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Letter From The Editor

July 2024
3min read

If we may pose a question to our readers, When do you suppose the picture above was taken? Twenty years ago? Fifty? Or seventy? We confess we hope you make the last choice, because that is the effect the scene hopes to convey, even though the photograph was actually made in August, 1971. It shows a train on the Valley Railroad in Connecticut, its ancient but sturdy steam locomotive and cars painstakingly restored, inside and out, to the high gloss of railroading in the very early years of this century, when steam was king, managements were proud, and the presidents of great systems were sometimes more highly regarded in the United States (as the historian James Bryce observed) than mere governors or even the President in the White House. If some of these lordly figures were scoundrels, they were nonetheless Persons of Importance and enjoyed, besides, the right of riding on every other fellow’s railroad on special passes, which were on occasion made of solid gold.

We go into this last matter in some detail and with twinges of regret, because your editor, when he is not working on the magazine in New York, is president of this little railroad in Connecticut. The prestige of the job has evaporated in our times along with that of America’s railroads themselves, and there are, alas, no more passes; but a little privilege is still there. On this kind of railroad, the president gets to sit near the office pot-bellied stove, and he can schedule special trains, as he has just done for the staff of American Heritage.

What these history enthusiasts saw and what future riders on American Heritage Society tours will witness is an authentic ride through the past. Valley Railroad trains steam out of an old-fashioned station in the old seaport town of Essex, on the thinly settled lower reaches of the Connecticut River. They move slowly north along the rebuilt roadbed through woods, glades, and rocky defiles until they come out on the wetlands and the broad river itself. At the little town of Deep River a connecting steamboat sometimes takes the riders upstream on another turn-of-the-century adventure. The engine switches around the train in a flurry of puffing and bell-ringing, and presently the cars move back again to Essex. The whole railway trip is, so far, only eight miles, but it will be extended in time, as the old overgrown track is cleared and repaired, to the nineteenth-century hamlet of East Haddam, site of Goodspeed’s Opera House, and down to a connection with the Penn Central main line five miles south of Essex at Old Saybrook. In May, 1972, weekend service will resume, and trains will also run daily forty-five-minute trips from Memorial Day through Labor Day.

The present Valley Railroad reopened this past summer on July 29 in a blare of bands, bunting, and oratory. Historians reminded the crowd that it was, by no coincidence, the exact hundredth anniversary of the first train on the original Valley line, from Hartford down the Connecticut River to Old Say-brook—the most beautiful right-of-way in New England and the least altered by time. The state of Connecticut bought the line after its abandonment a few years ago and leases it to the present company. It cares about the preservation of the valley, and the lieutenant governor, T. Clark Hull, came to give his blessing.

We need not tell the professional railroad men among our readers that none of this would be possible if the Valley Railroad were a regular, commercial, unionized operation. It is, of course, a work of love, restored to the last stay bolt and gleaming varnished wood panel by skilled volunteers and operated by still others, smartly uniformed in ancient, starchy railroad style. If they are brokers and businessmen and plumbers and computer experts (one works for the Apollo spacecraft program) and even editors during the week, they are do-it-yourself enthusiasts for historic railroading on their weekends. They have gradually collected and repaired their rolling stock of steam engines, coaches, old diners, mail cars, cabooses, and work equipment from derelict sidings and scrapyards—antique mechanical monsters for which spare parts simply cannot be bought. The volunteers make what they need, using ancient, donated machine tools. They dig and ballast and repair track. And the crowds turn out, drawn by the mournful whistle or the miraculous, panting steam engine or perhaps the charm of history. The children, especially, are enthusiastic. The volunteers suddenly find themselves joined by new members, and the president of the company, watching it all with happy astonishment, has stopped caring about the gold passes he will never receive. “Call it transportation,” a newspaperman said to him as he eyed a crowded train, “and they go bankrupt. Call it a ‘ride’ and you can’t even get on the train.”

There is something in that remark, something to be considered by AMTRAK , with its pitifully dwindled network of dingy rattletraps called trains, something to be pondered by a government that has too long neglected a major means of moving people with speed and comfort. It may be true, as Lewis Mumford wrote twenty years ago, that when the present trains finally vanish, it will be necessary to reinvent the railroad. In August we observed in the press that the Postmaster General had announced a startling new service called “next-day delivery.” The Valley Railroad invites the Secretary of Transportation to come up, ride its line, and see what he can invent to match the Post Office. We will even give him a pass.

Oliver Jensen

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