At first, construction of the Bethel branch line north of the depot appeared to be going smoothly. Creating a railroad bed across a swamp by filling and grading soil was relatively routine. Building a forty-foot wooden bridge to span Wooster Street was also a straightforward task. However, on reaching the north side of Main Street, a formidable challenge appeared; an outcrop of solid rock.
To make matters worse, perched atop this rocky eminence was a house directly in the path of the railroad right of way. This dwelling would have to be raised off its foundation and moved elsewhere. The rock around it would have to be blasted time and time again until a level space could be created that was just wide enough for a steam locomotive and its cars to squeeze through. Worse still, the work would require using explosives perilously close to numerous inhabited homes.
PART TWO in the current series on building the Danbury & Norwalk Railroad’s Bethel branch line provides repeated examples of the indomitable human spirit and its ability to overcome almost any obstacle. To amazed residents, the focused determination of the railroad’s builders may have brought to mind the biblical prophecy: “Every valley shall be raised, and every mountain and hill brought low; The crooked places made straight and the rough places smooth.” (Isaiah 40:4)
1934 CT AERIAL IMAGE - The arching sweep of the abandoned Bethel branch line is visible in this 1934 aerial photograph. Most of the swampy three-acre piece, purchased from Zadoc F. Judd in 1871 for the railroad right of way, now makes up the grounds of the Clifford J. Hurgin Municipal Center. Greenwood Avenue and the triangular shape of P.T. Barnum Square are shown in the lower part of the photograph. On May 1, 1872, the Danbury News would comment on this portion of the line. “Mr. Collier, the track-master of the Danbury & Norwalk railroad has laid rails from the depot to the centre, making a handsome piece of work on the curve, and will superintend the balance of the laying. When he has got through with the job there will be no freight cars jumping off the track.” https://cslib.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p4005coll10/id/6404
On November 22, 1871, the Bethel correspondent for the Danbury News reported:
“We are having railroad for three meals a day. The Shepaug railroad has done what we anticipated but a little quicker than was expected, viz raises property beyond the highest expectation of even the owners, where the shadow of the railroad will fall. The committee find some rather hard work but as they will do their best to do justice to all, we think they will get through with all their hair.”
“The committee” was the panel representing the Danbury & Norwalk Railroad given the task of determining fair market value for the properties transferred to railroad ownership. In some cases, when parties involved could not reach an agreement, the Danbury Superior Court was called upon to render a judgment.
Abigail Taylor Seelye (1796-1871) was the first Bethelite to sell land to the Danbury & Norwalk Railroad for use by the Bethel branch line. She was the widow of former First Selectman Seth Seelye and lived in a house that is today the oldest portion of the Bethel Public Library. The transfer deed described the property sold as “one and one-half acres of Land, more or less.” Library Place and School Street now intersect in this same location. The sale took place on November 14, 1871. Abigail Taylor Seelye, age 75, died two days later.(Courtesy of the Bethel Historical Society) ___________________________________________________________________________
“Railroad fever” was rising in Bethel, and those that looked forward to the new line could barely think of anything else. One prankster decided to exploit this situation for a good laugh. Before a single rail had been put in place, he slyly got the best of his fellow passengers aboard a train on the Danbury-Norwalk line.
Danbury News - November 29, 1871
“As the train reached Bethel Tuesday eve the passengers were startled by the announcement, ‘Passengers for Wildcat will here take the cars on the Shepaug road.’ As the information was discovered to be unofficial, the travelers settled back in their seats and smiled pleasantly upon each other.”
(Wildcat was the name of the Bethel school district bordering Newtown, located south of Plumtrees and north of Wolf Pits.)
Some in Bethel seemed to gain great excitement from merely watching the preparations for the new line.
“Already the fencemen are to work on the Bethel continuation of the Shepaug road. This delights Bethel people - anything about a fence.”
As the Danbury & Norwalk Railroad Company began to negotiate financial settlements with property owners, many people, including the Bethel correspondent, seemed simply giddy in speculating about how much money each affected resident might receive in compensation.
“Mr. Z.F. Judd will no doubt get quite a large amount as it cuts off all his front. We hope the company will continue as they have commenced.”
Zadoc Fairchild Judd (1813-1881) at 32 Main Street lost his entire front lawn, which had formerly sloped gradually down to Main Street. After the necessary excavation, his house almost appeared to stand atop stilts. It was only a short time before Judd sold his old home and used his settlement money to build a new house elsewhere.
The Zadoc F. Judd House at 32 Main Street initially had a front lawn that declined toward the roadway. The Danbury & Norwalk Railroad purchased the lower portion of Judd’s property and cut through it for the Bethel branch line’s right of way. A stone retaining wall built by the railroad is at the bottom of the photograph.
The News also noted:
“The company have paid very liberal prices for the right of way, although some who live in hearing distance have not been paid yet. Mr. Stevens on Wooster Street should receive some reward, though I understand nothing has been paid to him.”
Hiram Jesse Stevens (1832-1908) lived at 11 Wooster Street. His house, which still stands, was situated a short distance north of where the new railroad bridge crossed over his street. The property required by the railroad was judged to be owned by his neighbors to the south, Charles H. Shepard (1817-1895), and his wife, Fannie Shepard (1818-1899), at 4 Main Street. They received compensation. Stevens never did.
Bethel land records indicate that fifty-eight pieces of property were obtained for the railroad right of way during 1871 and 1872, with additional parcels being purchased at later points. The $6,000 the town of Bethel promised to repay the property owners fell short of the $8,200 spent by June 1872. The Danbury & Norwalk Company likely had to absorb the overage.
However, the town itself received financial compensation for roads altered by the right of way or given over to railroad crossings. The Bethel correspondent for the Danbury News expressed regret about being left out.
Danbury News - February 28, 1872
“The company continues to pay liberally for the right of way and Bethel will get about twenty-five thousand dollars, and we are almost mad to think it didn’t smash right through our chicken coop.”
The News also noted the changes wrought by the railroad in the area close to the Congregational Church.
Danbury News - April 10, 1872
“The railroad has let light into Main street from the east by moving off Ransom Seeley’s old store, and cutting through the bank. Their work so far has been mixed with benefits and damages. Mr. Seeley is nicely fixed in the store over the way, and is ready as usual for customers.”
The Bethel correspondent for the News sometimes disagreed with the decisions made by the committee awarding damages to property owners and was not reluctant to express his opinion.
Danbury News - April 17, 1872
“... a property worth and costing $15,000, received $1,230.00, while E.L. Hickok received, for damages on property costing about three thousand dollars, $600, and nine men out of ten in this town will make oath that E.L. Hickok’s place is benefitted by the railroad, and is not damaged one dollar.”
The property “worth and costing $15,000 '' was Bethel’s Congregational Church, which lost property due to Main Street’s reconfiguration. The damage payment was enough to pay off a sizable portion of debt leftover from the church’s construction four years previous. E.L. Hickok was Ebenezer Lauren Hickok (1827-1872), whose building was on the south side of Prospect Street’s northern end. The railroad line ran directly north of it. Hickok died on October 4, 1872, three months after the branch line opened.
Calm Before the Storm - This portion of the F.W. Beers’ Atlas of Fairfield County, Connecticut, 1867, shows the center of Bethel as it appeared four years before work on the Bethel branch line began. Many individuals featured in news articles about the line’s construction have their homes clearly labeled. (Patrick T. Wild Photo)
Most property owners receiving damages from the Danbury & Norwalk Railroad seemed quite satisfied with their financial awards. Those doing the back-breaking pick and shovel work needed to build a path for the iron horse were less pleased with their compensation. The News in the following short pieces told of their discontent.
Danbury News - November 29, 1871
“The Rail-roaders learning they were in a hatting community commenced in the regular way on Thursday. First the contractor cut down the wages, and the men went on a stand out. I believe the road remains fair.” (Fair, in this instance, is meant as impartial. The Thursday mentioned would have been November 23, 1871.)
This work stoppage was of brief duration as the News published three separate snippets about the strike in the same weekly edition.
“The laborers on the Shepaug road who held out for an increase of wages have returned to work.”
“We understand that the laborers on the Shepaug road Thursday struck for an advance of wages, from a $1.50 to a $1.75 a day.” (“Advance” in this instance represents a raise. $1.75 in 1871 would be the equivalent of $43.90 today.)
At first, it appeared that this agreement was short-lived.
Danbury News - December 27, 1871
“We understand that the laborers on the Shepaug road are on another strike.”
This report later turned out to be false.
Danbury News - January 10, 1872
“The report that a strike had taken place on the Railroad proves to be some men working for White & Bates, striking on their drills.”
Later in the spring, a new genuine dispute arose. Irish immigrants made up a sizable percentage of the railroad workforce, and these articles reflect the xenophobia of the time.
Danbury News - March 22, 1872
“Last Saturday, the workmen on the Shepaug, struck for wages.”
“On Monday, St. Patrick and a wee drop of whiskey, struck some of them, causing two of them to strike another, with pokers, fists, etc., which caused Officer Judd and Gilbert to strike them, resulting in a ten strike of dollars, and a hearing before Justice Hubbell on Tuesday.”
This same anti-Irish prejudice appeared in an earlier news item that described the workers’ housing arranged by the general contractor, George W. Cram.
Danbury News - December 13, 1871
“Mr. Cram has hired one of N. Seeley’s hat shops for a boarding house, and instead of hatting we expect Dublin there this winter.”
“N. Seeley” was Nathan Seeley (1812-1902), whose hat shops once stood at the corner of Main Street and P.T. Barnum Square, where the Phineas Park Apartments now stand.
After Seeley had converted the old hat shop into living quarters for the workers, the News once more made it clear that many of the workers were not native-born.
Danbury News - January 10, 1872
“The Shepaug House, formerly N. Seeley’s hat shop, is being fitted up for boarders from abroad. (across the sea.).”
The not-so-subtle tone of these news items suggests that although the “sons of Erin” provided the grueling physical labor required to make the new line a reality, many of the town’s residents of Yankee Puritan stock hoped that these laborers would move on once their work was done.
The Wooster Street Bridge
With the commencement of work in November 1871, overnight, the people of Bethel saw the sleepy routine of their little town turned upside-down by the sudden appearance of building activity that seemed to be everywhere at once.
Danbury News - November 29, 1871
“The contractors on the new road have erected a steam engine on Wooster Street for hoisting stone for the large bridge which is to have a forty feet span. A large derrick has been put up at the depot. On almost every hill are seen a number of men with teams.”
Danbury News - January 24, 1872
“The first bridge on the Shepaug extension was put up over the Great Pasture road in Bethel yesterday.”
Once again, the conscientious work of the Danbury News provides us with the exact date for an important milestone, indicating that the railroad bridge over Wooster Street was completed on Tuesday, January 23, 1872. The Danbury reporter used the name “Great Pasture road” to describe Wooster Street, which changes its name to Great Pasture Road after it crosses the Danbury town line. The bridge’s western end was located where an exit driveway for the Clifford J. Hurgin Municipal Center meets Wooster Street today.
In another column of the same edition, the News simply commented:
“All things work well on the Shepaug.”
Wooster Street Bridge - 1921 - This 1921 postcard shows the Wooster Street railroad bridge, first put in place on January 23, 1872. The original wooden bridge was replaced by an iron one on May 18, 1890. The date of this image demonstrates that the bridge remained in place long after the Bethel branch ceased operation. 4 Main Street is on the right. (Courtesy of the Bethel Historical Society)
“Whittlesey & Redfield”
Work began just days after the Danbury & Norwalk Railroad had obtained legal ownership of the railroad right of way. From then on, the name of one partnership started appearing in the Danbury News pages: “Whittlesey & Redfield.”
Danbury News - November 29, 1871
“Whittlesey & Redfield, of Danbury, have taken a contract to build the mason work on four miles of the Shepaug road between Bethel and Hawleyville.”
Danbury News - January 31, 1872
“The cold weather has proved almost too much for the R.R. builders but work will soon be going on as usual. Messrs. Whittlesey & Redfield have completed the bridge over Wooster street, and the manner in which they have done this work and the short time taken to complete it proves them masters of their business, and we are glad they had the job. They are building two more bridges on the road.”
The contractors named “Whittlesey & Redfield” who were awarded the masonry work for most of the Bethel extension by general contractor George W. Cram were Ebenezer Russell Whittlesey (1815-1892) and George A. Redfield (1822-1876). The firm was officially known as “Redfield & Whittlesey” rather than the reverse presented by the News. The partnership later built much of Saint James’ Episcopal Church at 25 West Street in Danbury, also in 1872, and took part in constructing the Fourth Avenue (Park Avenue) tunnel at 33rd Street in New York City from 1873 to 1875. General contractor George W. Cram awarded the firm the task of building bridges to cross Wooster Street, Milwaukee Avenue, and another in the Plumtrees district.
The third span would prove to be their most impressive and enduring work; a stone arch bridge over what at various times has been known as Beaver Brook, Crow’s Nest Brook, East Swamp Brook, and Lime Kiln Brook. (Beaver Brook may represent one of the earliest appellations, and Bethel’s Beaver Brook Bridge presents a marvelous example of alliteration.) The bridges on Wooster Street and Milwaukee Avenue were initially made of timber supported by stone abutments, whereas the largest one across Beaver Brook was composed entirely of granite stone. Its basic design incorporated ancient architectural concepts and was widely used in Connecticut between 1869 and the very end of the 19th century. A recent article by Michael S. Raber entitled Connecticut’s Arched & Rusticated Bridges explains the fundamentals regarding this particular type of bridge. “Arch construction is based on placement of wedge-shaped stones, or voussoirs, in a ring that compresses under vertical loads. These vertical loads must be countered by the abutments at each end of the bridge, among other structural components. The principal skills needed to build a stone-arch bridge - masons and materials - were usually available locally, and it was rare to see designs by professional engineers before the very late 19th century.”
Along with relying upon proven architectural methods, Redfield & Whittlesey utilized the latest construction technology of the time, a steam derrick. When completing Danbury’s St. James’ Episcopal Church, a short time later, a Danbury News item from June 12, 1872, observed that their steam derrick could easily draw up four tons of stone.
Of the two partners, Redfield had the most experience in masonry. Whittlesey may have represented the money and management side of the partnership, while Redfield appears to have been the hands-on supervisor on the job site.
This enlarged portion of a circa 1905 panoramic photograph of Bethel shows the Milwaukee Avenue bridge constructed by the firm of Whittlesey & Redfield in early 1872. The long fill required to level the roadbed is on the right. The white house farthest to the left is the still-existing Rev. John Ely House at 54 Milwaukee Avenue. (Courtesy of the Bethel Historical Society)
This 19th-century illustration depicts a steam derrick. Contractors Ebenezer Russell Whittlesey and George Redfield utilized similar machinery to aid in constructing three bridges on the Bethel branch line. https://fineartamerica.com/featured/steam-derrick-for-raising-stone-mary-evans-picture-library.html
Ebenezer Russell Whittlesey was born to an old Danbury family on January 30, 1815. In his youth, he worked as an apprentice to a jeweler in New York City for nearly ten years and later was engaged in market gardening and the milk business on Long Island. Whittlesey returned to Danbury before 1865 and served as warden of the borough of Danbury for several terms. He owned extensive property on the east side of lower Main Street that extended to Town Hill Avenue. Census records most often listed his occupation as a farmer. He was, however, engaged in masonry construction for a brief time, retiring in the early 1870s, shortly after the completion of work on the Bethel branch and St. James’ Church. He died at age 77 on October 6, 1892, and is buried in Danbury’s Wooster Cemetery. His obituary in the Danbury News stated: “Mr. Whittlesey was a man of integrity and sound judgment, and to his untiring efforts, Danbury owes much of its early advancement.”
Ironically, the stone arch bridge in the Plumtrees district is located next to Whittlesey Drive. However, the road derives its name from John C. and Lillian Whittlesey, who once owned a large dairy farm that accompanied their home at 2 Judd Avenue. The couple was responsible for selling most of the land that currently makes up the Bethel Educational Park to the town of Bethel in the 1960s and 1970s.
Ebenezer Russell Whittlesey (shown above) and his business partner George A. Redfield were awarded most of the masonry work on the Bethel extension, including bridges on Wooster Street, Milwaukee Avenue, and the stone arch bridge across Beaver Brook. Their crews completed the work during the harsh winter of late 1871 and early 1872. (Ancestry.com)
George A. Redfield was born in 1822 in Orange, CT, and remained in New Haven County until adulthood. The 1850 U.S. Census showed him living with his wife and one child in Huntington, now part of Shelton, CT, and working as a blacksmith. The 1860 and 1870 Census showed Redfield living in Danbury and working as a stonemason. Living next door in 1860 was George’s younger brother, Robert Redfield, also a stone mason. Eleven years his junior, Robert worked with his older brother early in his career. By 1880 Robert returned to Orange and established the highly successful quarry works known as Redfield & Sons in Fairfield. In 1886 this company supplied the ballast (crushed stone) for the New York & New Haven division of the Consolidated Railroad from New Haven to New York. George Redfield may have also returned to his native part of Connecticut following the dissolution of “Redfield & Whittlesey” after 1875. He died on August 23, 1876, at 54, and is buried in the Evergreen Cemetery in New Haven, where his brother Robert is also interred.
This deed, dated November 22, 1871, records the sale of land by Whipple Williams to the Danbury & Norwalk Railroad to provide for the stone bridge that crosses Beaver Brook. Williams lived nearby at 42 Plumtrees Road. (Bethel, CT Land Records - Book 6, Page 249 - Patrick T. Wild Photo)
This circa 1900 image shows the stone arch bridge that the firm of Redfield & Whittlesey constructed during the winter of 1871-72 for the Danbury & Norwalk Railroad’s Bethel branch line. The still-existing bridge stands near the intersection of Plumtrees Road and Whittlesey Drive. (Courtesy of the Bethel Historical Society)
“Messrs. White & Bates”
A second pair of individuals who played a critical role in constructing the Bethel branch line was identified by the Danbury News simply as “Messrs. White & Bates.” The two would supervise the difficult removal of the rock outcrop on Main Street. The only individuals living in the area that fit the required profile were Russell Gideon White (1835-1882) and William Oscar Bates (1850-1923). Both men lived on Danbury’s Long Ridge Road, a short distance from one another. White was Bates’ senior by almost fifteen years. In the 1870 U.S. Census, his occupation was listed as a stone mason. Bates was living nearby at the same time, working as a farmer. By the 1880 U.S. Census, both men were still living on Long Ridge Road, but now Bates (who usually dropped the “William” and went by “Oscar '') was also shown as a stone mason. And although only twenty-one at the start of the work on Main Street, Oscar would have been undoubtedly assisted by his older brother, Philo W. Bates. The senior sibling had a granite works and blacksmith shop in the Branchville section of Ridgefield as well as a monument business located at the Railroad Wharf in Norwalk. An 1871 Norwalk City Directory ad shows Philo W. Bates selling granite for “monumental, cemetery, and building purposes, in general.” The advertisement also stipulated, “Special attention paid to the manufacture of STEEL TOOLS, MASON’S AND OTHER BUILDERS’ TOOLS, BY AN EXPERIENCED WORKMAN.” This description presents a neat tie-in to an article about Philo W. Bates that appeared in the Danbury News in early March 1872 and established a connection to the work on the Bethel branch. In speaking of his granite works in Branchville, the paper noted: “He is also the owner of a blacksmith shop near by, where he employs two or three men to sharpen the tools used in quarrying stone for the Shepaug road in Bethel.” This information suggests that although the thirty-six-year-old Russell White would have been older and much more experienced with stonework than his younger associate Oscar Bates, Bates’ family connections would have been of great value.
The outcrop on the north side of Bethel’s Main Street appears to have been the only place along the six-mile line requiring the extensive use of explosives. It may also have been one of the only times the two masons had ever used explosives in a location other than a quarry. As this assignment was probably viewed as a relatively small one by general contractor George W. Cram, it may have been awarded to White & Bates more for their low bid estimate rather than their experience. The work they supervised seems to have been confined primarily to the south end of today’s Golden Hill Street and the area presently located behind 16 Main Street. (Golden Hill Street did not exist at the time and would not be created until 1881.)
What types of explosives did White & Bates use? The evidence indicates that the answer is black powder. It has only three ingredients: charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter, also called potassium nitrate.
How did it work? Here is an elementary explanation.
STEPS IN USING BLACK POWDER FOR BLASTING ROCK:
- Chisels were used to create a groove that ran in the same direction as the rock’s natural striations.
- Blasting holes were then made along the groove by pounding a rock drill possessing a chisel-like edge up and down in a hammering fashion. Explosive cartridges containing black powder were placed at the bottom of the drilled holes. The number of cartridges used would depend upon the thickness of the rock to be removed.
- A fuse was run from the top of the last placed cartridge to the hole’s exterior.
- The area above the cartridges within the hole was filled with clay.
- The clay was compacted using a wooden tamping stick.
- The fuse was lit, and the blast site was immediately evacuated.
Two vintage images show how black powder was used in blasting rock.
When White & Bates began their work in November 1871, initial news reports suggested that things were going well. However, later articles began to provide a distinctly different impression. To modern eyes, it might seem like the blasting was performed by Laurel & Hardy rather than White & Bates. The lack of safety precautions was alarming, and OSHA would have a field day if notified of such practices today. In retrospect, the humorous manner in which the work was reported is equally unsettling. In reading these accounts, it seems astonishing that no one was ever seriously injured or killed.
Danbury News - November 29, 1871
“Messrs. White and Bates have taken the cut through Mrs. Doctor Lyon’s place and it is getting unsafe when the wind blows to venture out the dirt flies so.”
“Mrs. Doctor Lyon” was Sophia B. Lyon (1827-1890), the widow of Dr. Ransom P. Lyon (1826-1863), who lived in a house now located at 16 Main Street.
Danbury News - December 20, 1871
“White & Bates are getting along finely with the rock cut on the railroad through the village. The contractors are working with a will, and everything goes on smoothly.”
Danbury News - January 10, 1872
“Messrs. White & Bates let off some heavy blasts last week which told well on the cut through the rock, but a little one on Monday morning told well on the houses. One stone weighing about one hundred and fifty pounds came down on Mr. W.H. Ferry’s house, passing through the roof and striking the top of the bed post, driving it through the floor and wall between. Another landed first on the top of D.T. Hubbell’s house on Centre St., and then on the ground in front. A little after, one of their men mashed his foot and was compelled to leave. Thus commences the week.”
“W.H. Ferry” was William Harrison Ferry (1813-1897), a hatter who lived at 23 Main Street. “D.T. Hubbell” was David T. Hubbell (1827-1888), a stove and tin dealer, who lived at 95 Greenwood Avenue, now the site of the St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church parish center. In 1871, the central portion of Greenwood Avenue was known as Center Street and was sometimes given the British spelling “Centre.”
“At the cut through the village on Friday, they threw a stone weighing about seventy-five pounds against F. Shepard’s house, breaking a number of sidings but not going through inside. The contractors are pushing things.”
“F. Shepard” was Frederick Shepard (1815-1894), a hatter who lived at 10 Main Street.
On one occasion, White & Bates were not directly responsible for causing a dangerous disturbance.
Danbury News - February 7, 1872
“Last Friday a blast which had been left by White & Bates in the cut in front of Capt. Seely’s on account of the lateness of the hour, was discovered by some person possessed of nothing but a gizzard in place of a heart, and fired off at about 8 o’ clock, without being covered up, which sent the stone flying all over the village, and everybody that had a home went for it in a hurry. Quite a number had narrow escapes. A second-hand heart will be furnished that chap if found out.”
(A gizzard is a thick-walled, muscular pouch in the lower stomach of a bird or reptile that grinds food, often with the aid of ingested stones.)
Danbury News - February 28, 1872
“The work on the railroad goes on finely. They have got so used to blasting in the village that they can hit a house every time without taking aim. Last week a whole broadside was fired at F. Shepard’s house. Only two rocks missed and one of them landed in the parlor of another house, and the other spent its time in knocking down a woodhouse which was in its way. The ties are being dropped along the road and the rails are beginning to arrive, which means business.”
Danbury News - March 20, 1872
“Last week, a stone from a blast in front of Capt. Seeley’s, took a notion to walk into the parlor, and not seeing the door, passed through the side of the house, making a door of its own. Small pieces of the chair it set down on can be found among the broken pieces of lath, wall, siding etc, for relics, if wanted, but the hole in the parlor floor, the family will probably have framed, and handed down. Two men handed out the rock.”
Captain Isaac H. Seelye (1793-1880) lived at 27 Main Street in a house that still exists. The short street from Main Street to Greenwood Avenue on the west side of his former home is named for him.
Based on these news accounts, one can infer that removing the outcrop on the north side of Main Street lasted from late November 1871 until at least late March 1872. Upon its completion, the entire population of downtown Bethel must have breathed a collective sigh of relief.
An advertisement for Philo Wood Bates’ granite business appeared in the 1871 Norwalk City Directory. Bates (1838-1901) provided mason’s tools for building the Bethel branch line.
MRS. LYON’S HOUSE IS IN THE WAY
Above the outcrop blasted away stood the former home of the “Widow Lyon.” The house would have to be moved. Sophia Blackman Lyon was the widow of Dr. Ransom Perry Lyon, a Civil War surgeon who had died at the Siege of Port Hudson, LA, in 1863. The 1870 U.S. Census showed her working as a dressmaker to help support herself and her eight-year-old son, Edward. On November 22, 1871, Sophia Lyon sold her home and one acre of land to the Danbury & Norwalk Railroad. The house had been built around 1790 and probably had a central chimney made of fieldstone. This chimney would have been removed stone by stone. News accounts provided no specifics regarding how workers accomplished the actual move, but the process most likely employed screw jacks, cribbing, and teams of horses. Workers slowly shifted and lowered the house to a new foundation on the property's western edge, approximately eighty feet from the original one.
Danbury News - April 17, 1872
“They are also moving Mrs. Lyon’s house on to a new cellar in front of W.H. Ferry’s. Nobody would have cared if it had went up higher than it is now, as it won’t add much to the looks of the street.”
(W.H. Ferry lived at 23 Main Street.)
This rather blunt appraisal of the house’s appearance suggests that Sophia Lyon had struggled to afford routine maintenance in the nine years following her husband’s death. The reporter implies that due to the building’s disreputable condition, it might have been better to place it farther up the hill behind it so it would be less visible from the street. After the move, the Danbury & Norwalk Railroad utilized the Widow Lyon’s former home as a tenement house for its railroad workers until 1881.
In 1872 this house, now at 16 Main Street, was moved approximately eighty feet west of its original setting to accommodate the Bethel branch line. The former home of Sophia B. Lyon (1828-1890) first stood at a spot now in the center of Golden Hill Street and was positioned approximately 20 feet higher in elevation. The rock cliff behind the house retains the excavation scars made by “White & Bates.” One of their broken drill bits is still lodged there. Golden Hill Street (on the right), the house’s addition, and its front veranda all date to 1881. (Patrick T. Wild Photo)
As work was moving forward at its most frenetic pace, a reporter from the Litchfield Enquirer recorded a brief but extraordinary eyewitness account of the branch line’s progress on Main Street.
Litchfield Enquirer - February 22, 1872
“On Monday, we took a drive to Bethel along the S.V. R. R. extension. The rapidity with which it has been pushed ahead astonished us. A large share of the heavy work is completed. The road bed enters Bethel at the head of one of the principal streets, knocking a store out of the way and running down the narrow street in front of the new Congregational church, and pushing two houses at the lower end out of its path, beside digging through rock some twenty feet in depth, right in the midst of folks. The land in Bethel is composed of small pieces of swamp, with great piles of sand and gravel dumped promiscuously about. Probably some giant moles in the geologic ages, being disgusted with so much water, threw up these sand hills for a breathing place.”
The “head of one of the principal streets” referred to the junction of Main Street, Chestnut Street, and Maple Avenue. The store being knocked out of the way was formerly attached to the north side of 2 Chestnut Street. The two houses being pushed out of the way at the lower end of its path were 16 Main Street which was moved, and 32 Main Street, which lost all of its property fronting Main Street. As we have seen, the Litchfield Enquirer reporter had reason to be amazed that workers were “digging through rock some twenty feet in depth right in the midst of folks.”
This postcard from 1911 shows the tracks of the Bethel branch line running along the north side of Main Street. The view looks west from a point in front of the Congregational Church. (Patrick T. Wild Collection)
This 1911 photograph shows the tracks of the Bethel branch line heading east. The former town hall, now the home of the Bethel Historical Society, and the Congregational Church appear on the left. 2 Chestnut Street is behind the utility pole. (Courtesy of the Bethel Historical Society)
This 1893 map of downtown Bethel produced by D.H. Hurd & Company of Boston, MA, shows the Shepaug, Litchfield & Northern Railroad operating on the Bethel branch that started from the original depot and ran in a northeasterly direction toward Hawleyville. As we shall see in upcoming articles, “The Old Shepaug” would exist under several names throughout its history.
(Patrick T. Wild Photo)
Epilogue to Part 2
Despite the remarkable rate of progress, the railroad still had its critics. One anonymous Bethel citizen who penned a series of letters to the editor for the Danbury News and signed them as “Tax-Payer” lamented the changes in the town’s traditional hub. On November 29, 1871, he had commented: “It may be all ‘radiant joy’ in the west part of the town that the old revolutionary centre is to be torn asunder, by the cars of progress...” He then harshly criticized the individuals who had assisted the funding of the line and their methods. The debate over the railroad’s advantages and disadvantages would continue for another four decades.
NEXT TIME - In PART THREE of the present series, we will explore how unexpected difficulties delay the line’s completion. The first locomotive appears. The railroad gangs of the Danbury & Norwalk Railroad and Shepaug Valley Railroad meet at the Bethel-Newtown border, and Bethel adjusts to life as a rail town.
The tremendous cooperation and assistance provided by the following groups and individuals are gratefully acknowledged.
The Bethel Historical Society and Patricia Rist, President
The Bethel Town Clerk’s Office and especially Town Clerk Lisa Bergh and Assistant Town Clerk Eileen Jelinski
The Staff of the Danbury Museum and Historical Society with a special thanks to Research Specialist Patrick Wells and Brigid Guertin, Executive Director and Danbury City Historian
Annual Reports of the Railroad Commissioners of the State of Connecticut
Cornwall, L. Peter (1987). In The Shore Line's Shadow, The Six Lives of the Danbury & Norwalk Railroad. Littleton, MA: Flying Yankee Enterprises.
Raber, Michael S. (2022) Connecticut’s Arched & Rusticated Bridges,
https://www.ctexplored.org/connecticuts-arched-rusticated-bridges/, Copyright 2021 Connecticut Explored
Turner, G. M., & Jacobus, M. W. (1986). Connecticut Railroads… An Illustrated History: One Hundred Fifty Years of Railroad History. Hartford, CT: Connecticut Historical Society
(NOTE: All spelling, punctuation, and grammar usage has been retained in quoting from original sources.)