When the last passenger train came up the valley on old, worn-out tracks, there was at least one man who had the foresight to record it. His name was Tom Barry, a train enthusiast and writer who lived in Warren and created a half hour documentary with his editing partner John Mullen. It was released in 1976 and captured more than just a sense of loss. The film explained the decline in public transit in the context of a growing car culture and the construction of highways that helped its demise along.
–New Haven Railroad Historical and Technical Association, Inc.
The days when eras end are rarely celebrated with fanfare. So when West Cornwall saw its last passenger train leave town in the spring of 1971 it wasn’t a big event. It was akin to the last, slow, tired ticks of a clock that nobody cared to wind up anymore.
Three years earlier, the line’s traditional Berkshire name had been dropped, after Penn Central, a large conglomerate, took over. With it the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad vanished for good. Only the old engine markings were kept.
But some people didn’t really want to let go of a story that had started in 1840 along the Housatonic River, on tracks first laid down from Bridgeport to New Milford and expanded two years later connecting Cornwall to the world. At least they did not want to forget about one of the oldest train systems in the United States, one that had been at the cutting edge of transportation technology in the middle of the 19th century and had helped power a vital part of early American economic growth by transporting people, agricultural products, and other commodities between urban centers, while at the same time opening rural New England up to an eclectic mix of summer folks from the New York City metropolis.
And so in the early 1970s, two huge model railroad projects celebrating the past started totally independently from each other Cornwall had left an interesting mark in that past, as the only town between Pittsfield and Stamford with two stops: West Cornwall and Cornwall Bridge.
One project was the brainchild of Craig Bisgeier of New Jersey, who converted a space in his basement to model the Housatonic Railroad in the historic time frame of 1892. His interest began “almost accidentally,” he admits, after his time as a student at the University of Bridgeport. It was then he lost interest in 1950s railroading: an era when diesel engines replaced steam driven locomotives. He has now built out the equivalent of seven miles of real-life track miniaturized into a rectangular layout of 22 by 38 feet in the popular HO scale that brings everything down in size by a ratio of 1:87.
Courtesy of Craig Bisgeier
Bisgeier has been on many photo safaris up and down the river. But early on he decided to focus on a stretch of tracks between New Milford and South Norwalk. And so he didn’t build a replica of the Covered Bridge—although, he says, it would make for a great addition to his collection of buildings.
Courtesy of Craig Bisgeier
No one has ever convincingly explained what makes grown-ups obsess about model railroads, a pastime “that has besotted the likes of Neil Young and Tom Hanks” and other celebrities just as much as the common folk, according to a long article in the Wall Street Journal last year. An enthusiasm that sometimes can seem a little over the top. Take rock singer Rod Stewart, who, according to the paper, did more than just creating a model railroad dreamscape at his house: when on tour, he rented extra hotel rooms to be used as workshop areas where he used the time between concerts to put together models for his layouts.
When creating their playgrounds, most of these model railroad fans seem to be fixated on the replica quality of locomotives and cars, while at the same time binging on disneyesque build-outs in their settings.
Being historically accurate with the landscape is a challenge, says Jeff Dean, President of the Housatonic Model Railway Club, whose members began to construct their own miniature world right after the real thing had shut down. He and his friends try to emulate the railroad ambiance of 1952.
A recent visit to their basement in a corporate building on US 1 in Fairfield hinted at the amount of care that goes into recreating the details of a historic train service. The re-creation comes with certain limits. As Dean pointed out in a Chronicle video interview: “You need a specific year to model everything convincingly. If you stuck a 1960 Chevy in there it just wouldn’t look right.”
But there is more. “To model the different towns would require an awful lot of work. We have a fabulous kit of the Canaan station, for example. But we don’t have the exact models of the passenger stations yet.” He sounded optimistic, though: “They’ll be coming.”
To mark these goals, members have glued labels onto their layout in areas which are supposed to be given a town-typical character. Cornwall Bridge didn’t make the list. West Cornwall, however, will be a point of interest. Dean’s promise is that the club will be historically as accurate as possible. Who knows, one day, all these model train aficionados may create a museum quality reproduction of the past.
To learn more about the Housatonic model railroad enthusiasts:
Craig Bisgeier has a website with an archive of a massive amount of notes about the modeling, construction and operation of his railroad, plus maps of his layout and a brief history of the Housatonic Railroad, which became “the very first railroad in American history to run a scheduled milk train… picking up hundreds of milk cans…and expedited all the way to New York City. Creameries and milk platforms were scattered all along the Housatonic line”.
The Housatonic Model Railway Club in Fairfield, founded in 1972 as a not-for-profit corporation, meets at least once a week and welcomes interested enthusiasts, including non-members and one-time visitors They have a Facebook page as well.