Location: [Home] [Train Travels] Valley Railroad Excursion
Our children, Brendan and Rebekah, attend day care at the Northford Early Childhood Development Center in Northford, CT. In the summer Wednesdays are field trip days, featuring a variety of educational and fun sites in the area. On this Wednesday, the field trip was to the Valley Railroad's Essex Steam Train and Riverboat ride in Essex, Connecticut. Brendan was eager to have a parent along, and once one of us decided to go, we all decided to go--with the result that the day care had an extra three adults (myself, Evelyn, and Evelyn's mother) to help shepherd the children.
We left Northford at 9:00 am with the group in the school bus and arrived in Essex about an hour later. The train was visible standing along the platform by the station (an old depot, which I suspect was built for freight, not passengers), but the locomotive was not at the head. I spotted it eventually on a service track behind the train's end and to its east.
Several groups had made reservations for the train that day, and the Valley Railroad staff had planned well. Each group had its own designated car. NECDC's director, Mrs. "B," collected our tickets from the group sales office, where they told her that we would be aboard car 501. As with all the cars on the train, it was painted Pullman Green and lettered for the Connecticut Valley. When we found it, it had a card labelled "Northford" in the window, clearly identifying it. We waited on the ground-level platform for the announcement that we could board.
When the announcement came, it began with the rules for behavior--no food, no sticking limbs out the window, etc. We climbed the steps to the car. These had semi-closed vestibules connecting each car; there was no diaphragm between, and the doors were open. I later noticed a sign that passengers could not pass between cars while the train was in motion, which seemed a fair precaution without the diaphragms. The interior was very plainly finished, with a few simple unlit electric lights, and a plain metal luggage rack overhead. The seats were bench seats, and their backs could be moved so that the one could be seated facing forward or backwards. Most of the children put the seats into a facing configuration by themselves. The ceiling followed the line of the old-style clerestory, though there were no windows in it. I did notice some panels that could be opened or closed in the clerestory section, but I'm not sure what they were for.
I'm fairly sure that these cars were built for commuter service. They were originally used on the Lackawanna around Hoboken, and the plain, sturdy furnishings point to that service to me.
Shortly after we boarded, the locomotive, # 97, passed along a parallel track heading for the front of the train. There was no jolt when it coupled, but we did notice some hissing in the air tanks for the brakes below. Almost exactly on time for its 10:30 am start, the train moved north.
The right-of-way is fairly narrow, with rock faces coming close to the train at several points. They aren't kidding when they tell you to keep limbs in the car! We passed some marshy areas as well, and ran under CT Rte 9 toward the Connecticut River. The train ran fairly slowly, and the track felt rather uneven. The conductors left the doors between cars open, so that when the track was straight (there really aren't any sharp curves) you could see a good way through the train. From our car I could easily see the rails laid out behind us. It was rather amusing, and somewhat disconcerting, to see how one car could rock so very differently from another!
As we went, one of the staff reminded us of the rules and described the consist over a PA system. I really regretted bringing no note-taking items along. We came up fairly soon to the only other station on the route at Deep River Landing. We didn't stop, but continued a short way further up the road with a good view to the right of the Connecticut River and the actor William Gillette's castle (now a state park) visible on the opposite bank. Just over a small trestle, the train stopped, then reversed with a good jerk to go back to the Landing.
At the landing the PA system came on again to tell those of us who were taking a ride on a riverboat where we should go. Some--a couple of groups and all the non-group passengers--would be taking the three-decked Becky Thatcher, while the rest of us would board the two-decked Silver Star. Both are medium-sized, screw-driven, diesel or gasoline powered river vessels, though the former has stacks in imitation of a steamboat. Despite the good crowd, we kept our group together and stepped up the gangplank onto the Silver Star.
From Deep River Landing, the boats headed north through the shallow channel of the Connecticut River, which the Army Corps of Engineer dredges to 15 feet. We passed right below Gillette Castle, which is a striking if peculiar piece of architecture built of fieldstone. A crumbling trestle spans a dramatic stone formation shaped like the stern of a Spanish galleon just beyond, which is also part of the old Gillette estate; I can't be sure whether the trestle once supported a hiking trail or the actor's large-scale railway.
The boats turned about at the steel Goodspeed swing bridge from Haddam to East Haddam. The Goodspeed Opera House, the tallest wooden structure in Connecticut and home of a popular theater, decorated the east bank. Other traffic on the river included a sizable group of canoes, speedboats, and a small ferry just below the Castle. The scenery is mostly wild and green, as the river's depth has never encouraged the siting of great ports or industrial zones. The Connecticut is one of the few great rivers in the US (if not the only) which does not have a substantial port at its mouth.
As we were docking, the train passed by on its way north; it would soon back up to the platform at the Landing. We waited for a few minutes on the boat, then assembled the children and disembarked. I must say that the Captain and the crew member who pointed out the sights both did an excellent job.
For safety, the gates to the train platform were kept shut until it was stopped, and we waited on the dock. As we walked down to board, the train crew uncoupled the engine, which ran north to clear some switch points, backed down a parallel track on the far side of the train, then ran forward on the platform track to couple onto the back (now the front) of the train. The locomotive would pull us home running tender-forward.
Back in our car #501, the kids settled down again and off we went. At one point I looked down the aisle and realized that I could see the number-blazoned smokebox of the locomotive, which was an interesting sight. The marshes gave us two gifts: to see a flying white egret and a flying, then landing great blue heron. But soon we were back at the Essex depot and stepping off the train.
The Valley Railroad's yard has a number of other pieces in it in addition to those in our train's consist. They have a second active Mikado (#40), and a 2-6-2 on a track which no longer connect to anything. A GE 40-tonner was coupled to a series of cars which I think comprise the VRR's dinner train, something I want to do some day. Other items include a doodlebug, various boxcars and a wooden refrigerator car, a New Haven Railroad flatcar, and a snowplow. Unfortunately, we couldn't linger. I managed a quick glance into their gift shop, but that was it. We soon climbed onto our bus for the trip back to Northford. Brendan snuggled up to me and fell asleep on the way.
Locomotive: Valley Railroad # 79, Alco (?) 2-8-2 Mikado, originally in freight service on a southern road.
All cars were steel heavyweights built between 1915 and 1930