I Think I Can, I Think I Can…
Essex Steam Train, Essex
October 10, 2007
Puff, puff! Chug, choo! Off they started!
Slowly the cars began to move. Slowly they climbed the steep hill. As they climbed, each little steam engine began to sing:
“I-think-I-can! I-think-I-can! I-think-I-can! I-think-I-can! I-think-I-can! I-think-I-can! I think I can – I think I can – I think I can I think I can–”
Yeah, we thought we could last year too, but alas, a driving rainstorm and a longer than expected morning at the Norwich Spa caused us to miss our train. (So instead we went to the Connecticut River Museum a couple miles away.) Cripes, that feels like the tenth time I’ve linked that museum visitâ€¦ Because it probably is. This was the fourth separate visit to the small quintessential New England town of Essex, near the mouth of the Connecticut River.
That’s the most of any town – which is weird because it’s pretty far away and It’s not like it has a billion museums. But it is certainly a cool town and worth visiting for a bunch of different things. Things like old trains. Lots of old trains. Because I’ll tell you right up front, the trains themselves are far cooler than the actual ride on them.
The whole experience is great; if you like trains. The parking lot is rimmed with old engines and train cars from different vintages. They aren’t really open for you to climb into, but that’s okay. Some history from their website:
n the 1830′s the first growth of railroads began in New England. After one failed attempt to start, the Valley Railroad Company, headed by the President of the Charter Oak Life Insurance Company (James C. Walkeley), obtained the state charter to build and form the company on July 17, 1868.
During 1868-1869, survey crews worked to map out the line from Hartford to Saybrook Point, and in 1870, actual construction of the line began. With the ease of building a rail line in the Connecticut River Valley (no tunnels or major bridges), the line was completed during the summer of 1871 with the first ceremonial train run over the 45 mile line on July 29, 1871.
Two days later the first “regular” train was run and on August 24, 1871 the Connecticut Valley Railroad finally declared an official opening. The initial schedules of trains operating along the Valley Railroad called for one mixed (passenger and freight) and four passenger trains each way daily (except Sunday) with fifteen stops along the way.
Then it failed under a variety of ownerships…
Concerned volunteers got together to keep the now abandoned railroad from being torn up by the new owners, Penn Central. This group managed to obtain a temporary lease from Penn Central in 1969 and on August 15, 1969 the Penn Central turned over this branch line to the State of Connecticut.
The State of Connecticut granted a formal lease to the Valley Railroad Company on June 1, 1970. This lease authorized the company to use the 22.67 miles of track for freight and passenger service; and on July 29, 1971 (100 years to the day of the first ceremonial run), after thousands of hours of mostly volunteer effort, the first train of the new Valley Railroad steamed from Essex to Deep River and has been steaming ever since.
The Valley Railroad’s yard has a number of other pieces in it in addition to those in our train’s chain. They have a second active Mikado engine (#40), and a 2-6-2 on a track which no longer connect to anything. A GE 40-tonner was coupled to a series of cars which I think comprise the dinner train, another offering of the attraction. Other items sprinkled about include a doodlebug, various boxcars and a wooden refrigerator car, a New Haven Railroad flatcar, and a snowplow attachment, above.
Damian loves the snowplow train in one of his (735 or so) books, so that was cool. He touched it. We got our tickets at the authentic 1892 station for the cheap seats and joined about 100 retirees on the train. They, however, were sitting in the nice cars while we were stuck in the last, most spartan car. CTMQ keeps it real.
The train left right on time (obviously not an Amtrak service) and we were transported back in time. The clack-clack-clack of the tracks beneath us, no more than at a 20 mph clip. We were urged to keep our body parts inside the train at all times and then regaled with various historic aspects of the train and the surrounding area.
The flat route travels from Essex northward to Deep River and then Chester, all along the Connnecticut River. It’s a rather quaint, if somewhat (dare I say) boring route. The rain and dreariness didn’t help, of course, and this year the foliage is rather muted.
Along the way we learned a few CTMQ-worthy facts: Seldon Island is the longest island anywhere in the Connecticut River which starts up near Canada somewhere in Northern New Hampshire. Oooh. The Chester-Hadlyme ferry we passed is the second oldest continuously operating ferry in Connecticut. Aaah. (The excitement of that is only diminished by the fact that the oldest one is up the river – the Glastonbury-Rocky Hill ferry – CTMQ visits here and here.)
We also caught site of Gillette Castle, a definite CTMQ future visit. There were also some marshes and inlets and Pratt Cove. And some swans. The train has been in eight motion pictures and on the cover of one Stephen King book.
Just as we were absorbing all this, we stopped. 100% of our fellow passengers debarked and went over to the Becky Thatcher Steamboat, for part 2 of their excursion of century-old locomotion experiences. But we stuck around and got a unique view of the steam engine switching train ends and attaching right in front of me. Okay, that was pretty darn cool.
We chugged back to the station at a slightly faster pace, arrived, got off, and checked out the gift shop. There, Damian was richly rewarded with a free gift! A little wooden train whistle! In the end, this is one of those things all CT residents do at some point – and I’m glad we finally did.
Now, some more pictures:
A very small target on a rickety old train
Look closely… there are swans out there
Our 100 year old empty car
Pretty much the extent of the views
Everyone’s happy to ride the Essex Steam Train!
For the Curious: