Depot Discoveries Part Seven

In which Part Seven is more accurately entitled Part Five Continued. It’s a return to the Putney station on the Vermont Valley Railroad, part of the Connecticut River Line (later the Rutland Railroad, Boston and Maine, Vermont Central, et al.), with some light to shed on the evolution of the depot building itself and a few asides. Sometimes things take a turn, and the old aphorism “You don’t know what you don’t know” takes on fresh meaning. However, the more light shed, the more clarity and who doesn’t like credence?

Boston and Maine Station Putney Vermont

The original depot building built by The Vermont Valley Railroad described in my earlier post, a Victorian structure in keeping with the times and other sister stops on the same line. Note the wooden rolling stock on the back track, including a passenger coach, and the single mainline track in this vintage postcard from the Middlebury Collection.

The Vermont Valley Railroad came north from Brattleboro, Vermont starting in 1850, up the west bank of the Connecticut River to Bellows Falls, Vermont, a major rail interchange in those burgeoning days. There it connected with the Cheshire Railroad, the first to service Bellows Falls in 1849 (just across the river in North Walpole, New Hampshire); the Sullivan (later Sullivan County) Railroad, also of New Hampshire, which reached North Walpole from the north later that same year; and the Champlain and Connecticut Railroad (later the Rutland and Burlington RR) which linked Bellows Falls and Burlington at the very end of the year 1849. The Vermont Valley Railroad opened for service in 1851, making the Bellows Falls connection through a novel 400-foot-long tunnel dug under the village’s business district so that it could make the approach to the junction on the “Island.” The 30 acre “Island” was created when the Bellows Falls Canal, the first in the nation, opened to allow navigation around the Great Falls in 1802.

Boston and Maine Putney Vermont station

A 1940’s (or later) photograph with a southbound loco shows the original station but now fronted with double track; the second main track between Putney and Bellows Falls, Vermont, about 14 miles, was constructed between 1901 and 1903. Steel rolling stock waits on the home track and a post barrier of short rail sections has been installed at the edge of the parking area.

The railroad built its depots, as most lines did, in an architectural style reflective of the time period and scaled to the settlement it was serving (as well as the construction budget!). Putney’s wood-frame Victorian station was quite similar in looks to others up and down the road’s rails, with a steep cross-gabled roof, gingerbread rake trim, diamond windows, pendants, hooded window casings, and a bay window trackside to allow the stationmaster a good view of the trackage.

boston and maine putney vermont station alternate

Another shot seemingly taken on the same day; the Putney Station placard is hung over the gable window’s hooded head casing. The lower quadrant style semaphore‘s arm is in the down (or off) position, signaling the track is clear to proceed.

Through further research, this author has learned that the Putney Depot in its original incarnation met its end in a night fire on April 13, 1951 and was replaced with a new, smaller structure the following year. Operation at this time, very near to the end of service to the small town of Putney, was by the Boston and Maine. The new station building was built on roughly the same footprint, if not the same foundation, as the original; the bay window location is relatively unchanged, but the structure’s length appears shortened. The semaphore signal is now an upper quadrant type, a common-sense safety improvement over the older lower quadrant model: if the operational wire or throw rod was broken, the arm would fall by gravity to the horizontal (blocked or danger) position, whereas the old style’s arm would fall to the vertically down (off or safe position) – a potential hazard if the track was not, in fact, clear.

rebuilt boston and maine putney vermont station

The rebuilt Putney Depot stood on the same footprint as its predecessor and is the structure still standing in that location. A boxcar lurks in the shadows as before. The purpose of the stone curbing between the double track, also seen in the earlier photographs, is puzzling.

putney vermont depot today

As per my earlier post on the subject, the Putney station building is the one still standing in that location, near Kathan’s Ferry crossing on Depot Road; it’s available as an overnight rental through AirBnB. Permanently parked on a remnant of back track behind the depot is a wooden car with a cupola, but this is not a caboose. It is an ex-Central Vermont flanger car, used to scrape the rail top surfaces after the plow had cleared the bulk of a snowfall from the right-of-way; the cupola gave the operator a view of the tracks so the blades could be lifted at switches and grade crossings for clearance. Formerly Central Vermont Railway rolling stock, it was last in the possession of Green Mountain Railroad; saved by the owner from the scrapheap, it was moved to its present place of repose around 2002.

g&w flanger

A flanger car on the Genesee and Wyoming Railroad in Retsof, NY (image by John LaRue). In a strange twist of coincidence, the trackage in front of the Putney depot is now operated by the G & W, which took over RailAmerica’s New England Central Railroad, the most recent owner of Vermont Valley’s original Connecticut River Line,  in 2012.

There’s no end to the pleasant discoveries that may be made as we poke around the brambles, the library stacks, and the web. Thanks for dropping in – please feel free to leave a comment if you like and be sure to check back for more ad hoc adventures and depot discoveries!

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Depot Discoveries Part Six

brattleboro trolley at wells fountain

A vintage postcard shows the trolley passing the Wells Fountain at the north end of its route, after having looped past the Common. Vermont’s Windham County Superior Courthouse now stands behind the fountain, replacing the Victorian residence.

Today’s adventure involves railroad sleuthing of another stripe. Although not a depot, it is a discovery – and it’s about rails, so that makes it close enough for me. This time we find ourselves back in Brattleboro, Vermont amongst the possible remnants of the Brattleboro Street Railway Company (p.3), more commonly known, of course, as “the Trolley.” There’s a limited amount of information on this fascinating layer of Brattleboro’s history, both in print and on the web, and almost nothing of material substance, but I hope to be able to dig up and write about a few different aspects of the little road as I encounter them. The Brattleboro Street Railway Co. ran its first streetcars in 1895, opening for business after both strenuous opposition and staunch support; the last ticket was sold in 1923 and the rails torn up. For a brief time, a section of track remained on Main Street and then the trolley was gone completely, but in its heyday it carried an average of 2,500 passengers a day! More on this in subsequent posts, if I can muster up a few more clues to pursue…

brattleboro street railway under construction 1895

The Brattleboro Street Railway Company ran its first public trip on August 1, 1895. This photo shows the rails being laid on lower Main Street, approaching Whetstone Brook.

Brattleboro Lower Main Street trolley tracksBrattleboro’s lower Main Street some years later, showing the trolley tracks with one of the three turnouts on the line: this one to transfer passengers to Union Station, to the right of the frame at Bridge and Vernon Streets, for the Central Vermont and Boston and Maine.

I have a favorite morning spot on the backside (and trackside) of the Brattleboro’s wonderfully active brick-fronted Main Street. The east side of the downtown commercial area edges up to the Connecticut River and is shadowed by New Hampshire’s Mount Wantastiquet on the far bank; the mainline tracks of the New England Central lie below a steep embankment, following the watercourse and parallel to the downtown structures. There are a couple of alleys that penetrate the three- and four-story blocks and allow a quieter, albeit less polished, view of the river valley, away from the bustle of streetside facades and traffic. The vantage point under discussion is behind the Richardson (1924) and Devens (c. 1840-45) blocks: there, a stout railing tops a retaining wall for private parking and access to the humbler back doors of the commercial buildings. In this case, the railing is truly a railing.

Google Streetview 78 Main St. Brattleboro

Google Streetview shot of the alley; in one of those strangely serendipitous digital anomalies, the ghost of trolley tracks leads into the narrow side street.

The sturdy construction befits its precipitous perch; steel posts edge the paved terrace behind the buildings and broad planks span them, keeping everything from tumbling down on to the tracks: pedestrians, parked cars, dumpsters, backfill. I had noticed a long time ago that the posts were actually lengths of used rail; I didn’t think about it much at the time, since finding repurposed rail in a trackside situation is a rather common occurrence. Then my value perception shifted: I learned about mill marks on steel rail and realized there was some useful information to be gleaned from this bit of long-lasting industrial evidence. Perhaps if I went back and looked closely, I might find a clue as to their origin, now that I had an idea about where to search and what it might connote.

backside railing

The railing in situ, trackside on the NECRR mainline, but… we cannot asume the salvaged steel is related to the nearby track simply by proximity.

Most modern North American trains roll on T-rail, so-called from the profile of the rail in cross-section. When T-rail is rolled at a steel mill, it is labelled permanently on the web of the rail, which is the thin section between the top – the “head’ – and bottom – the “base” or “foot”) with several bits of information, historically with raised characters in relief and more recently with a stamped  legend. Usually these “mill marks” include the company’s name, mill location, date of manufacture, and the size of the rail, among other data possibilities. Rail comes in a plethora of sizes, most of them standardized by the industry’s overseeing organizations, so that sundry track installations can match each other cleanly as far as height and width, etc. Size is referred to in terms of weight per linear length – in the case of North America, in pounds per yard. Older installations tended to be lighter weight, since equipment was smaller and performance was less demanding; rail is sized by expectation, in other words, as well as the technology of the time. Mainlines are heavier; sidings are downsized. The Brattleboro Street Railway, to give an example, might be expected to have laid a rather light rail specification of, say, 50 lbs., due both to its era and its primary deployment of single streetcars. Today’s mainlines are much heavier: the New England Central Railroad mainline through Brattleboro, for instance, is continuously welded steel rail with a weight of 112 lbs/yard – and that’s not as heavy as other, much more heavily freighted lines.

full rail cross section

A cross-section of lightly-worn used rail allows measurements of the critical dimensions.

There are a couple different rail sizes incorporated into the railing in question, but most of them are the lightweight examples which had struck me as unusually small. A fact to keep in mind when measuring used rail is that the surfaces are worn, sometimes heavily, especially on the faces in contact with the rolling stock’s wheels, usually the top and one side of the head; curves will be worn even more heavily on the outer rail in the radius. Thus, it’s important to look for the least worn specimen at hand. Armed with a tape measure, I recorded the a few of the various dimensions needed to identify the rail size: width of head 1.75″, width of base 3.75″ , thickness of web .5″ , total height of rail (base to head) 3.25″ . Vintage rail tended to have a 1:1 ratio between total rail height and width of base, in other words, they should match. In this case, it was slightly off but this can be accounted for by several factors: wear, mill variation, or a non-standard specification. I consulted a rail size chart and could not find a perfect match; I narrowed the specification down to  the 35-45 lb. class.

worn rail cross-section

A heavily worn rail cross-section, probably from the outside member on a curved section.

Now, for the mill marks – I could only find one rail post that had a barely legible inscription; the posts have accumulated several coats of paint on them so that wasn’t helping matters. But most of the information was there, as best as I could make it out: —S Co. SCRANTON NW 12 94 – definitely enough legend to begin to zero in on the source. The steel company in Scranton (Pennsylvania) during that time period was the huge Lackawanna Iron and Steel Co., founded by the Scranton family itself; it was the second largest steel plant in the country and produced massive amounts of steel rail for the nation. LI&S Co. had two huge furnace and rolling mill installations in Scranton, known as the North and South Works (or NW and SW). The cryptic mill marks are starting to make sense…

rail mill marks

Beginning of the rail’s mill mark legend: —S Co. SCRAN(TON)…next frame>

rail mill marks

…(S)CRANTON N(W)…next frame>

rolling mill mark date

…(N)W 12 94 (end)

What this tells us is that this section of 35-45 lb. rail was most likely rolled in Scranton, PA by LI & S Co. in December (12) of 1894 (94). As a point of reference, when new trackage is laid the rails are usually taken directly from the gondola or flatcar on which they were shipped by the mill. Orders are filled as they are placed; newly laid rail may be only weeks old – generally, rail is not stockpiled but sent out as soon as it is rolled. Now, combine that with the fact that the Brattleboro Street Railway was laid in 1894-95 – officially opened in August, 1895 – and we have an interesting proposition before us. There is a pretty good chance that these recycled railing posts are one of the few vestiges of the Brattleboro trolley extant.  I have not yet been able to confirm from which company the original rails were procured just before the turn of the century; this would be an excellent clarification. The only booklet on the subject, Trolley Days in Brattleboro, by Donald Shaw (1948) has very little hard and fast information – it’s mostly assembled anecdotes from the town’s Vermont Phoenix newspaper articles of the time. I’ll keep digging… In the meantime, I have a couple other leads to pursue on the former trail of the Brattleboro Street Railway Company. Have your tickets ready, please!

Depot Discoveries Part Five

railroad crossing sign with rail post

The traditional crossing sign still stands, on a post made from a length of rail. A brand new crossing control system (#129.95) has been installed nearby as part of the high-speed rail improvements made recently on the Connecticut River Line.

My latest adventure took me to Putney, Vermont, just north of Dummerston Depot and a few miles north of Brattleboro on the one-time Vermont Valley Railroad, now running under the colors of the New England Central. In the intervening years between its opening in 1851 and the present-day, of course, many other insignia travelled along this winding but mostly gentle grade which follows the Connecticut River valley and the watery boundary between the states of Vermont and New Hampshire. The Rutland Railroad, the Boston and Maine, Central Vermont, Guilford… these are a few of the  companies which have used this section of trackage along the Connecticut River Line. Soon there may be a fresh, bright livery coming up the tracks in the form of orange with an accenting yellow base and black trim: Genesee and Wyoming was just approved (December 2012) to take over RailAmerica, parent company of the New England Central.

Putney Landing Road Google Map

Screenshot from Google Maps shows how Old Depot Road was bisected by the building of Interstate 91. The riverside end is accessed from Putney Landing Road now.

Putney is a small southern Vermont village in the town of the same name (total U.S. census population of 2,634 in 2000; now estimated at 2,702), once known mostly for agriculture and water-powered manufacturing mills. It was chartered in 1753; although settlement began shortly before that time, the long French and Indian Wars were going on and this was contested territory. Settlement did not begin in earnest until the British defeated the French (alongside their respective Native allies) at Quebec in 1760. The small town grew rapidly and began producing products that needed a way to be brought to market, along with a population that desired a means of transportation faster and more reliable than a horse on a rutted or snowbound dirt road. The Vermont Valley Railroad Company was incorporated in 1848 (amended 1849) with plans to build from Brattleboro, Vermont to Bellows Falls, Vermont directly north up the Connecticut River Valley, a distance of approximately 24 miles. Construction began in 1850 and the trains began running in 1851; the Putney Depot was a regular stop. Another stop was made in East Putney immediately north, another tiny mill settlement at Putney Falls (but that’s another story!).

Boston and Maine Station Putney Vermont

A vintage postcard from the Middlebury College Archives shows the original Victorian trim and an assortment of rolling stock on the back siding (view looking northwest).

Putney Station is just off of the eastern section of Old Depot Road, a town highway now split into two separate lengths by the construction of Interstate 91 a few decades ago. It is accessed by turning east from Vermont Route 5 at Curtis’ World Famous BBQ on to Putney Landing Road, which also functions as the feeder from I91 northbound. The station building is left (north) of the railroad crossing (NECRR mile marker 129.95), across from the Putney Paper plant (dba as Soundview Paper Company these days) and immediately before the road crosses the tracks (the west side) and drops to the river at the Putney Landing. The historic landing (actually the southernmost of two main crossings) was begun by Captain John Kathan in 1752 to connect the town with Westmoreland, NH: it’s now an official Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife Access Area, #170, a beautifully peaceful spot on a wide stretch of quiet river.

new england central freight

A southbound New England Central freight heads over the Putney Landing crossing (052748C in the Federal Railroad Administration’s crossing databank).

putney landing road

Putney Landing Road drops to the former Kathan ferry crossing (circa 1752) to New Hampshire on the Connecticut River, now a state recreational access point.

The railroad depot structure has seen some changes since its glory days on the Vermont Valley and Boston & Maine Railroads, but it is in fine repair and if you’re a railfan, it’s even available for an overnight stay from the current owners, through AirBnB. Now, that’s a rare treat! About seven trains a day (including Amtrak’s Vermonter on its roundtrip to St. Albans) pass through this now-sleepy intersection, horns blowing but no whistle-stop to be had.

putney station today

The depot building as it stands today, rebuilt with substantial facade changes but maintaining the same asymmetrical layout; . There’s even a caboose (nearly all of its superstructure has been replaced) on the remnants of the back siding.

True to the period in which it was built, the original building was Victorian in style. More ornate than some others in the area (see my posts on the West River Railroad), the steep cross-gabled roof with its gingerbread trim, diamond window, hooded casings, rake pendants, board-and-batten siding, and bay window are reminiscent of the next Vermont Valley Railroad station south, in East Dummerston. The bay window has survived, along with the semaphore signal tower – lacking its wooden arms now – but still standing tall.

southbound at putney station

Looking south past the station, Putney Paper’s processing mill stretches along the trackage, its siding now gone. The block’s signals glows red from the recent freight.

putney station signal tower

The upper quadrant semaphore signal sleeps in its horizontal (danger or blocked) position, painted arms and colored glass light lenses missing from their sockets.

necr milepost 130

Modern mile post 130 stands alongside its retired granite counterpart (view looking north on the east side of the tracks; note Connecticut River through the underbrush).

putney milepost s 69 boston and maine

Granite mile marker (north side) with its older Connecticut River Line designation of S 69 . A sagging telegraph wire arcs past the tangles of undergrowth.

Next stop north on the Vermont Valley Railroad is East Putney. What will we find there? Whatever it is, it will be another adventure in time and place in this little corner of New England’s railroad history.