 years ago, the doors of a train swung open at the West Cornwall rail station. A group of passengers climbed down onto the platform after a three-hour journey from Grand Central Terminal in New York City. The group couldn’t have known it, but their ride up the Housatonic Valley that night was to be the last of its kind. It was the end of passenger rail service to Cornwall and other towns along the Pittsfield line of the New Haven Railroad.

Practical reasons existed for train travel in the post-World War II period. “Most people didn’t own a car in New York City. The train was the only way to go.” So recalls Anne Hubbard, who remembers taking the train to Cornwall in 1957 to meet her fiancé Tom Hubbard’s family for the first time.

Most riders during this period worked in New York all week and came up on Friday nights. The late Spencer Klaw recalled in a 1998 issue of the Chronicle “the great hissing and clanking” steam locomotive that pulled him, Tom Bevans, and other Cornwall commuters up the line. Hector Prud’homme remembers “dirty, ratty” passenger cars that were “very slow,” but more fondly recalls that a beer was usually available on board and that a somewhat regular group of Cornwall friends would find each other and gather for conversation. The beer must have tasted nice after a week in the hot city in the middle of summer.

Jack Swanberg of Guilford, Conn., worked as an engineer on the Pittsfield line in the early ‘60s and confirms that “bar and dining service was available on the Friday and Sunday trains until the end of 1960. A special parlor car occasionally ran as well. For a couple of dollars, you could ride in it and have mixed drinks brought to your seat.”

–Roger Puta/Public Domain

The train’s arrival was no doubt an anticipated event, as riders reunited with family and friends. Liz Van Doren remembers the scene at the West Cornwall station. “We would beg my mother for pennies to put on the tracks while we ran around waiting for the train to arrive. The anticipation of seeing my father and getting one of his big hugs was equaled by excitement about getting the flattened penny and showing it to him after the train left the station.”

The train also served as a means of escape, recalls Cornwall’s Jonathan Landman. “I was a teenager and could take the train by myself. It gave me the freedom to indulge the usual teenage scorn for family activities on weekends when city activities beckoned. My parents were giving me psychological breathing room without too much fretting about the perils. The train helped make that possible.”

Despite the advantages of rail travel, ridership slowly tapered off during the ‘60s. Pittsfield line service was cut back to the point where riders from New York had to complete the trip north of Danbury on a single carriage known as a Budd car. The final scheduled passenger train rolled through Cornwall on April 30, 1971.

When locomotives got their water supply at the West Cornwall railroad station.
–Cornwall Historical Society

By that time, the first segment of Interstate 684 had been completed in Westchester County, complementing the existing network of parkways. Car travel was now the standard. Rail activity on the Connecticut section of the Pittsfield line essentially ceased until the newly reorganized Housatonic Railroad began operations. For several years in the mid-1980s, it ran passenger excursion trains before committing to freight-only operations in 1989.

Today, Housatonic diesel locomotives can be heard rumbling up the valley, pulling cars that carry a variety of industrial-use products. The railroad, public officials, and private citizens alike have called for a revival of passenger service. Such a venture would likely require an upgrade of existing track lines, extensive operating agreements, and significant public funding. Stay tuned.

—Dan Hubbard