By Jim Cameron
If you’re looking for family fun this summer, consider visiting one of Connecticut’s many living museums celebrating our state’s rail heritage. And remember… kids are free at CT museums this summer!
The Shore Line Trolley Museum in East Haven (www.shorelinetrolley.com) was founded in 1945 and now boasts more than one hundred trolley cars in its collection.
It’s on the National Registry and is the oldest continuously operating suburban trolley line in the US, still running excursion trolleys for a three-mile run on tracks once used by The Connecticut Company for its “F Line” from New Haven to Branford. You can also walk through the car barns and watch volunteers painstakingly restoring the old cars. There’s also a small museum exhibit and gift shop.
The Connecticut Trolley Museum in East Windsor (www.ct-trolley.org) began in 1940, making it the oldest trolley museum in the US. It too was started on an existing right-of-way, the Rockville branch of the Hartford & Springfield Street Railway Company. You can ride a couple of different trolleys a few miles into the woods and back, perhaps disembarking to tour their collection of streetcars, elevated and inter-urbans in the museum’s sheds and barns.
If you’re looking for a day-trip, especially for kids, I can highly recommend either trolley museum. But if you’re looking for real trains, you’re also in luck.
The Danbury Railroad Museum (www.danburyrailwaymuseum.org) is walking distance from the Metro-North station in “the Hat City”, making this potentially a full-day, all-rail adventure. They are open seven days a week and on weekends they offer train rides and, for a premium, you can even ride in the caboose or the engine. They have a great collection of old rail cars and a well-stocked gift shop.
For nostalgia fans, The Essex Steam Train (www.essexsteamtrain.com) offers not only daily rides on a classic steam train, but also connecting riverboat rides up to the vicinity of Gillette Castle and back. In addition to coach seating you can ride on an open-air car or in a plush First Class Coach. There’s also a great dinner-train, “The Essex Clipper” which offers a 2½ hour, four-course meal and a cash bar.
In downtown South Norwalk you can visit what once was a busy railroad switch tower, now the SoNo Switch Tower Museum (www.westctnrhs.org/towerinfo.htm).
Admission is free (donations welcome) weekends noon to 5:00 pm.
Also open only on weekends is the Connecticut Eastern Railroad Museum in Willimantic (www.cteastrrmuseum.org). In addition to guided tours, visitors can operate a replica 1850’s-style pump car along a section of rail that once was part of the New Haven Railroad’s “Air Line.”
The Railroad Museum of New England in Thomaston (www.rmne.org) offers rail trips on Saturdays, Sundays and Tuesdays along the scenic Naugatuck River in addition to a large collection of restored engines and passenger cars including a last-of-its-kind 1929 New Haven RR first class “smoker”, complete with leather bucket seats. Among their special excursions… a Whisky Train, Ice Cream Train and a Chocolate Decadence Tour.
All of these museums are run by volunteers who will appreciate your patronage and support. They love working to preserve our state’s great railroad heritage and will tell you why if you express even the slightest interest in their passion. Bring your kids and let them see railroading history come alive.
JIM CAMERON has lived in Darien for over 25 years. He serves on the Darien RTM and is Program Director of Darien TV79. He served 19 years on the CT Metro-North Rail Commuter Council, four as its Chairman. In 2014 he founded a new advocacy group, The Commuter Action Group which speaks on behalf of Metro-North riders. His newspaper column “Talking Transportation” archives can be found at http://talkingtransportation.blogspot.com/