Portland, CT to Franklin, MA

The Air Line

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Map submitted by Aaron M.

(Forwarded from the New York & New England Railroad)

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A typical scene on the remains of The Air Line, this is through Bishop's Cut in East Hampton, CT. Photo by Aaron M., May 2011.

This line, known as "The Air Line" was envisioned as a direct route between New York City and Boston. Built to bypass the still-active Shoreline Division east of New Haven (which follows the coast of New England), the Air Line at its completion connected to the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad (NYNH&H or simply the New Haven, NH) Shoreline Division at Cedar Hill Yard in New Haven, CT, where it then continued on to Boston. The line contained many feats of engineering, thanks to mountains, valleys, and numerous rivers along the route, though its curves and steep grades both expensive and controversial to build, would later lead to its downfall and abandonment.

It opened in 1873 as the New Haven, Middletown and Willimantic Railroad. At its completion, the line was 25 miles shorter than the Shore Line. After the failure of its parent company in 1975, it was reorganized into the Boston and New York Air-Line Railroad, and later, the New York and New England Railroad (NY&NE).

The NY&NE was a fierce competitor to the NH, whom at the time, held a virtual near-monopoly of Connecticut rail traffic. Eventually, it would become part of the NY&NE's mainline from Poughkeepsie, NY and Boston. One of the most memorable and most famous trains of the NY&NE over The Air Line was the "Ghost Train." Created to attract wealthy travelers, the luxurious Pullman cars were painted white with gold trim, and the staff of the train wore white uniforms. The service started in 1891, but ended in 1895 due to the cost of cleaning the white cars. To make the trip shorter than the Shore Line, water pans were first used on the Air Line before any other railroad in the United States. These investments proved to be worthwhile, and shaved several hours of the trip off the Shore Line.

Success didn't last very long, and after disputes with its rival, the NH, the NY&NE could no longer get access to New Haven, which sent the railroad into bankruptcy. By 1898, the NH purchased the line, for which spelled doom.

Immediately after the NH acquired the line, most passenger traffic was rerouted to the Shore Line, thanks to the Air Line's curves and steep grades, which limited trains in size and speed. In the early 1900s, the NH upgraded the line, including the raising of bridges, and the filling in of the massive Lyman and Rapallo viaducts (named after former Air Line presidents).

While New York-Boston through trains ended in 1924, passenger service began a steep decline on the line, ending just short of the start of World War II, in 1937. By this point, most trains used the Shore Line, with the Air Line being used for mainly for a few oversized and heavy freight trains.

In 1955, the bridge over the Quinebaug River was washed out, severing the line just west of Putnam. The financially strapped NH could not justify the cost to repair the bridge, and thus abandoned the line from Pomfret to Putnam in 1959. Interestingly, according to photos taken on the NERail website, rails in this segment remained until the early 2000s, when they were removed to make way for the rail-trail.

As traffic on the remaining segments dwindled away, and the NH entered bankruptcy again, the NH sought to raise cash by resuming its abandonment of its unprofitable lines, a mission it had halted since the Depression. In 1962, the NH abandoned the North Windham to Pomfret segment, and by 1964, abandoned the Portland to Willimantic segment. In 1968, another bridge was washed out, this time over the Blackstone River. By 1969, the NH sought to abandon the Blackstone to Putnam segment. In 1970, the NH was merged into the Penn Central. The remainder of the line was gone early into the PC years.

Today, the portion of the Air Line from New Haven to Portland is still in use by a shortline railroad, the Providence and Worcester Railroad. The portion north of Franklin, MA is now in use by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) as the Franklin Branch. The vast majority of the right of way is now in use as a rail trail, with the Connecticut portion known as The Air Line Trail, and the Massachusetts portion known as the Southern New England Trunkline Trail. In numerous places where they formerly paralleled the tracks, one can find roads and streets named "Airline," "Railroad," and "Depot."

An interesting note, as rail traffic and congestion began to increase on the northeast corridor in the 1990s, the government researched the possibility of rebuilding the Air Line and relaying track. However, just like when the line was first built, the costs associated with rebuilding and upgrading the line for modern trains with its curves and steep grades ended the idea, with federal funding going towards electrifying the portion of the Shore Line from New Haven to Boston.

References:

  • Joseph P. Schwieterman, When the Railroad Leaves Town, 2001
  • Ronald Dale Karr, Lost Railroads of New England, 3rd edition, 2010

Thanks to Aaron M. for contributing information about this route.

Neat, and thanks 2 U and Aaron M. I lived in Colchester in the early 80's, right at the end of that unusual north/south branch. The Colchester train station was at the end of the line, right next to my house. It was a package store in the 80's. I used to walk the rails towards Amston (the junction of the branch with the Air Line)with my beagle. I used to ask locals just where did the line go? I was always told "It went to UCONN". Now I know.

Jay
Madison, CT
11/24/2013

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There is a typo in the second paragraph - should be 1875.

I was born and raised in New Haven (the City) and lived in Connecticut for 40 years before moving to Florida in the 80's

Robert Hines
Jacksonville, FL
8/14/2014

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The line did go to UCONN ... The Dodd Library which stores the archives and memorabilia of the late and great New Haven ... 150 years of tradition unhindered by progress !

russell hurley
goshen, CT
12/4/2014

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Why was the line called the "Air Line"?

Joel
San Francisco , CA
5/11/2015

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Joel,

It was called the Air-Line because the route was so straight it was as if someone had drawn a line in the air, from what I have been told. The route goes crosswise to all the ridges and streams, thus there are many cuts and trestles (now filled in), whereas most railroads followed the easier route (parallel to the ridges and rivers).

Rich Cizik
Willimantic, CT
6/1/2015

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You're correct Rich. I spent 40 yrs on the RR and some of the oldtimers I worked with actually worked over the "Airline" when it was still in service. I believe this was the route the NY,NH,&H used to ship new autos because of its rural ROW and the low incidents of stonings.

russ
goshen, CT
6/1/2015

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Thank you Rich,

I was reading up on the Amtrak proposals for HSR, and saw some discussion about using the Air Line to make the connection from Hartford to Providence, but apparently the track grading and radius requirements were too stringent that the Air Line right-of-way provides little benefit.

Joel

Joel
San Francisco, CA
6/1/2015

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the route was studied in the middle 90's for use as the HSR corridor.It was actually 20 miles or so shorter so I was told. The idea was rejected for those reasons Joel and in addition it bypassed Providence

russ
goshen, CT
6/2/2015

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I have good memories the great state of Connecticut. It's ironic that we too had an Air Line in Wisconsin which ran from Milwaukee to Fond du Lac WI, for The Chicago and Northwestern RR. It too had some sharp curves of which one I lived closely by. It competed with the Shore Line Route of the C&NW, along with The Milwaukee Road and the Soo line Railroads. Part of that line between West Bend, behind the old homestead, to Eden WI was taken up in 2000. Amtrak in the 00's talked about redoing the old air line for a Milwaukee to Green Bay service, but never came to reality. Also in photo 9 show an abandon cranberry bog, I have relation which owns and operates a cranberry marsh in Warrens WI. Back to Connecticut. I did field service as a vender for Electric Boat Division on numerous submarines at both Groton and the Navy's sub training school at New London. Sad to see that they at one time operated rail yards in both places, but now seemed abandoned. Got to see Yale when I was at Hartford CT. Closest I got to New York was to Old Saybrook On I95. Did drive HWY 1(Post RD)from New London to Warwick RI. Enjoyed seeing on colonial houses and towns along the route.

D. Marks

D.Marks
South Milwaukee, WI
7/14/2015

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Jay, the house you lived in and the International Package Store are still there. Also still there is the freight station, an antique store for many years.

I lived in Lebanon 1973 - 1999, have some nice things from the antique place and bought many a bottle of wine from the Int. Package Store!

I lived in Haddam Neck and went to E Hampton High, popular teenage thing was jumping/diving off the "Vidocks" until someone broke their neck. When the trestle across Main St was removed one day, many didn't notice, people just don't look up...

Dan

Dan
East Haddam, CT
8/11/2015

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If the railroad were to be revived, what would happen to the rail-trail portion? Would it be relocated, or abandoned altogether?

Dante Ramos wrote a nice column about this is yesterday's Boston Globe. Reader Jeff Hecht posted the link to your page.

https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/editorials/2015/11/29/connecticut-problem-with-massachusetts-rail/Ab97riUGT7W6mtWDXiiMqN/story.html#comments

Dana
Boston, MA
11/30/2015

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An excellent writeup by Aaron M.

Here in Wallingford there is an Airline Road right next to the tracks still used by the trap rock quarry at Reed's Gap.

Also There is still a "East Wallingford" on your road map of CT, next to the tracks just to the right of exit 14 of I91.

I recall reading long ago that this got on the first auto maps because the train stopped here - connecting with the extensive trolley system to the south an east. JP Morgan was charging too much to disembark passengers in New Haven.

I would like to find out more about East Wallingford story. If you can help me out, forward to "oceans1129 at hotmail dot com". Thanks

Jared McQueen
Wallingford, CT
4/29/2016

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Is the bridge in Middletown/Portland still in use? I pass by that bridge everytime I'm on route 9, and its always in the open position.

Greg B
West Hartford, CT
5/4/2016

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I haven't been over the bridge in 30 plus years. I think the P&W may use it today if there are any consignees left on the east side. There used to be a junk yard, and Charter Oak Container back in the day.

russ
goshen ct., CT
5/4/2016

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