As work on the Bethel Branch railroad line continued through the winter of 1871-1872, the section gang led by Danbury & Norwalk Railroad roadmaster Samuel D. Collier progressed from the Center district to the Plumtrees district and finally to the Stony Hill district. Meanwhile, another group of section hands led by Charles S. Lane, roadmaster for the Shepaug Valley Railroad, made their way from the Hawleyville depot to the Bethel-Newtown border. The line was to be completed by May 1, 1872. That date had to be pushed back to June 1. Later, the completion date was set back again to July 1. Weather conditions, a shortage of workers, and the late arrival of iron rails dramatically slowed progress. Despite these complications, the driving forces behind the project were bound and determined to finish what they had started.
The Winter Weather
In the 1870s, weather forecasting, for the most part, was left to the unconventional prognostications of The Old Farmer’s Almanac, and detailed weather records were rarely maintained. However, from what can be gleaned from scant press reports, it seems that railroad workers were up against some harsh conditions between late November 1871 and June 1872. The following examples provide supporting evidence.
Norwalk Gazette - December 5, 1871
“Jack Frost put his seal on the ponds last week, and the boys and girls have been enjoying the skating for several days.”
This excerpt demonstrates that temperatures had already dipped to below-freezing levels before the first week of December.
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.”
Danbury News - February 14, 1872
“A violent snow storm visited Danbury on Monday. The heavy wind prevailing drove it corkscrewedly as it fell, making pedestrianism unpleasant if not unsafe.”
(This storm occurred on Monday, February 12, 1872.)
Though Litchfield is considerably north of Bethel, these two bone-chilling accounts from that town may describe conditions close to what local rail builders faced.
Litchfield Enquirer - March 7, 1872
“The terrible cold weather of the past few days exceeds anything hitherto experienced. The thermometer on Tuesday morning was twelve degrees below zero on the Hill and lower in the valley. A high wind has been blowing at the same time, a very unusual thing in extremely cold weather.”
Litchfield Enquirer - March 14, 1872
“The weather of the last two weeks makes everyone look and feel ‘blue.’ At least ten feet of ice has formed on the Lake, and the frost about the county has gone down into the earth about four feet.”
Danbury News - March 20, 1872
A news item from this date mentions, “That awful cold snap of a few days ago … .”
Danbury News - April 3, 1872
“A fall of snow came Saturday night. It was succeeded Sunday by a fall of rain which froze as it stuck. Monday morning, every limb, twig, spear of grass, and stalk of weed, all the houses, chimneys, fence posts, sheds, and everything coverable, were encased in ice.”
(The storm began on Saturday, March 30, 1872.)
Records of snowfall totals kept for New York City’s Central Park, which traditionally reflect smaller amounts than those found in Bethel, Connecticut, show the following accumulations for November 1871 through March 1872 during the branch line’s construction.
Snowfall Accumulation in Central Park, New York City - Total Inches Received
November - 0.3 January - 1.8
December - 3.9 February - 3.0
March - 5.1
While these totals are moderate compared to other winters the northeast has experienced, the combination of snow and low temperatures would have made it extremely difficult to excavate and move frozen earth using only picks and hand shovels.
Even after the weather warmed, problems persisted.
Danbury News - June 12, 1872
“A severe wind and rain storm passed over the country Wednesday night.”
Danbury News - June 19, 1872
“Despite the late frequent and severe rains, the roads are very dusty.”
Based on these accounts, one can draw two conclusions. Firstly, building a railroad in New England almost entirely by hand during the winter may not be a good idea. Secondly, to describe the individuals who accomplished this task as “rugged” would be a gross understatement.
A Double Dilemma - A Shortage of Rail Workers and Rails
In November 1871, George W. Cram, the general contractor for the Bethel Branch, advertised the need for railroad laborers. At first, there was a strong response, and the crews were well-manned. As the winter wore on, many workers left to find more permanent positions. They knew all too well that the Danbury-Norwalk Railroad Company would terminate their employment once the six-mile branch was completed. This situation was alluded to in a news piece published as the project was nearing completion.
Danbury News - June 12, 1872
“The main difficulty experienced in this work is the lack of help. The extent of the job did not permit the importation of a regular gang of men, and the company has been obliged to depend almost entirely on home resources.”
Along with being temporary, the work could often prove dangerous, as the following two accounts demonstrate.
Danbury News - December 13, 1871
“Two workmen on the Shepaug railroad were recently buried by the caving in of a bank. They were rescued.”
Danbury News - January 10, 1872
“A man at work on the railroad near Stony Hill, bled to death last week from an old wound on his leg, received some ten years ago.”
Rails from Wales
Railroad ties, hewn from oak and chestnut, essential in creating a solid base for laying rails, were delivered early in the line’s construction. These ties often came from local timber and were produced by area farmers under railroad contracts.
Danbury News - January 3, 1872
“Numerous loads of railroad ties are moving through town on their way to the Shepaug road.”
Despite frequent press reports stating that the work was moving forward rapidly, some Shepaug Valley Railroad Company stockholders sought official reassurance. Speaking for the company, George M. Woodruff (1836-1930) tried to soothe the nervous investors at a stockholders’ meeting on Friday, February 23, 1872.
The Litchfield Enquirer - February 29, 1872
“G.M. Woodruff, Esq., Secretary of the Company, then stated … The Bethel extension would be finished, it was expected, by the first of June. Nearly all the heavy work and masonry was already completed, and the contractors were to be through, by the terms of the agreement, by the middle of April.”
Subsequent events would prove this projection overly optimistic, but work was moving forward for the present.
Norwalk Gazette - March 5, 1872
“BETHEL - The work on the Shepaug railroad extension is progressing rapidly. The ties and rails are beginning to arrive.”
Danbury News - April 10, 1872
“The workmen on the Shepaug have commenced laying ties and rail.”
It is safe to say that readers closely following the branch line’s progress must have been excited to see the following statement appear in print.
Danbury News - April 24, 1872
“A locomotive appeared on the Bethel & Hawleyville railroad for the first time, today.”
Despite this hopeful sign, clouds gathered on the horizon. Even though rails had begun arriving in early March, the number delivered fell far short of what was required to complete the line. As a result, in mid-April, progress slowed considerably.
Norwalk Gazette - April 30, 1872
“Delay in laying the iron on the Shepaug road is due to its non-arrival.”
Another column of the same edition of the Norwalk Gazette indicated that conditions were about to improve.
“Litchfield, Norwalk and New York - The grading of the branch railroad between Bethel and Hawleyville is nearly completed and the rails are now being laid, and it is expected that the track
between those points will be completed and trains running between Litchfield and Norwalk by the first of June next. The last of the rails for the branch road arrived in New York on Sunday last by ship Neuvo-Ratler from Cardiff Wales. The rails for this road are of superior quality, weigh 56 lbs. per yard, and are of the ‘fish joint’ pattern. The ballasting of the track of the Shepaug road is nearly completed, and the whole line will be in capital order for quick transit by the time named.” (Ballast is the material in which railroad ties are embedded and is usually composed of large, uniformly graded crushed stone.)
Given their point of origin, it is reasonable to assume that the rails that arrived in the port of New York on Sunday, April 28, 1872, were produced by an iron foundry in the Welsh city of Merthyr Tydfil and then transported to the port city of Cardiff. Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, was a world leader in the production of iron during the first half of the 19th century. The Taff Vale Railway was specifically built in the early 1840s to connect that city’s iron foundries with the Cardiff docks. Few of the early passengers on the Bethel Branch would have realized that their train rode on ribbons of iron that had traveled 3,400 miles to reach their final destination. These rails weighed 56 lbs per yard. Today the average rail usually weighs between 120 and 140 lbs per yard. In less than fifteen years, many of the original iron rails were replaced by more substantial ones made of steel, which were stronger and more durable. The article states that the rails were said to be of the “fish joint” pattern. More often called a fish plate, the term applies to a metal bar bolted to the ends of two rails to join them in a track. The name stems from the old French word ‘fichier,’ meaning ‘fasten.’ _________________________________________________________________________
The Final Push
The arrival of the new rails only increased the pressure to finish the line as quickly as possible. Work resumed despite word that one-half of the partnership responsible for the new line was experiencing its own problems. The Shepaug Valley Railroad opened its main line between Litchfield and Hawleyville on January 1, 1872. This date was four months behind initial projections. Then after operating for less than three months, the railroad’s superintendent suddenly announced on March 13, 1872, that the company would shut down operations until further notice beginning on Monday, March 18, 1872. Necessary road repairs were given as the reason for the shutdown, but no completion date was provided, causing some to wonder if the closing might be permanent. After a sluggish beginning in April and a flurry of activity in May, crews accomplished the needed repairs. News of the line’s reopening on Monday, June 3, 1872, brought great relief to those who feared that the completed Bethel Branch might end as an exercise in futility, terminating at Hawleyville instead of Litchfield. Meanwhile, the two section gangs at work on the branch line intensified their labors, sensing their goal was in sight.
Danbury News - May 1, 1872
“The vessel loaded with the iron for the track of the Shepaug road from Hawleyville to Bethel, has arrived, and the work of laying it will go forward at once.”
Norwalk Gazette - May 14, 1872
“One and one half miles of the branch track to Hawleyville was completed on Saturday last and they expect to make the connection by June 1st.”
Once rails were laid through the Center district, a locomotive pulling freight cars loaded with gravel was repeatedly sent to the end of the newly laid track to deliver its contents. Each new delivery would secure the next stretch of ties and rails. This time-saving process was continually repeated until the entire line was complete.
Danbury News - May 15, 1872
“Gravel trains now run on the new road nearly to Plumtrees, and the work goes on finely.”
One small group of downtown denizens allowed their “railroad fever” to get the best of them. They simply could not wait a moment longer for the line’s opening and embarked on an unauthorized trip along the rails ahead of schedule, with unexpected results.
Danbury News - May 15, 1872
“Four men got on a hand car to take a little ride down the grade of the Bethel & Hawleyville railroad where it runs into the former place, the other day, and were enjoying the exhilarating effect of the rapid passage, when a misplaced switch suddenly changed the current of their feelings, and planted the four of them up to their necks in the sand, the eight legs floating serenely in the balmy air.”
These luckless pleasure-seekers may have appropriated an unattended handcar left near the Congregational Church. They would have then used their combined muscle power to propel it west along Main Street and onto the bridge over Wooster Street. From there, they would have enjoyed speeding along the almost roller-coaster-type curve that brought them to a point north of Greenwood Avenue before a railroad switch in the wrong position derailed their fun and launched them airborne into a pile of sand.
As section gangs labored to finish the Bethel Branch, the Shepaug Valley Railroad announced that it was shutting down operations until further notice. After needed repairs were performed on the roadbed of its mainline, the Shepaug resumed operations on June 3, 1872.
Norwalk Gazette - May 21, 1872
“Two-and-a- half-miles of the D. & N. R.R. extension from Bethel to Hawleyville is laid already for use; 3 ½ miles to lay.”
Even before work was completed, the new line was proving useful.
Danbury News - May 22, 1872
“The Shepaug brought on Tuesday the first freight up to the village, it being a huge boiler for Messrs. Nichols & Co. Business is what is meant now-a-days.”
(Nichols & Co. was a hat manufacturing firm owned by Kellog A. Nichols (1830-1888).)
Try as they might, it was growing increasingly clear that the gangs of “gandy dancers” would not complete their labors in time to meet the latest deadline of June 1st.
Danbury News - June 5, 1872
“The Enquirer comes to believe with us the open link between Hawleyville and Bethel will not be completed before the 1st of July, but that is doing the work as is consistent with the requirements of safety. The track on the upper portion of the road has been put in proper condition by trackmaster Lane. With him there, and Collier on the new part, the entire road-bed can not fail of being put in good shape.”
A trackmaster has charge of a railroad track and is more frequently called a roadmaster. The “upper portion of the road” was the section from Hawleyville Depot to the Bethel border.
The “new part” ran from the Bethel depot to the Newtown line. This news item clearly demonstrates that two crews were working toward the boundary line between Bethel and Newtown. The roadmasters for each section crew were often identified only by their last names, but investigation reveals more information.
Charles S. Lane was born in Kent, CT, on November 2, 1842. He served as the roadmaster for the Shepaug Valley Railroad and later the Housatonic Railroad. After leaving railroad work, he was part of the family-owned Lane Construction Company of Meriden. Later, Lane moved to Florida and purchased an orange grove. He died at 71 on February 21, 1914, in Eustis, Lake County, FL.
Samuel Dexter Collier was born May 30, 1825, in Oxford, MA. He served as the Danbury & Norwalk Railroad roadmaster during the 1870s and lived at 69 Townhill Avenue in Danbury. After suffering from dementia late in life, Collier died at 72 on December 28, 1897, at the State Asylum for the Incurable Insane in Cranston, Rhode Island. He is buried in Wooster Cemetery, Danbury, CT.
Just as the line was nearing completion, the superintendent of the Shepaug Valley Railroad, Frederick Wolcott Northrop (1817-1877), submitted his letter of resignation. Northrop had been in charge for less than six months. It is unknown whether his departure was connected with the branch line’s delays, the temporary closing, or that his railroad, in operation for less than five months, was already losing money. If so, these circumstances were kept out of the press. He was replaced by Alexander William Greig (1828-1876), who would serve as the Shepaug’s superintendent until May 1873.
Danbury News - June 5, 1872
“F.W. Northrop has resigned the position as superintendent of the Shepaug road, and is succeeded by A.W. Greig, an experienced railroad man. Mr. Northrop has proved a good officer, and the friends of the road regret his resignation.”
Despite the change in leadership on the Shepaug Valley Railroad, work on the Bethel Branch line continued steadily.
The Last Rail
Danbury News - June 12, 1872
“Four miles of the track on the Bethel extension is laid and ready for use.”
Danbury News - June 19, 1872
“The track on the Bethel extension of the Shepaug road will be laid this week, and trains will commence running shortly after.”
Finally came the announcement that had been long awaited.
Norwalk Gazette - June 25, 1872
“It is reported that the last rail of the Hawleyville extension of the Danbury & Norwalk Railroad was laid yesterday, and that trains will commence next Monday.”
Thus, the task was completed on Monday, June 24, 1872 - two months behind schedule. The section gangs representing two different railroad lines would have met on the Bethel-Newtown border a short distance south of where Walnut Hill Road changes its name to Old Bethel Road as it crosses the town line, moving west to east. Old land deeds refer to this area as “Cranberry Boggs” or “Crambury Boggs.” Most of this wetland is now part of the Joyce Dixon Nature Preserve, owned by the Bethel Land Trust.
After 223 days of continuous effort, the 5.95-mile-long branch line connecting the Shepaug Valley Railroad with the Danbury & Norwalk line was poised to begin service on Monday, July 1, 1872. But first, the new line would have to be given the personal stamp of approval by the Connecticut Railroad Commissioners. On Thursday, June 27, 1872, these distinguished gentlemen representing the state’s railroad royalty arrived for their inspection.
Danbury News - July 3, 1872
“The railroad commissioners of this State took a trip over the new railroad from Bethel to Hawleyville, Thursday morning. After refreshing themselves with cigars at the latter place, they returned to Bethel, making the entire distance, six miles, in less than ten minutes, which shows the superior condition of the track.”
The delegation of stogie-puffing commissioners must have been pleased with what they saw, as just four days later, precisely one week after the laying of the last rail, the line began operation. Newspapers provide no evidence of great fanfare or ceremony to mark the occasion. Instead, there was merely a simple newspaper announcement.
Norwalk Gazette - July 2, 1872
“Regular trains commenced running between Litchfield and this place yesterday (Monday) via the Shepaug and branch road from Bethel to Hawleyville. The road having been completed last week.”
Tying Up the Legal Loose Ends
A special town meeting had been held two days before the Bethel Branch began regular service. Its purpose was to approve the sale of municipal bonds to reimburse the individuals who had financed the purchase of the railroad right of way. This plan had been authorized by the Connecticut State Assembly just three weeks before, on June 6, when after much discussion and debate, state lawmakers approved the measure by a vote of 81 to 68. Authorizing the Board of Selectmen to issue the necessary bonds now required a public vote. Accordingly, the following motion was made and seconded at a meeting held at 2 PM on Saturday, June 29, 1872.
“Resolved - That the Selectmen be, and are hereby instructed to issue Notes of the Town of Bethel, to the amount of Six Thousand Dollars, in all, in sums not less than One Hundred Dollars, nor greater than One Thousand Dollars, at a rate of interest, not exceeding seven per cent per annum, and payable, at such times, as the Selectmen may determine to raise the money, (Viz) Six Thousand Dollars as authorized by “An Act,” passed by the Legislature at its present Session.”
There was opposition. One hundred sixty voters signed a petition against assisting the railroad through town collaboration. Critics were most numerous in the Grassy Plain and Wildcat districts, where residents perceived that the railroad would provide them with no direct benefit. These residents also vehemently complained that the initial town meeting authorizing the pursuit of this plan had been called hurriedly and at an inconvenient time for citizens who lived in the outlying districts. After much rancorous back-and-forth discussion, a vote was taken, and the naysayers found themselves in the minority. The supportive local press trumpeted the approval of the town’s reimbursement proposal.
Danbury News - July 3, 1872
“The town meeting to pay the railroad bond voted three to one in favor of it. There is not much use in getting in the way of the wave of public improvements that is sweeping over this town just now.”
As service began on the Bethel Branch, residents who lived along its route awoke to a new world. Their sudden change in existence included adapting to the thunderous roar of twenty-eight-ton iron behemoths, rumbling past their homes and places of business, shaking the ground beneath them, and belching black smoke into the sky.
In May 1871, the Shepaug Valley Railroad ordered three steam locomotives from the Rogers Locomotive and Machine Works of Paterson, New Jersey. This trio of workhorses would operate on the Shepaug’s main line between Hawleyville and Litchfield and the extension branch between Hawleyville and Bethel. All three were identical, making repairs and ordering replacement parts easier. Each was a locomotive type 4-4-0 (four leading wheels on two axles, four driving wheels on two axles, and zero trailing wheels). All three had drive wheels with a circumference of 54”. The locomotives each weighed 28 tons and took 1800 individual hours to produce.
Although identical when first manufactured, the Shepaug Valley Railroad gave each locomotive a name and number to tell them apart. The designations came from the language of local Native American tribes and referenced areas along the Shepaug Valley Railroad’s main line.
Engine #1 was named the Shepaug. The name is from the Quiripi language used by the Paugussett tribe and means “Great Pond.” The Shepaug Valley Railroad followed the path of the Shepaug River for much of its route. The first known engineer of this locomotive was George Renselear Beebe (1837-1914). This engine was shipped from the manufacturer on September 22, 1871.
Engine #2 was named the Waramaug. The name is Quiripi for “good fishing place.” Waramaug was also the name of a sachem of the Potatuck Native American tribe. Lake Waramaug is named for him, and this body of water was already a popular tourist destination in the 1870s, now made more accessible via the Shepaug Valley Railroad. The first known engineer of this locomotive was George Camp (1827-1901). This engine was shipped from the manufacturer on September 26, 1871.
Engine # 3 was named the Weantinaug. Weantinaug was the name of a Native American people who were indigenous to east central New York and Northwest Connecticut and were originally a subgroup of the Paugussett tribe. Their lands included the Shepaug River Valley. The name weantinaug means“where the water whirls” in the Quiripi language. The original engineer of this locomotive was Loudon Frederick Livingston (1851-1886). This engine was shipped from the manufacturer on September 29, 1871.
On February 29, 1872, the Litchfield Enquirer summarized the Shepaug’s rolling stock. “The present equipment consists of three engines, two passenger cars, a luggage car, four box and twenty platform freight cars.”
The Norwalk Gazette, in an article from August 15, 1871, revealed that the first two passenger cars were of local origin. In speaking of the Shepaug Valley Railroad, the paper stated: “The New Haven Car Company has just finished some fine passenger cars for it … .” The New Haven Car Company had its factory at 16 Newhall Street in New Haven, CT. It was operated from approximately 1868 to 1879 by two brothers, James M. Townsend (1833-1892) and Edward M. Townsend (1840-1903).
EPILOGUE TO PART THREE
The Bethel Branch was now up and running. Residents would slowly learn to adjust to life in a “rail town.” They became accustomed to the southbound “Down” train arriving from Litchfield and the northbound “Up” train leaving to complete the same trip in reverse. They also came to expect the Sunday evening milk train that provided dairy farmers access to New York City markets. But the adjustment was not always easy. The gentle nighttime sound of a steam whistle far off in the distance could be quite soothing, but the cacophonous din of a locomotive and its cars suddenly bursting across your path on a lonely back road could bring on cardiac arrest. For the next forty years, for better or worse, the fortunes of a little town were coupled to that of a likewise little railroad. Bethel had booked passage to the twentieth century. The road ahead would contain numerous twists, turns, ascents, and descents, but the ticket had been punched, and there would be no unscheduled stops.
NEXT TIME - In PART FOUR of Building the Bethel Branch
Changing Fortunes, Changing Names
Tragic Accidents and Deaths
The Stony Hill Siding and the Unofficial Plumtrees Flag Stop
The Shepaug Parlor Car
Devoured by Monopolies
Obsolescence and the Sad Prolonged “End of the Line”
THE BETHEL BRANCH - FACTS & STATISTICS
Length of Branch Line: 5.95 miles
Length of Branch Line in Bethel: 4.45 miles
Length of Branch Line in Newtown: 1.5 miles
Number of Curves: 14
Curved Line: 2.77 miles
Length of Straight Lines: 3.18 miles
Number of Ascending Grades: 2
Sum of Ascents in Feet: 22
Aggregate Length of Ascending Grades: 3.60 miles
Number of Descending Grades: 3
Sum of Descents in Feet: 20
Aggregate Length of Descending Grades: 2.35 miles
Track Gauge: 4 feet 8 ½ inches
Average Weight of Rail: 56 lbs. per yard
Average Speed: 18 to 20 mph
Average Travel Time Between Bethel and Hawleyville: 15 to 20 Minutes
Shepaug Valley Railroad & Successors Use of the Danbury & Norwalk’s Bethel Branch
The business arrangement between the Shepaug Valley Railroad, which operated trains on the Bethel Branch, and the Danbury & Norwalk Railroad, which owned most of the rails and right of way, was spelled out in the Connecticut Railroad Commissioners’ Reports of subsequent years.
The section of the 1896 report covering the Shepaug included the essential elements.
“This company operates since December 11, 1892, a certain piece of track known as the Bethel Branch of the Danbury division of the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad Company, between Hawleyville, Conn., and Bethel, Conn., a distance of 5.95 miles under contract for the revenue.” (The date of December 11, 1892, marks the point after which the Shepaug, Litchfield & Northern Railroad fell under the controlling interest of the N.Y., N.H. & H. R.R. Co.)
“Rent paid by Shepaug Valley Railroad for the lease of the Bethel Branch of the Danbury Div. of the N.Y., N.H. & H. R.R. Co., Nominal rent per year - $1.00.
This unique arrangement would remain in place until 1898, when the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad Company officially brought both lines under its control, making such an agreement unnecessary.
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.)