Historical Background

Historical Background

A total of four railroad companies were initially responsible for developing rail service within the study area; the Danbury and Norwalk Railroad, the Housatonic Railroad (HRR), the New York and New England Railroad (NY & NE), and the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad (NYNH&H). The following section provides a brief history of each of the railroads, and how their services shaped the rail service that is in place today.

Danbury and Norwalk Railroad

In 1835 a rail charter was granted to the Fairfield County Railroad Company by the Connecticut legislature to build a railroad from the Massachusetts state line, where it would connect with a proposed east/west line, through Danbury, CT, to a port on the Long Island Sound. However, before construction could begin, the Housatonic Railroad (HRR) received a separate charter from the legislature in 1836 to build a rail line from Bridgeport to New Milford and the Massachusetts state line at Canaan, CT., temporarily ending the plans for the Fairfield County Railroad.

NH 1320 & 0318: Changing from electric to steam on New York-Pittsfield, MA train, circa 1947, Danbury, CT. Photo: J.W. Swanberg Collection

It was not until almost fifteen years later that the Fairfield County Railroad backers came back to the state legislature with a plan for a railroad between Danbury and Norwalk. Chartered in May of 1850 by the state legislature and renamed as the Danbury and Norwalk Railroad, construction on the 23 mile line began in 1850 with the first train going into operation in February of 1852. Utilizing two steam engines, trains would make two round trips each day, with a one-way trip between Danbury and Norwalk taking 75 minutes.

From the 1850’s through the 1870’s the line did well financially as its freight and local passenger service was successful. However, since the Danbury and Norwalk was competing against several other railroad companies, including the HRR, which had in fact built a connection in 1868 from the HRR main line at Brookfield Junction to the Danbury and Norwalk line in Danbury, the company sought to strengthen its freight service by developing an intermodal (rail/ferry) connection at Wilson’s Point in South Norwalk in 1882. This connection proved to be very profitable, and made the company an appealing business partner for other railroad companies.

NH 355 Northbound, arriving from NY in Danbury, CT. March 16, 1958. Photo taken by J.W. Swanberg.

With an overlap in service between the Danbury and Norwalk, and HRR, and a desire by the HRR to expand its service area, the two companies reached a deal in 1886, whereby the HRR agreed to lease the Danbury and Norwalk for a period of 99 years.

In an ambitious move to divert traffic from the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad (NYNH&H), the HRR then entered in an alliance with the New York & New England Railroad, where freight service would run between Boston and New York, via Hartford, Waterbury, and the Danbury Branch down to Wilsons Point at which cars would be floated over to Long Island and eventually carried by the Long Island Rail Road to Brooklyn. While this service was initially a success, it eventually suffered the wrath of the NYNH&H, which used internal problems to the HRR and NY & NE, as well as threats to build a parallel line to the HRR’s New Haven-Derby Line, to purchase stock control of the HRR in July of 1892.

Treading unfamiliar light iron, the 360 waits in the clear in Bethel, Connecticut Lower Siding on the last day of 1957 as EP-3 356 rolls North from New York. The first 30 FL-9’s are on the property, and these still-efficient electrics have been banished to Danbury Branch commuter service. 356 North, 360 South Bethel Lower Siding, CT. Photo taken by J. W. Swanberg.

Housatonic Railroad (HRR)

The HRR received their charter from the Connecticut State legislature in 1836 to build a rail line from Bridgeport to New Milford and the Massachusetts state line at Canaan, CT. HRR backers saw the line as a way to serve the important iron, granite, marble, and lime industries located in Litchfield County, as well as a means to form, although somewhat indirect, a water-rail route between New York City and Albany, NY. Construction of the line began in 1837, with the 34.76 mile segment from Bridgeport, CT, via Newtown and Brookfield, to New Milford, CT, completed in 1840. Completion of the remainder of the line to the Massachusetts State line occurred in 1843.

Although the line initially experienced some financial problems in the early 1850’s, passenger service, and to a somewhat lesser degree freight service, grew steadily from the 1860’s through the 1880’s between Bridgeport, CT and Pittsfield, MA.. The area around Pittsfield, the Berkshires, had in fact become such a popular vacation spot for New Yorkers, that in 1883, the HRR introduced the Berkshire Express to provide faster service between New York City and Pittsfield, MA. While the original train route was via Bridgeport, Botsford, Newtown, Hawleyville, and Brookfield Junction until 1886, with the leasing of Danbury and Norwalk Railroad by the HRR, the route was switched between Danbury and Norwalk, which was more direct. However, as stated earlier, financial problems and threats made by the NYNH&H to build a parallel line to the company’s New Haven-Derby Line, forced HRR into being acquired by the NYNH&H in July of 1892.

New York & New England Railroad (NYNE)

The New York & New England Railroad (NY & NE) emerged in 1873 from the reorganization of the Boston Hartford & Erie Railroad (BH&E). Within the study area, the primary contribution of the NY & NE was the construction of the rail connection between the HRR at Hawleyville and the Danbury and Norwalk Railroad at Berkshire Junction in 1881. This connection became part of the NY & NE’s mainline operation which ran from Waterbury, CT to Fishkill Landing (Beacon) , NY, and was originally developed to provide an important link for freight (such as coal) coming into New England from points west, as well as provide direct freight competition to the NYNH&H main line which ran parallel to the south.

NH I-2 4-6-2’s 1336 and 1338, Danbury, Connecticut on August 1, 1936. Just off No. 141 with milk cars. Photo: J.W. Swanberg Collection.

NH EP-2 311 laying over at Danbury, Connecticut, January 5, 1958. Photo taken by J.W. Swanberg.

While the primary purpose of the NY & NE mainline operation was freight service, the NYNE also provided passenger service between Hartford through Waterbury to Brewster, NY. To help accommodate this service the NY & NE even built three rail stations along the route, in Danbury (at White Street), at the Danbury Fairgrounds, and in Mill Plain.

In the late 1880’s the NYNE and HRR teamed together to provide heavy freight service from Derby and New Haven through Danbury, and Brewster, NY, to Fishkill, NY. The service, which operated on the Danbury-Derby Line owned by the HRR and the track built by the NY & NE in Danbury later was to become known as the Maybrook Line (after 1904).

Although this service was very successful, with the acquisition of the HRR by the NYNH&H in 1892, and the subsequent taking of control of all the track from Derby to Danbury, the NY & NE could no longer be competitive for freight service, and was forced into being absorbed by the NYNH&H in 1898.

New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad (NYNH&H)

Between 1892 and 1910, the NYNH&H began acquiring a number of smaller railroad companies throughout southern New England. These acquisitions, as detailed above, included the Danbury and Norwalk, HRR, and the NY & NE. With the takeover of these smaller lines, the NYNH&H consolidated many of their services, eliminated duplicate lines, abandoned much excess track, and focused the development of service on high traffic routes.

On the former Danbury and Norwalk Railroad (between Norwalk and Danbury), local passenger train service was improved to 10 round trips a day in 1904, as service was shifted from the HRR’s original Bridgeport to New Milford route, to the Danbury and Norwalk line (today’s Danbury Branch). In fact, following WWI, the number of passenger trains on the HRR’s original Bridgeport to New Milford route was gradually reduced, with passenger service eventually being completely terminated in 1931. In addition, following the reorganization of the NYNH&H in the late 1930’s, two segments of the route were abandoned altogether including North Bridgeport to Stepney and Hobarts (west of Hawleyville) to Brookfield Junction.

Following the takeover of the HRR in 1892, the NYNH&H also introduced through passenger service between New York, and Pittsfield, MA (via the Danbury Branch), which was designed to provide service for weekend travelers from New York City who wanted to reach the Berkshires, as well as local service to Brookfield, New Milford, and other communities located along what became known as the Berkshire line. This service was typically provided by two weekday trains, with additional trains on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, and in the summer to accommodate vacationers. The NYNH&H maintained this basic service schedule until 1960, when weekday train service was reduced to a connecting rail diesel car (RDC) north of Danbury.

From 1960 through 1969, when Penn Central took over, the only remaining through service between New York and Pittsfield, MA, was on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. However, with the creation of Amtrak in 1971, which was given the responsibility of operating intercity passenger rail service, the New York to Pittsfield service was designated as a non-core (any route less than 90 miles) or marginal route, and in May of 1971 service north of Danbury was finally eliminated.

In June of 1925, the NYNH&H took the next step to improving passenger service between Norwalk and Danbury both by electrifying the branch (11,000 Volts A.C.), which reduced travel time from Danbury to South Norwalk from 55 minutes to 42 minutes, and introducing commuter service between New York City and Danbury. However, while the NYNH&H continued to improve passenger service along the branch, freight service was marginalized, as the majority of its freight was shipped via the company’s mainline.

With the onset of the depression and the acquisition of many unprofitable lines, the NYNH&H fell on hard times. In 1935, the NYNH&H petitioned the bankruptcy court for reorganization under section 77 of the bankruptcy laws to shield the troubled railroad from its creditors. Service on all its lines was cut, with the Danbury Branch down to five round trips a day by the mid 1930’s. While service on the branch and the entire railroad rebounded briefly during WWII due to gas rationing, the company could not compete with government subsidized highways and airlines, high rates of taxation, enormous commuter service losses, and the out-migration of heavy industry from New England to the south and west, as well as its own internal problems, and finally had to file for bankruptcy again in 1961.

While not a direct result of the bankruptcy, the company “de-electrified” the Danbury Branchy in 1961, taking down the catenary wire, and began using FL-9 dual diesel electric locomotives. The de-electrification wasimplemented moreto eliminate the Danbury engine change for Pittsfield trains, and to sell the copper overhead wires for scrap.
The NYNH&H including the Danbury Branch was absorbed by the Penn Central Transportation Company, the merged New York Central and Pennsylvania Railroads, on January 1st, 1969.

1970 to Today

Less than one year after the take over by the Penn Central, the company, which had its own financial problems due to poor management decisions, inherited debt, and poor investments, also was in bankruptcy court. On June 21, 1970, Penn Central officially filed for bankruptcy, and was issued a court order to allow them to continue to operate their trains and conduct business as usual until an alternative solution could be reached.

While Norwalk to Danbury Service continued to operate during this period on a limited basis, down to four round trips per day, the infrastructure along the branch was falling into major disrepair. In addition, freight business also suffered along the branch, due to competition from the trucking industry. The state of rail freight was so bad in Connecticut, as well as other states in the region, that Congress attempted to reorganize the Penn Central and force the company to abandon unproductive rail lines. However, a federal study commissioned by Congress concluded that there was in fact enough freight activity between Danbury and Norwalk to continue service.

To allow for the provision of service in 1971, Penn Central agreed to lease for a period of 60 years their lines covering passenger service in the state. Under this arrangement Penn Central would operate the service, but all infrastructure and equipment maintenance would be left to ConnDOT and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

While Penn Central was operating service under bankruptcy protection, the U.S. Government created the United States Railway Association to develop a way to save rail services in the East, as the Erie Lackawanna, Jersey Central, Lehigh Valley, Reading, and Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines were all in bankruptcy in addition to the Penn Central. The result was Conrail, which took over the above lines on April 1, 1976.

Although Conrail was at the time a freight company only, it provided commuter, as well as freight service on the Danbury Branch from 1976 to 1983, when the Metro- North Commuter Railroad was formed to provide commuter rail service in New York and southwestern Connecticut. Conrail did however continue to provide freight service along the Branch, as well as the Maybrook line, until 1998, when Conrail was sold to CSX and Norfolk Southern.

In a related development, in 1985, ConnDOT exercised its option to purchase the New Haven Line right-of-way in Connecticut, including the Danbury Branch. This was done to preserve the right-of-way for future use and ensure that infrastructure on the line is maintained.

North of New Milford, what was known as the Berkshire line remained dormant from 1971 until 1983, when John R. Hanlon Jr. chartered the “new” Housatonic Railroad and began restoring much of the abandoned track. The Housatonic became a common carrier in 1989, and by 1992 had purchased the portion of the line between Brookfield and New Milford, and Canaan, CT and Pittsfield, MA, leaving a state owned segment in between, but with operating rights granted to the Housatonic Railroad. In addition, the Housatonic Railroad also purchased the Maybrook line from Derby Junction to the New York/Connecticut border.