"Come Ride the Little Train That is Rollin' Down the Track …"
Those old enough to remember the 1960s television series Petticoat Junction or who have seen it in reruns will recall the steam locomotive called the Hooterville Cannonball. The Cannonball played a prominent part in most episodes and was run by Engineer Charley Pratt and Fireman/Conductor Floyd Smoot. These two eccentric yet endearing characters and their train were revered by the residents they loyally served. Schedules were nonexistent, and Charley and Floyd were never so pressed for time that they could not stop during their route to go fishing or help a friend pick apples. The show's running joke was that the Cannonball was slow, unreliable, carried few passengers and little freight, and that its parent company was perennially on the brink of bankruptcy. Nonetheless, no matter what catastrophes befell the little train, Charley and Floyd could always find a way to patch her up and keep her running. In many respects, the fictional Hooterville Cannonball embodied the same endearing qualities that so many came to cherish about the real-life Shepaug Railroad. This fourth and final installment in the series, Building the Bethel Branch, examines the highs and lows of the little railroad and the sequence of events that led to its ultimate demise.
Lampooning the Shepaug
When the Shepaug Railroad was rechristened the Shepaug, Litchfield & Northern Railroad in 1887, its coal cars were emblazoned with the letters S., L. & N. Detractors of the little railroad immediately spread the notion that the letters stood for "Slow, Late & Noisy."
Shepaug trains averaged 18 - 20 miles per hour due to the numerous curves and hilly terrain along the 38-mile route between Bethel and Litchfield, so they were anything but speed demons. The Shepaug almost always operated on a shoestring budget and underwent foreclosure proceedings in both 1873 and 1886. During most of its existence, the railroad ran only two passenger trains a day. Accidents and mishaps were commonplace. For these and other reasons, the little line was constantly the butt of jokes and was sometimes openly called a laughingstock. The articles that follow represent some of the more memorable depictions of the Shepaug that illustrate how it was both belittled and beloved.
Not Strictly Regulation
The only official passenger stop that Shepaug trains made in Bethel was the one at the town's depot. However, there was a concerted effort in the late 1870s by residents of the Plumtrees district to establish a flag stop in their part of town whereby trains would stop only upon request. A committee was even established to petition the railroad for just such a flag stop. And although the committee met with the Danbury & Norwalk Railroad superintendent to state their case, there is no evidence that the request for a flag station was ever granted - officially. Unofficially, numerous news accounts suggest that private arrangements were sometimes worked out between engineers and patrons. When Bethel celebrated its centennial in 1955, the following reminiscence appeared in an article featuring the history of the Benedict family and a historic house once owned by Eliza Benedict. The related incident occurred in a field behind the old Benedict home, which still stands at 73 Plumtrees Road.
Danbury News-Times - June 18, 1955
"Eliza Benedict made the home in Plumtrees one to which her brothers and their families loved to come. Her nephew George spent all of his boyhood vacations from school in her care, and in later years, he used to bring his wife and many children for happy summers on the farm. The last lap of their long journey from Quincy, Massachusetts, was made on the Shepaug railway, which ran through Plumtrees about 500 feet from the Benedict house. The children always watched eagerly from the train for a sight which never failed to greet them. It was the waving of a big white tablecloth that Aunt Eliza had run out to the yard with. As though by magic, the train slowed down in the meadow, and stopped just long enough to let this excited family tumble out. Once, when someone asked George Benedict how he managed that unscheduled stop, he answered that a certain number of cigars placed across the tracks, stopped the train. His younger child pondered much about the great number it must have taken to cause such a block and wondered too, how her father had left the train to put them there."
73 Plumtrees Road is shown in the top right corner of this 1934 aerial photograph. In the area further to the left, one can see the curving arch of the abandoned Bethel Branch line. Shepaug trains would sometimes make unscheduled stops in this area to deliver members of the Benedict family to their ancestral farm. Photo Credit
The following news account describes a bizarre real-life event involving a Shepaug train and a local dog that bit off more than he could chew.
Danbury News - May 18, 1885
"Thomas Mitchell lives on the line of the Shepaug road and is the owner of a remarkably fine and intelligent shepherd dog. He vouches for the following story: The dog got into the habit of chasing the trains that passed by. His master, in vain, tried to cure him of this fault with little success. One day not long since, the dog made for the train and grew so savage that he sprang at the engine and was struck. In some unaccountable way the only injury he received was to have the greater part of his tail cut off. The dog got up and looked at his tail and then began to run and yelp. It bled profusely, and his master tried to call the dog to him in order to bind it up, but it was no go. About two hours afterward he saw the dog go to the place of the accident, pick up the piece of tail which had been cut off, and carry it some distance and then bury it. After this ceremony he came to the house and seemed pleased at the sympathy expressed for him and the assistance rendered. He is through chasing the cars."
The Hartford Times ran an abbreviated version of the same story the day after the Danbury News. However, the Hartford paper added its own ending, providing an opportunity to ridicule the Shepaug.
"The suspicious feature of the story is that a Shepaug railroad train ever ran fast enough to catch a dog."
One large New York newspaper pulled no punches when describing a ride on the Shepaug railroad to Litchfield.
The New York Evening Post - October 8, 1881
"There is only one danger about riding on the Shepaug, and that is that it may give out before it reaches its destination. It advertises in clean-cut letters whose distinctness only adds to the enormity of the sin, to run two trains daily to Litchfield direct. This, however, is painfully untrue. No stretch of the imagination could call its route direct or its gait a run. It meanders through the green fields here and there with a luxurious indefiniteness. Now and then it stops for the conductor to discuss the crops or the weather with the rustics. As it climbs the high hills it pants ominously. After a while it gives unquestionable indications of weakening. Finally, in much labor and travail, it ends, blind through sheer exhaustion, not far from the main street of the village."
This account epitomizes the true spirit of the Shepaug at its best.
Ansonia Sentinel - March 17, 1885
"The latest story about the Shepaug railroad is to this effect: The mail was recently two hours late, and in the explanation of the delay, a gentleman said the reason was because a man just above Roxbury hailed the train and said if they would wait until he could shave and change his clothes he would ride to Litchfield with them. Not wishing to lose passenger traffic, the train waited, and all hands hunted rabbits while the former performed his toilet."
In commenting on the debut of a new publication called the Bantam News, the Hartford Courant saw a chance to take a swipe at the Shepaug's lack of punctuality.
Hartford Courant - March 18, 1917
"It is an interesting paper but why it wastes space by printing a timetable of the Shepaug railroad is something which nobody can fathom. While few persons know that the trains are run over that branch those few know by experience that they do not regard the timetable but go whenever they can raise sufficient steam to move the wheels."
Even a fledgling Bethel newspaper could not refrain from picking on the little Shepaug.
Valley Ledger - February 23, 1883
"A young mountaineer from the vastness of Bantam, who had evidently never seen a train of cars before in his life, came down on the Shepaug passenger train a few days ago, and was beside himself with amazement on observing the rate of speed at which the train traveled, which to him was astonishing. Unable to restrain his wonderment, he turned to his fellow passenger, and with countenance fairly beaming with rapture, remarked 'Gosh! Ain't we whizzin'! We're goin' a darn sight faster'n I cou' d run!'"
The Shepaug's speed, or lack thereof, continued to be a rich mine for humorous anecdotes.
Connecticut Western News - August 17, 1911
"A train on the Shepaug road recently ran away from its conductor. The conductor must have been a mighty poor runner not to have been able to overtake it." - Lakeville Journal
The Shepaug trains passed along Bethel's Main Street on tracks that were just yards away from the front entrance to the First Congregational Church, which often proved problematic. After the locomotive labeled Engine # 1 met with an accident when it overshot the Bethel turntable, the following commentary appeared under the heading: Sabbath Breaker Ditched.
Valley Ledger (Bethel) - July 7, 1883
"The Shepaug engine that drowns the voice of the clergy and wakes up congregations every Sunday morning, has been brought to grief."
"We always expected something awful would happen to that wicked engine, and now if the Sunday time table is changed, yesterday's little episode will be accepted as a 'dispensation.'"
However, the following week, Engine #1 was again up to its old sinful tricks despite its previous mishap.
Valley Ledger (Bethel) - July 14, 1883
"That wicked Shepaug train passed the Cong. church last Sunday night, just as Prof. Green was playing a splendid prelude, in the praise service, and he was obliged to stop right in the middle of it and give the train the right of way."
Engine # 1 received more significant retribution for its sabbath breaking when, on February 20, 1883, it collided with a Danbury & Norwalk freight train a half mile south of the Danbury depot in the largest railroad accident Danbury had seen up to that time. Crew members on both trains were injured, but there was no loss of life. It was estimated that repairing the damage to Engine # 1 would cost between $4,000 and $5,000. The Valley Ledger of Bethel seemed almost pleased to report the locomotive's fate.
Valley Ledger (Bethel) - March 2, 1883
"That Sabbath breaking, prayer disturbing engine, Shepaug Engine No. 1 will not interrupt any more Congregationalist or Methodist prayers for awhile, at least until she gets over her severe attack of collision."
And so it went. Despite the consistent harangue of critics, the little railroad that never got respect still acquired a loyal group of devotees whose fascination has been faithfully handed down to the present generation.
The Morning Journal-Courier (New Haven) - March 19, 1888 - Following the "Great Blizzard of 1888", the press gave much attention to the condition of railroad lines and the efforts being made to restore operations. Almost overlooked was the Shepaug railroad. This news item, which initially appeared in the Danbury News, began with the complimentary title, "The Gritty Little Shepaug," and ended by poking fun at the line's limited resources.
Blood on the Tracks
In contrast to the comedic way in which the Shepaug was often depicted, reality demonstrated that running a railroad was a serious business that could also prove to be seriously dangerous. Despite its slow speed and short route, the Shepaug Railroad had its share of accidents, some of which unfortunately proved deadly. Three fatalities are known to have occurred in Bethel, all of them within the Plumtrees district. Accidents often resulted from the lack of safety measures that prevailed. Throughout most of its operation, the Bethel branch's grade crossings had no gates, flashing lights, bells, or buzzers. Diligent engineers would blow their train whistles when nearing a crossing, but often the noise produced by a driver's own horses clopping along a pitted dirt road, coupled with the clatter of the jostling wooden wagon rolling along on its iron-rimmed wheels, minimized the effect of a train's tooting steam whistle. Generally, the only visible precaution was a small white sign tacked to a post inscribed with black letters that read "Look Out for the Locomotive." Consequently, distracted drivers would sometimes be surprised by thundering locomotives that appeared out of nowhere, often with disastrous results. The following accounts provide the circumstances surrounding three fatal Shepaug accidents in Bethel.
A Trilogy of Tragedies
Abram Moffatt - April 18, 1881
The earliest known fatal accident on the Bethel branch happened on April 18, 1881. It occurred near a crossing situated between today's 80 and 88 Taylor Road. This spot was known as the Cider Mill Crossing because of its proximity to a cider mill once located near the corner of Taylor Road and Walnut Hill Road.
Danbury News - April 20, 1881
"On Monday evening as the Shepaug train was coming from Hawleyville, it struck Abram Moffatt who was walking on the track just as they were rounding the curve in Plumtrees. Engineer Wheeler whistled as soon as he saw him, but it was too late, and the engine struck and threw him upon the bank at the side of the track. By the time help reached him he was dead. His head was badly bruised, one leg broken twice between the ankle and the knee, and an arm broken. The body was brought to Bethel and Coroner E. R. Barnum impaneled a jury. An inquest was held in the Town Hall, where several witnesses were examined and the following verdict was rendered:
The undersigned jurors being duly impaneled and sworn to inquire into the cause and manner of the death of Abram Moffatt, whose death was sudden and untimely, and the cause and manner of which were unknown, have viewed the body of said deceased and considered the evidence given to us, do on our oaths say that said Abram Moffatt came to his death from being struck by the Shepaug freight train, while walking on the track, and that the death was accidental."
The victim's last name was sometimes spelled "Moffett" and appears in that form on his headstone in Bethel's Center Cemetery. The U.S. Government provided the stone as he had been a veteran of the Civil War, but it incorrectly records his date of death. Moffat had served as a private in Company "I" of the Third Connecticut Infantry Regiment and was discharged after being wounded at the Battle of Deep Bottom Run, Virginia, on August 14, 1864. His military records demonstrate that he applied for status as a military invalid on November 13, 1865. Moffatt, who was approximately 58 at the time of his death, had supported himself and his family by working as a shoemaker. It is believed that he and his wife had eight children in all. After his war service, he may have been troubled by the lingering effects of his war wounds or perhaps haunted by what he had witnessed. News accounts indicate that he had been arrested for drunkenness and abusing his family on more than one occasion.
NOTES: Coroner E.R. Barnum was Edmund Romine Barnum (1835-1910). The locomotive that struck Moffatt was Engine # 4, operated by Engineer Austin S. Wheeler (1848-1917).
Abram Moffatt, who was struck and killed by a Shepaug train just off Taylor Road, is buried in Bethel's Center Cemetery. His death occurred on April 18, 1881, and not April 22, 1880, as inscribed on his headstone. His last name was quite often spelled "Moffatt," not "Moffett," as seen here.
Photo Credit: Mike Morgado
Alfred Larson - May 4, 1887
Perhaps the saddest story relating to any of the fatal accidents involving a Shepaug train is that of Alfred Henry Larson. The accident that took his life occurred at what was known as Plumtrees Crossing. The Crossing was near 105 Plumtrees Road at the foot of a hill located a short distance west of today's Blue Jay Orchards.
Danbury Evening News - May 6, 1887
"Killed by the Cars. - At the Plumtrees crossing of the Bethel and Hawleyville branch, on Wednesday evening, at about 6:15 o'clock, Alfred Larson, a little six-year-old lad was struck by the engine of a passing train, and almost instantly killed. As the little fellow saw the train coming he stood and smiled at those on the train, and as they were about to pass he started to run across the track ahead of the engine. The engine struck him and he was thrown a long distance. When taken up he was breathing, but soon expired. His body was but little mutilated."
Adding to the sadness of the event is the fact that although initial newspaper accounts described Alfred Larson as being six years old, other evidence shows that he was only four. Railroad records indicate that the boy was struck by a Shepaug milk train that included passenger cars. Alfred Larson was buried in his family's plot in the Center Cemetery on South Street.
The grave of Alfred Henry Larson, who was struck and killed by a Shepaug train crossing Plumtrees Road on May 4, 1887, is in his family's plot in the Center Cemetery.
John Fiddner - May 31, 1898
The third fatal accident, ironically, occurred only yards from the first. It involved a German immigrant whose last name was spelled in various ways in surviving records but appears as "Fiddner" on his headstone in the Center Cemetery. He worked as a farmer and lived with his family in the Elmwood district on a road that then had no name but is now called Shelley Road. (Fiddner's daughter Jennie would later marry James B. Shelley, who came to live in the Fiddner home. The road’s name results from his residence there.)
Readers are warned that the following news account provides details of Fiddner's death that may prove disturbing.
Danbury News - June 1, 1898
"John Fiedner, of Elmwood district, Bethel, was instantly killed Tuesday morning by a Shepaug train which left Bethel about eleven o'clock for Litchfield."
"The accident occurred at what is known as Wildman's crossing, near Hodge's cider mill in the Plumtrees district, about a mile and a half from Bethel."
"Mr. Fiedner was driving home from Bethel, in a lumber box wagon, drawn by one horse. Being alone it is impossible to tell why he did not see or hear the train in time to get out of the way."
"The engine struck the wagon midway, and the horse and two front wheels cleared. Mr. Fiedner sat on the seat in the front of the wagon and was thrown out with very great force. He first struck, probably on his head, on the ties between the track, but the force was so great that he was thrown still farther, probably fifteen feet, where he struck a fence and fell over into a culvert, striking his head evidently on a stone. His skull was badly fractured, from the center of the top of his head, back down to nearly his neck, a very long and terrible wound, so bad in fact, that some of the brain matter fell out, while he was being brought to the city. He also had a bad cut on the face. He probably was instantly killed."
"The train was stopped, and a man was sent back to Bethel to notify the authorities. Dr. Barbour, the medical examiner for Bethel, being out of town, Dr. W. C. Wile, of this city was notified, and he ordered the body removed to C.M. Doran's undertaking rooms in this city, which was done."
"Mr. Fiedner was a farmer, and a resident for many years of the town of Bethel. He was sixty-eight years old. He is survived by his wife and one son, John Fiedner Jr., who lives in Great Plain."
NOTES: The "Dr. Barbour" mentioned in the article was Dr. Alvin Elizur Barber (1831-1922), whose home and office were located at today's 137 Greenwood Avenue, just to the right of the Bethel United Methodist Church. "Dr. W.C. Wile was Dr. William Conrad Wile (1847-1913), who lived in what is today known as the Tarrywile Mansion at 70 Southern Boulevard in Danbury.
C. M. Doran was Charles M. Doran (1865-1923), whose funeral home was located at 145 Main Street, Danbury. Wildman's Crossing was another label for the Cider Mill Crossing and was named for William Henry Wildman (1859-1938), who owned an icehouse adjacent to a pond on the grounds of 35 Walnut Hill Road.
On June 3, 1898, page two of the Newtown Bee carried its account of the same tragic accident.
"KILLED ON THE SHEPAUG - John Fiedner was killed on Tuesday by the eleven o'clock up train on the Shepaug railroad in Plumtrees district. The accident occurred near the Grist Mill at the highway crossing, within a few rods of the place where Abram Moffatt was killed a few years ago. Mr. Fiedner, a man about 68 years old, was driving home from Bethel. When near the Crossing he did not heed the coming train which was giving the usual danger whistles at the Crossing and drove on to the track just ahead of the engine. It struck the wagon and threw Mr. Fiedner about twenty feet into the cattle guard, fracturing his skull, which produced death instantly. The horse was slightly bruised. A plow, hen, and chickens were in the lumber box wagon; only one little chick was killed. There are six or seven highway crossings in Plumtrees district and this is the worst of them all. The train could not be seen from either direction but a short distance. There is a short curve and a deep cut around the hill that breaks the sound of the coming train. Persons making this Crossing cannot be too careful to avoid an accident. Mr. Fiedner was formerly a hard working man. A number of years ago he was overcome with the heat while cradling rye, which somewhat impaired his faculties, and he may have been a little careless on that account."
NOTE: "Cradling" refers to using a cradle, a scythe attachment resembling a claw, to
The grave of John Fiddner, who was killed by a Shepaug train at a railroad crossing on Taylor Road on May 31, 1898, is in Bethel's Center Cemetery. Fiddner was a German immigrant and farmer who lived on Shelley Road in Bethel's Elmwood district.
This portion of abandoned railroad bed on Taylor Road in Bethel was formerly known as the Cider Mill Crossing (also sometimes called Wildman's Crossing). Two separate fatal accidents occurred near this location, one involving Abram Moffat on April 18, 1881, and another involving John Fiddner on May 31, 1898.
Other Fatal Shepaug Railroad Accidents
During the years 1872 to 1948, numerous fatal accidents occurred that involved Shepaug trains. A list of some of these accidents is provided below. The three Bethel accidents previously described are included. This list is by no means comprehensive.
April 7, 1877 - William Wood, age 19, a switch tender for the Shepaug, was run over by a train at Hawleyville.
September 14, 1878 - Patrick Sullivan, age 52, track hand, was killed six miles north of Hawleyville when a Shepaug train jumped the tracks.
September 14, 1878 - Patrick McGrath, age 40, track hand, was killed six miles north of Hawleyville when a Shepaug train jumped the tracks.
August 28, 1880 - John Brennan, age 19, was run over after jumping off the train at Hawleyville.
November 9, 1880 - Francis Joseph Bachman, age 12, was crushed when trying to pass between two cars just as they were being put in motion at the Bantam station.
April 18, 1881 - Abram Moffatt, age 58, was struck by the train at Cider Mill Crossing, also known as Wildman's Crossing, located between 80 and 88 Taylor Road, Plumtrees, Bethel.
May 4, 1887 - Alfred Henry Larson, age 4, was struck and killed by the milk train at Plumtrees Crossing.
May 31, 1898 - John Fiddner, age 67, was struck and killed by a Shepaug train at Wildman's Crossing, also known as Cider Mill Crossing, located between 80 and 88 Taylor Road, Plumtrees, Bethel.
June 1, 1903 - Timothy Griffin, age 35, a section boss on the Litchfield Division (Shepaug), was struck and killed by a Shepaug freight train at Hawleyville.
August 21, 1909 - Carter Litchfield Ensworth, age 13, was killed when the carriage in which he was riding was hit by a Shepaug train at a crossing in Washington Depot. Another passenger in the same vehicle was seriously injured.
February 7, 1912 - An Unknown Individual was struck and killed by a Shepaug train while walking on the tracks in Bantam. Authorities could not identify the body, but it was believed the victim had been working at the Bantam icehouse. Workers there had quit after demanding higher wages. Many walked along the tracks to New York City, looking for new employment. The victim may have been one of these workers.
April 23, 1921 - George Murant Stoddard - Age 51, was struck and killed at Griswold's Crossing, two miles south of the Bantam Station, when his automobile was struck by a northbound Shepaug passenger train. Two children who were passengers in the same automobile were also injured.
Changing Names, Changing Fortunes
Following the history of both the Bethel branch line and the Shepaug Railroad can be tremendously confusing due to the variety of names utilized over time. The chart provided below is designed to provide clarification.
Bethel-Hawleyville Extension Names
Bethel Branch of the Danbury & Norwalk Railroad, 1872-1892
Hawleyville Branch of the Danbury & Norwalk Division of the Housatonic Railroad, 1892 – 1898
Hawleyville - Litchfield Line Names
Shepaug Valley Railroad, 1868 - 1873
Shepaug Railroad, 1873 - 1887
Shepaug, Litchfield & Northern Railroad, 1887 - 1898
By 1898 both the Bethel extension line and the Shepaug, Litchfield & Northern Railroad were absorbed by the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad, which brought about one final name change.
Litchfield Division of the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad, 1898 - 1948
The Bethel Branch was eliminated from the Litchfield Division in 1908. Even after the Shepaug railroad was merged with the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad in 1898 and technically ceased to exist, many residents of western Connecticut still referred to the road between Hawleyville and Litchfield as the Shepaug line.
The Shepaug Parlor Car
A topic that looms large in the lore of the Shepaug Railroad is the luxurious parlor car placed in service during the line's glory days at the close of the 19th century.
A parlor car is "a type of passenger coach that provides superior comforts and amenities compared to a standard coach." These deluxe cars were designed for day travel and required an extra fare. They were usually fitted with plush, over-stuffed individual seats, carpeted floors, wood-paneled walls, tasseled drapes, and electric light fixtures. Porters saw to passengers' every need. Even today's first-class air accommodation might not measure up in some respects. The additional cost of traveling in such lavish opulence usually put the parlor car out of reach of all but the wealthy.
Riding in Style - An 1893 illustration depicting the luxurious accommodations available in a railroad parlor car like the one provided by the Shepaug, Litchfield & Northern Railroad beginning that same year.
Newtown Bee - May 26, 1893
"It is rumored that a parlor car will be run over the Shepaug from New York on the evening train north and south in the morning. This will accommodate the wealthy class who visit Washington and Litchfield."
The Shepaug parlor car was only attached to express trains. The train that ran north from New York City to Litchfield was referred to as the Litchfield Express, and conversely, the train running from Litchfield to New York City was known as the New York Express. The service was inaugurated on Saturday, June 17, 1893.
Newtown Bee - June 23, 1893
"A Parlor Car on the Shepaug - Parlor Car No. 1103, of the New York, New Haven and Hartford road, now runs daily between New York and Litchfield on the Shepaug. It began its daily trip, last Saturday, going down in the morning and up at night. Such elegance is unusual for the Shepaug."
Newtown Bee - June 30, 1893
"The parlor car on the Shepaug is well patronized and comfort and elegance is not found out of place, even on this formerly despised little road."
Parlor cars were the last word in elegant travel during the Gilded Age. However, railroad conductors sometimes complained about the arrogant demeanor adopted by passengers traveling in a parlor car.
The New York Herald - July 1893
"The moment they get seated they begin to behave like kings and queens and to order people around as if they had been used to having servants at their beck and call all of their lives. If you want to see a rapid change from a plain American citizen to a haughty aristocrat just watch the passengers troop out of the waiting rooms to the trains. You can tell a mile off which of them have seats in the parlor car. Their noses hang high in the air, and they get around with a sort of supercilious strut."
The most frequently quoted description of the parlor car's interior appeared in the Litchfield Enquirer in 1894.
Litchfield Enquirer - June 28, 1894
"The parlor car which the Consolidated road is running this season on the Litchfield express via the Shepaug route is of the latest vestibule pattern and is in great favor with the summer travelers. The wood-work of the interior is of quartered oak and the upholstery is a beautiful light blue. A very efficient porter is in charge of the car and looks after the comfort of the passengers."
A memory of vestibuled cars with light blue upholstery was also supplied by Charles E. Fisher, in his 1961 work, The Parlor and Sleeping Cars of the New Haven, (The New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad became the New Haven Railroad when it was reorganized in 1947.) - "All of these cars were of the narrow, vestibuled type, they were the older cars and the upholstery was a robin's egg blue shade."
The Shepaug's parlor car had enclosed vestibules at both ends, contrasting with the open platforms found on earlier cars. Photo Credit
In another news item from the summer of 1894, the Litchfield Enquirer featured the parlor car when announcing the Shepaug's new summer "arrangement." "The south bound New York express with parlor car attached, will leave Litchfield at 8:20 a.m., arriving in New York at 11:45 a.m., and making a good connection for New Haven and other points. The north bound express with parlor car will leave New York at 3:30 p.m. (New Haven 4:28) reaching Litchfield at 6:52. The mid-day passenger trains remain practically unchanged, leaving New York at 9 a.m. and Litchfield 2:50 p.m."
In speaking of the Shepaug parlor car in his 2002 book, The Shepaug Railroad 1872-1948, Fletcher E. Cooper stated: "The coach remained mildly popular until it was discontinued shortly before World War I, due to lack of patronage." By the time the Shepaug parlor car was discontinued, wealthy individuals wishing to escape the hustle and bustle of New York City for the serenity of the Litchfield Hills could do so in their own private automobiles driven by their personal chauffeurs.
The sumptuous accommodations presented in this 1893 image of a Pullman parlor car may equate to those found in the car utilized by the Shepaug, Litchfield, and Northern Railroad. Photo Credit - The Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania. Photo Credit
The Stony Hill Siding
Stony Hill Siding - This map from the Connecticut State Register and Manual of 1920 shows the location of the Stony Hill Siding across from today's 174 Walnut Hill Road. By the time of this map, the former Bethel Branch was no longer in operation, but the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad still owned the right of way.
Along with the parlor car, a second area of interest for some Shepaug railroad fans has been the Stony Hill Siding. A siding is usually defined as a short stretch of track where engines or carriages are left when unused. It may also be used to enable trains on the same line to pass. The Stony Hill Siding did not match either of these definitions. It was simply a freight platform located at a point where tracks closely paralleled a dirt road close by. The platform allowed freight to be transferred from the road across a wooden platform at a height that was approximately level with the deck of a flatbed car or the floor of a boxcar. The loading platform was not used as a passenger stop but was solely for freight.
The Stony Hill Siding did not appear in passenger timetables but only in those prepared for use by railroad employees. One such employee timetable from 1896 was reproduced in L. Peter Cornwall's In the Shore Line's Shadow (1987). It indicated that the siding was a seven-minute ride from the Hawleyville Depot and an eight-minute trip to the Bethel Depot. The siding was also listed in the January 1906 ABC Shipping and Mailing Guide produced by the New England Railway Publishing Company of Boston.
The most detailed depiction of the true nature of the Stony Hill Siding comes from maps prepared for the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad in 1915. They show that the Shepaug tracks were built to run directly alongside the southern edge of Walnut Hill Road and that the platform itself was situated directly across from today's 174 Walnut Hill Road. Some of the freight loaded here may have been composed of metal milk canisters from local dairy farmers. On August 4, 1873, the Shepaug Valley Milk Producers' Association had been formed "to buy, sell, and deliver milk, and any and any of its products produced only in the district tributary to the Shepaug Railroad." Bethel farmers were not originally included in this association but may have been included later. Agricultural produce such as grain, flour, fruits and vegetables, livestock, and dressed meats are also listed among records showing freight carried by the Shepaug railroad.
Identifying the exact location of the Stony Hill Siding has sometimes proved challenging due to little surviving documentation. However, a map accompanying the Connecticut State Register and Manual 1920 clearly labels the spot. In comparing this map with the 1915 N.Y., N.H. & H. R.R. Right of Way map, it is evident that the platform shown in the second map and the siding shown in the first are the same.
The platform was not in regular use after 1908, although it was still listed in guides and included on maps after being abandoned. The wooden structure presumably began to deteriorate after a relatively short time. Today, a large pile of rocks on a sloping embankment alongside Walnut Hill Road is among the few visible reminders of the sidings' existence.
Litchfield Enquirer - August 1, 1872 - This advertisement for iron-clad milk cans was designed to attract the attention of dairy farmers located along the route of the Shepaug Valley Railroad who wished to safely ship their product to market.
The Stony Hill Siding is shown in the Right of Way and Track Map, the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad, dated June 30, 1915. The line was no longer used at this time, but the N.Y., N.H. & H. R.R. still owned the right of way. The platform in the map's center created a bridge from Walnut Hill Road to freight cars stopped on the tracks below. Photo Credit
Stony Hill Siding Location, 1934 Connecticut Aerial Map – This aerial image from 1934 shows the location of the Stony Hill Siding that was located across from 174 Walnut Hill Road in Bethel near the Newtown border. Photo Credit
Stony Hill Siding Platform Foundation - This pile of rocks across from 174 Walnut Hill Road and within the Joyce Dixon Nature Preserve may be the last vestige of a foundation for a wooden platform that once served as the Stony Hill Siding for the Litchfield Division of the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad. The siding was used only for freight purposes and not passenger service. (Author's photo)
"The End of the Line"
The Abandonment of the Bethel Branch - Timeline
The story of the old Bethel Branch's slow, painful demise contains many twists and turns. Passenger and through-freight service ended in 1908. In 1909 the line was opened to serve as a spur, essentially one long siding for Bethel businesses with their own individual sidings that required either deliveries or outbound shipments. It seems that by late 1914 there were no longer any Bethel companies requiring the spur. No definitive date for track removal in Bethel has been found, but Newtown's tracks were removed before June 1914. The following timeline helps to summarize the final days of the Bethel Branch.
1905 - March 3, 1905 - The Newtown Bee publishes an article regarding rumors that the closing of the Bethel Branch is being considered by the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad.
1907 - May 31, 1907 - The Newtown Bee publishes the last timetable showing Bethel as part of the Litchfield Branch of the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad.
1908 - March 18, 1908 - The Newtown Bee publishes an article indicating that the Bethel Branch line to Hawleyville is to be abandoned and that a steam shovel and a gang of men were at work cutting out a passageway for the Shepaug track direct to the track ofthe Highland Division of the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad. This new track configuration would allow trains to bypass the Bethel Branch by re-routing them through Danbury. Trains would travel to and from Hawleyville, through Brookfield via a route that was already part of the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad's Highland Division. Thus, the Bethel Branch line was no longer necessary as it was considered redundant.
1908 - June 18, 1908 - The New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad formally petitions the Connecticut Railroad Commission for permission to abandon the 5.95-mile-long line between Bethel and Hawleyville and its sixteen grade crossings. They make the case that no passenger depots would be abandoned in this process.
1908 - July 25, 1908 - The Connecticut Railroad Commissioners grants the petition of the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad to discontinue the Bethel branch line. From this point forward, it would have no service connection with the old Shepaug main line running to Litchfield.
1909 - May 6, 1909 – A Connecticut Supreme Court decision in the case of Bethel & Redding Lime Company versus New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad declares that the former Bethel branch line cannot be discontinued. The lime company located off Plumtrees Road utilized a railroad siding at their lime kiln, and trains transported shipments from their quarry to the Danbury-Norwalk rail line, and from there to points south. They had argued that discontinuing the spur service would dramatically harm their business. A second concern known as the Plumtrees Lime Company, located further west, also utilized a spur for its deliveries.
1909 - May 10, 1909 - In the wake of the state supreme court case, the Bethel Board of Selectmen petitioned the Railroad Commission to keep the former Bethel branch line open to the Newtown border for use as a spur line that would serve businesses that possessed sidings.
1909 - May 20, 1909 - The petition of the Bethel Board of Selectmen requesting that the spur line be left open was granted by the Railroad Commission.
1911 – January 23, 1911 – The Bethel Board of Selectmen petition the Railroad Commission for the abandonment of the Bethel spur from the depot to the Newtown line.
1911 - March 9, 1911 - The Connecticut Railroad Commission granted the petition by the Bethel Board of Selectmen to abandon the Bethel spur. The date set for discontinuance was June 1, 1911.
1911 - June 17, 1911 - At a special town meeting, a motion is approved to direct the Bethel Board of Selectmen to petition the Connecticut Railroad Commission to rescind its recent decision to close the Bethel spur. Proponents of keeping the spur open stated that it was still necessary for coal delivery to the Judd-Andrews hat factory at 1 Milwaukee Avenue and for shipments from the Plumtrees Lime Company, which planned to increase its operations.
1911 - June 27, 1911 - A special hearing is held by the Connecticut Railroad Commission at which no party opposed the petition to re-open the Bethel spur.
1911 - July 3, 1911 - The Connecticut Railroad Commission authorized and permitted the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad Company to maintain and operate the Bethel spur from the Bethel depot to the Hawleyville passenger station.
1912 - August 10, 1912 - The U.S. military utilized the Bethel spur to transport equipment during large-scale military exercises being conducted in southwestern Connecticut. Equipment was unloaded from flatbed cars stopped on Main Street, and troops were encamped first in the Plumtrees district and later in Elmwood. The August 10, 1912 edition of the Danbury Evening News reported: "All day yesterday, a large gang of trackmen was at work along the line of the Shepaug tracks, from near this station (Bethel), to quite a distance out."
1914 - June 26, 1914 - An article in the Bridgeport Times and Evening Farmer states that the old Shepaug tracks in Hawleyville had previously been taken up, and adjoining landowners had taken control of the railroad right of way and erected property fences down the center of the old route. A group of Newtown "auto enthusiasts" hoped to develop the old Shepaug railroad bed from Hawleyville Depot to the Danbury-NewtownRoad as an auto road. They obtained leases for the right of way from the N.Y., N.H. & H. R.R. but abandoned the effort due to the tremendous cost and work estimated to complete the project.
1914 - October 7, 1914 - The buildings of Plumtrees Lime Company on Plumtrees Road, are destroyed by fire.
1914 - November 21, 1914 - The Plumtrees Lime Company announces that its stockholders have voted to terminate the corporation and to discontinue operation rather than rebuild. One of the last business concerns to utilize the old Bethel Branch as a spur line was now no longer active.
1930-1938 - The New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad, now in financial difficulty, sells off parts of the old Bethel Branch line right of way to adjoining property owners.
1948 - May 3, 1948 - The Interstate Commerce Commission grants the New Haven Railroad (formerly the N.Y., N.H. & H. R.R.) permission to close its Litchfield branch (formerly the Shepaug railroad's main line running from Hawleyville to Litchfield).
Thus, the days of the "Gritty Little Shepaug" in Bethel ended, not with a bang but a whimper. When plans to discontinue the Bethel Branch were announced in 1908, the Newtown Bee noted that Levi Penfield Treadwell, one of the civil engineers who had laid out the route of the Bethel Branch in 1871, had lived long enough to see the line abandoned. In less than one lifetime, the little railroad had come and gone, the victim of changing times, improved technology, and increasing railroad consolidation. It had never delivered great financial benefit to Bethel or generated significant passenger or freight service. Constantly evolving railroad mergers and acquisitions and the arrival of the automobile and improved roadways sowed the seeds of its demise, as they did for the Shepaug main line. Still, from 1872 to 1908, there seems to have been a great deal of pride, although sometimes begrudgingly expressed, in having a truly local railroad that had become an accepted community member. In addition, a special bond among towns stretching from Litchfield to Bethel was lost when the branch ceased operation, which has never been re-established. Today, the line's existence has nearly been erased, except for a few enduring masonry landmarks and undeveloped stretches of right of way. It is hoped that this now concluded four-part series of articles has assisted in preserving the history of the Bethel Branch and that of the Shepaug railroad in all its various forms for at least another generation. Those who made the route a reality are worthy of remembrance.
Newtown Bee - March 3, 1905 - This article represents the earliest public indication that the Bethel Branch might be reaching the end of the line. Three years later, the rumors mentioned here would prove to be true.
Newtown Bee - March 13, 1908 - Construction required to bypass the Bethel Branch and bring about its abandonment began in March 1908. A formal petition to abandon the line was submitted to the Connecticut Railroad Commission in June 1908.
Newtown Bee - July 24, 1908 - Levi Penfield Treadwell (1836-1913), a civil engineer who had played a part in laying out the route of the Bethel Branch beginning in 1871, lived long enough to see it abandoned.
The tremendous cooperation and assistance the following groups and individuals provide 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 special thanks to Patrick Wells, Research Specialist; Michele Lee Amundsen, Collections Manager; and Brigid Guertin, Executive Director and Danbury City Historian
Cornwall, L. Peter (1987). In The Shore Line's Shadow, The Six Lives of the Danbury & Norwalk Railroad. Littleton, MA: Flying Yankee Enterprises.
Fletcher, Cooper E. (2002) The Shepaug Railroad 1872-1948, Self-published
Raber, Michael S. (2022) Connecticut's Arched & Rusticated Bridges,
Turner, G. M., & Jacobus, M. W. (1986). Connecticut Railroads… An Illustrated History: One Hundred Fifty Years of Railroad History. Hartford, CT: Connecticut Historical Society
(NOTES: All spelling, punctuation, and grammar usage has been retained in quoting from original sources.)
The author hopes to combine the four articles from the series, Building the Bethel Branch and produce a complete edition in print form in the near future.