Prosperity Echoes In The City’s Past

Once upon a time, the Norwich railroad station was a vital part of the city’s economy. It wasn’t so long ago that passenger service by train on the “Bud car” (as they called it) brought people from New London to Worcester and stopped at all points in between. It was a single railroad car, and it was the final dying gasp of a railroad system that had yielded to trailer trucks, buses, but most importantly, automobiles.

Today, we still have two railroads, the Central Vermont, which travels through the west side along the Thames River from Canada to New London and, of course, the Providence and Worcester, which handles freight and runs from Worcester and Providence to New London along an Eastern Connecticut inland route.

I took today’s photo about 1940 when we still had steam locomotives and many of the freight trains would be over 100 cars long. As a boy, I remember some of us would play a game by estimating how many cars would be part of the on-coming train.

A Love for Trains

There is a romance that I think all people have with trains. Maybe it is a whistle or the association we have with travel. Country and western singers are always talking about trains and whistles in the night, and while they make great lyrics for songs, there aren’t many whistles in this area anymore.

There is at least one whistle that everyone in Yantic, Norwichtown, Chelsea and parts of East Great Plains hear nightly as the Central Vermont Railroad blows the whistle for the crossing in Yantic, then again at Otrobando Avenue and Pleasant Street, and New London Turnpike by Benny’s.

If you are a patient at the Backus Hospital, that lonely whistle in the middle of the night is almost a mournful sound. But, to people my age, it does remind us of the sounds of many whistles in years gone by.

Train whistles could be heard throughout the day and night approaching every crossing, especially in Greenville where there were six crossings. There was a crossing at the gas house, Golden Street Extension and lower North Main Street. Then, there was the rail crossing at Atlantic Carton, another at American Woolen, and, of course, the Eighth Street crossing. The single track carried two-way traffic as we had sidings where one train would pull off the main track to allow another train to pass.

Blowing the Whistle

There were no CB radios or  cellular phones and the trains seemed to signal everything with whistles. It was, howver, very appropriate that the whistle woke the people of Greenville, because it was the birth of the Worcester and Norwich Railroad that created Greenville and brought the first Irish to Norwich in great numbers.

Believe it or not, in 1836, there was only one Irishman in all of Norwich — Edward Murphy — in a total population of 4,000. That may be very hard for some to believe, because by 1868, there were over 4,000 Irish; half the total population of Norwich. No, that one Irishman did not populate.

The others came because of the Great Famine in Ireland. It was along the railroad tracks in Greenville that the poor Irish immigrants built their shanties; thus the term in Norwich, “Shanty Irish.”

The “Shanty Irish” were those who mostly lived in Greenville and whose immigrant ancestors fled Ireland and worked long days for low pay but found and built a home and stayed in Norwich.

When today’s picture was taken, you could still get a train from Norwich to New York City. Such historical names as Western Union, American Express, and Railway Express operated from Norwich. It was also a hub for mail delivery and pick up, and mail trucks would back up to the platform carrying their mail and pick up mail to and from Willimantic and all points north.

Freight trains, as well as passenger trains, used to have mail cars, and believe it or not, armed guards would ride the mail cars. Mail sorters would sort mail as the trains traveled from point to point. Trains leaving New York would drop off individual pouches with mail for New London, Norwich, Danielson, and Putnam. The smaller towns along the way, like Jewett City and Plainfield, would have mail pickers that would pick up and drop mail without the train ever stopping.

An arm extended from the railroad car, and local post offices in the smaller towns would hang a mail bag, and the arm would pick up the mail, and the mail clerk would throw the incoming mail through an open door to a local mail carrier. The system worked beautifully.

You could send a postcard for 1 cent and first-class letter for 3 cents, and delivery was overnight. Of course, the mailmen in those days had two deliveries — one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

A Daily Commute

One man I knew commuted daily by train from Norwich to Danieson where he owned a store. And years ago, The Norwich Bulletin’s reporters in Putnam and Danielson had to have their newscopy ready in the early evening to put on the train for Norwich and The Bulletin.
Norwich was at her greatest when she was the transportation hub of Eastern Connecticut. Where today stands the municipal parking lot and viaduct, once stood a turn-around (or round house as they called it) for locomotives. As a boy, I recall that open field with tracks coming to the center like spokes on a bicycle wheel.

The locomotives would be stored in the sheds and this huge centerpiece could turn the locomotives to run north or south. In fact, on North Main Street today, where Joe Fatone’s Shetucket Plumbing supply is, that very building that runs along North Main Street, between Shetucket Plumbing and the gas and electric plant, was known as the car barn, because they used it to repair and reconstruct passenger cars for the railroad industry at the turn of the century.

When Norwich  lost the rail traffic and later the bus traffic to trailer trucks, automobiles , and the Connecticut Turnpike, it surrendured much of its trade and commerce. With it went much of Norwich’s downtown vitality.

Once upon a time, railroad whistles could be heard all day and night and people, and cargo, and the mail all moved by railroad. The history of the Irish in Norwich was born in the construction of the Worcester and Norwich Railroad. Today, as we look at the Norwich railroad station, it is in bad repair. That station, none the less, stands as more than a memory; it is a monument to days gone by when the “iron horse” (as the Native Americans called steam locomotives), by its route, would determine the economic prosperity along its line.

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