Of courses: clapboards meet their cornerboard, at the edge of the night.
“Feel it in the one drop.” Robert Nesta Marley
In this post I return to my explorations of local railroad history, particularly the vestiges of the colorful story of the West River Railroad, originally known as the Brattleboro and Whitehall. With the same motivation as my previous post, having heard that the Newfane Depot was still standing – in its original location this time – I went in search of another station. Travelling north out of Brattleboro on Vermont Route 30, I accompanied the West River in its sheltering valley just as the narrow gauge had in its heyday (an economic concession to the high cost of muscling a railbed through the mountainous confines of a New England river on a very low budget). The station was relatively easy to find, on Depot Street in the village center (see page 11); the road is known better these days as Cemetery Hill Road and is not to be confused with Depot Road in Williamsville, another settlement in the town of Newfane, with its own station and story – more to come on that, no doubt!
The West River Railroad’s Newfane station as it stands today (privately held), from the southeast corner: the same vantage point as the historical photo
Vermont’s traditional nomenclature system for organized municipalities can be a bit confusing to a newcomer. The state is divided into 14 counties in a rather passing manner, but most importantly, into 237 towns (and 9 cities, along with 9 other anomalies); this is where the real political seat of power resides and is zealously defended every first Tuesday in March at Town Meeting. Within the many square miles of a town’s borders may be cities, villages, and hamlets, some or none of which may share the town’s name. The Town of Newfane is no exception. The picturesque and often-photographed center of what is now known as Newfane Village – which happens to be the Windham County seat, known in Vermont as a “shire town” – was known originally as Fayetteville (and before that, Smith’s Flats), honoring the Marquis de Lafayette. The name was changed to its present form just about the time the railroad came to town in 1880. I wonder if the timing was not coincidental…
The West River Railroad’s Newfane station from the northwest corner, showing the transomed sliding door on the north gable used for freight and baggage. Another freight door can be seen in the shadows of the previous photo, on the east facade.
The building has a rough poured concrete foundation presently; the beam pockets used to jack and lift the structure for that purpose are readily observed along the lengthwise sills. The West River Railroad was widened from 3 feet to standard gauge in 1905 (the same year the name officially changed from the B & W RR to the WR RR), a grudging concession by its ongoing operator Central Vermont Railroad to the times as they changed. The limitations of narrow gauge rolling stock made it difficult to conduct commerce with connecting roads, not to mention the restrictions on the size of the loads themselves (the granite and timber men were particularly vocal in this regard). At least this was the theory behind their petitions: the projected rosy profits never quite seemed to materialize. The broadening of the rails was quite a feat unto itself: undertaken by the Central Vermont using the labor of 350 men, 36 miles of a single rail were thrown out to standard in just over one very long day by borrowed crews of gandy dancers working round the clock. The roadbed here at the Newfane Station seems more than adequate accommodation for the task, but in other places it must have been a major undertaking in planning and preparation, especially given the logistics of the schedule!
Station Master J.J. Green is seen sitting on the platform of his pride and joy.
J.J. Green, a local farmer and stone mason, was a prime organizer in the town behind the effort to bring the railroad to Newfane and was appointed station agent at its inception. Tragically, he died in the catastrophic bridge collapse at “Three Bridges” in Brattleboro, over the confluence of the West and Connecticut rivers, just six years later. His fascinating diary of life in those days has been published and provides an intimate look into the daily details of a small Vermont town in the year 1885, one year before his untimely passing.
Douglas Cox’s stunning recreation of the Newfane station in HO scale, built by Bill Banta of Banta Modelworks. This is the first of many modules planned to recapture rail history in the Brattleboro and West River locales.
Doug Cox, a local craftsman and a reknowned master violin maker, has recently undertaken an ambitious and exciting project to model and operate an envisioning of railroad history in this area. The Newfane station on the West River Railroad was the first scene to be constructed and I am looking forward to seeing much more of this fascinating undertaking. I salute his vision and attention – the depth of detail in this small section is breathtaking.
Looking south from the station, across the former grade crossing of Depot Street, the abandoned roadbed drifts off into the woods behind the village.
What’s next? There’s much more to find and learn on the “36 Miles of Trouble” and its neighbors. I consider myself lucky to be an adventurer in these parts; come along for the ride!
Tree ferns tower overhead, backlit by a February afternoon at the Lyman Conservatory at Smith College Botanic Garden, Northampton, Massachusetts.
Looking down into the layers at Lyman Conservatory, Smith College Botanic Garden.
From the 2013 calendar by Old Maps (a Porter Thayer photo, I believe): the West Dummerston Station on the West River Railroad.
I’m a history buff – of the local variety in particular. I find that it lends a perspective and a story to the places I discover or frequent that make the experiences richer and more rewarding. It colors who we are now and where we may be headed; hopefully, we learn from what we have done as well and do a little better on the next go-round. I’m also a rail aficionado, ever since I lived in Scranton, Pennsylvania for two years as a boy; what a railroad town! That combination of interests is what has spawned this blog series about small adventures down the line of railroad history in my neck of the woods.
Southern Vermont, and Brattleboro in particular, has no dearth of backstories either and railroads are no exception. One of our more fabled local roads was the West River Railroad, more properly the Brattleboro and Whitehall Railroad, which, to make it more confusing, was operated under the aegis of the Central Vermont Railroad/Railway. The latter became part of the Grand Trunk (notice the boxcar behind the tender) and then the Canadian National; CV is now part of the New England Central Railroad (owned by RailAmerica). This shortline endeavor, known as “36 Miles of Trouble”, had many whistlestops along its tortuous length and narrow-gauge 3 foot width (standardized in 1905), all built in a simple, architectural style. The West Dummerston depot stands out (diminutively) for its hipped, fully overhung roof; most of the others were straight gables with the typical bracketed platform overhangs of the time.
The West River Railroad crossed its namesake immediately before its northbound approach to West Dummerston village.
I had recently read that the short line’s West Dummerston depot still stands – of course, I had to go in search. Taking a short jaunt north of Brattleboro on Vermont Route 30, I followed the West River’s course, turning off just before the remains of the railroad’s stone bridge piers still standing in the river bed. West Dummerston is a small hamlet within the town of Dummerston proper, now a quiet residential shade of its former self: I easily found the former railbed cutting across the terrace which holds the village like a shelf display of quintessential New England. I couldn’t quite find the building in question – I was a little off the mark, casting about the main section of town where the church, schoolhouse, and Grange Hall clustered. With a chill wind at my back, eventually I asked for help and was pointed in the right direction. A private residence now, the original roofline was unmistakeable although there was an addition and the millwork had been completely changed. The orientation with respect to the former right-of-way seemed different, as well, and subsequent information confirmed that (see comments below).
From the photographic evidence, the tracks ran west of the building; the vintage photograph shows the land dropping behind the depot, and a bit of another building’s roof can be spied just in front of the locomotive’s pilot, or cowcatcher. This means the orientation of the old photo is looking northeastward, toward the hills of Putney on the other side of the West River; it is doubly deceiving since the land around the station is no longer as open as one might expect from that venerable vantage point, but then again, this is true of most of Vermont: the forest has reclaimed most of the agricultural land, not to mention the industries and rail corridors. It is entirely possible that the small structure was moved from its original footprint (this would have been a cinch, given its stature) but it doesn’t seem to have gone far. I have read that there was a freight building also, at one time. There was probably a siding or two; I believe there is a switch for a spur in front of the depot in the old photo. The building of this quixotic road was a big deal in those days; every valley village had a stop (indeed, many of these small towns pledged a sizable sum to finance the construction) and rail service , although questionable at times, was zealously courted and jealously secured.
Brattleboro was the southern terminus of the West River Railroad, where it met its step-parent the Central Vermont coming north from Connecticut, after running over a mile or two on the right-of-way of the southbound Vermont Valley Railroad (later, the Boston and Maine) coming from Bellows Falls, Vermont, further up the Connecticut River. The West never made it to its intended northwestern goal of Whitehall, New York; after 36 miles of struggle it ended at South Londonderry, Vermont: its initial charter as the Brattleboro and Whitehall thus gave way fittingly to its river namesake. The assignment of title and chronology of events can be quite confusing but makes for a very interesting saga and a freightload of potential adventures. I plan to visit, document, and describe a few more of these discoveries in the future so come back around and see what surprises may manifest. I hope it’s as much fun for you as it certainly is to me!
Note: this post has been edited (April 7, 2013) since original publication to remove specific location references and reflect some additional information. Some extant structures are now held privately and consideration should be given to this. Ask for permission whenever possible. Many owners enjoy conversation about the stories behind the building they are proud to preserve, often being railroad history buffs themselves.
Overhead at Whetstone Station Restaurant and Brewery.