The railroad station evokes for many of us a nostalgia for a world of our long ago, or of one we never knew. Whether it is the bustle of Grand Central Terminal or the dusty platform of a country depot, railroad stations are the relic of a romantic past, a world where the whistle of a train approaching the platform brought the eager anticipation of a new adventure or the relief that a journey has ended and home is near.
From the mid-1800s to the early 1900s the impact of the railroads in southern New England, an in the entire United States, cannot be underestimated. The railroad symbolized progress and expansion. It was the decisive factor in the growth of manufacturing and industry and the distribution of immigrants throughout the region. Whether or not a railroad run ran through a town was often the difference between its future prosperity and its ultimate decline.
The railroad station served as a symbol of a community’s prosperity and pride. It often acted as the “city gate,” and was for many visitors their first impression of a city or town. Although the construction of the station was paid for by the railroad, the residents sought to influence the design, seeing the station as a reflection of their image or of their hopes for their town’s bright future.
The railroad station was where the world came to a community’s doorstep. Telegraph wires, strung along the railroad route, and mail delivered by railcar, made the stations an important gathering place, where the townspeople came for the important news of the day. Businesses near the stations could easily ship out their products, the grocer had easy access to the station for goods to restock his shelves, and the housewife came to pick up her catalog orders.
With the region’s first railroad lines built from Boston to Lowell and Worcester, Massachusetts, and Providence, Rhode Island, in 1835, dozens of railroad lines sprang up in southern New England to connect cities and towns. The 1872 merger between the New York & New Haven Railroad and the Hartford & New Haven Railroad to become the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad (better known as the New Haven Railroad), and the continued expansion of the this line, created a long-sought link between New York City and Boston. By 1904 the majority of smaller lines in the region were absorbed into the vast New Haven Railroad system.
At its peak in 1929, the New Haven Railroad owned and operated 2,131 miles of track throughout eastern New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. Despite the New Haven Railroad’s many successes, like many post-World War II railroad lines it could not prevent the encroachment of the automobile or the airlines. The New Haven Railroad collapsed in 1969 to join PennCentral, and with the dissolution of PennCentral in 1976 commuter lines heading out of Grand Central Terminal into Connecticut are now run by Metro-North Commuter Railroad, under joint ownership of New York and Connecticut.
Railroad stations in southern New England ran the gamut from opulent structures in such cities as New Haven, Worcester, Providence, and Boston, to simply designed town stations, to country depots that were little more than shelters to protect those waiting for their trains from the weather. The railroad hired important architects of the day to design several of the stations, including Henry Hobson Richardson, who designed the Romanesque –styled New London, Connecticut, station in the late 1880s, and Cass Gilbert, designer of stations in the Bronx, New York, along the New Haven Railroad route to Connecticut.
The decline of the railroad lead to the abandonment or destruction of stations and depots along the line, particularly those along branch lines. Many stations, including those in Danbury, Connecticut, and Chatham, Massachusetts, became railroad museums. Others, like the Worcester, Massachusetts, station, now house business offices or shops and eateries. Other small depots became private homes.
With a few noted exceptions this exhibit shows photographs, station architectural drawings, maps, and memorabilia from the Railroad History Archive in Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries. The archive holds the corporate records of the New Haven Railroad and over fifty related collections of photographs, timetables, maps, and historical documents of the New Haven Railroad and its predecessor railroad lines. For more information about the railroad history archive, see http://railroads.uconn.edu/
More images of Connecticut railroad stations from the collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries, as well as the collections of Mystic Seaport Museum and the Connecticut Historical Society, are available at Connecticut History Online at http://www.cthistoryonline.org/
Dodd Center Gallery & West