The Cape Cod Rail Trail is located on Massachusetts’ beautiful Cape Cod, using a section of what was once the easternmost extension of the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad. The line was originally built just after the Civil War by a New Haven predecessor and for many years hosted both freight and passenger trains. As patronage declined and the public abandoned trains in favor of newly constructed high-speed freeways, passenger service ended during the early 1960s. However, freight remained on part of the corridor until it was purchased by the state during the 1970s in an effort to preserve service. Today, the trail covers about 20 miles of the former line east of South Dennis.
The history of railroads in southeastern New England is a long, complicated affair involving numerous companies, name changes, and mergers dating back to nearly the earliest days of the industry in the 1840s. What is now the Cape Cod Rail Trail was built by two different railroads. The easternmost section between South Dennis and Orleans was constructed by the Cape Cod Central Railroad, incorporated during 1861 to extend from Yarmouth to Orleans and completed 4 years later in 1865. The westernmost section was built by the then newly formed Old Colony Railroad (1872), completing the line from Orleans to the tip of Cape Cod at Provincetown and opening on July 23, 1873. During the latter half of the 19th century, the Old Colony—itself created through a series of mergers—was one of New England’s largest systems, spanning roughly 600 miles from Cape Cod to Boston as well as reaching Lowell and Fitchburg. Other sections stretched into eastern Rhode Island at Providence and Newport.
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In essence, the OC blanketed southeastern Massachusetts, and following its lease by the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad as of March 1, 1893 (whereby the property became known as the Old Colony Division), the latter owned a sizeable monopoly on service in the region between Massachusetts and New York City. Its only noteworthy competitor was New York Central subsidiary Boston & Albany. The New Haven would go down in history as one of the all-time classic New England carriers. According to Mike Schafer’s book More Classic American Railroads, it comprised more than 200 predecessors. The train not only provided high-speed service from New York and Boston (which was electrically operated as far as New Haven), but also offered a myriad of secondary routes through southern New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and parts of Massachusetts. It is largely remembered for its plethora of commuter services connecting the big cities with the outlying suburbs.
However, when New England was also known for its prominent industrial base, the railroad carried considerable freight and provided through traffic via Maybrook, New York, across the famous Poughkeepsie Bridge over the Hudson River. This impressive span eventually came under New Haven control, and the gateway at Maybrook Yard provided connections with many of the region’s other important railroads, including the New York, Ontario & Western; Erie; New York Central; Lehigh & New England; and Lehigh & Hudson River. The New Haven’s early era (through the 1920s) is often considered its strongest financially, although a secondary surge in traffic occurred during World War II. While the “Roarin’ 20s” were prosperous, the railroad did initiate steps to scale back its former Old Colony property primarily by removing secondary branches with light traffic. This process continued through the early 1930s and included a line connecting Harwich with Chatham.
As the Great Depression took its toll, the New Haven fell into bankruptcy during 1935 and remained there until 1947. During this time, more excess trackage was shed in an effort to streamline operations. The surge in traffic during the war was of great benefit to the railroad—freight tonnage, for instance, more than tripled during those years. However, much of the Old Colony system, especially in southeastern Massachusetts, was thought redundant. According to Peter Lynch’s book New Haven Passenger Trains, during 1938, the New Haven was able to eliminate passenger operations from Yarmouth to Provincetown. Other lines to experience such cutbacks included Braintree Highlands-Randolph, West Hanover-Hanover, and a year later, Greenbush-Kingston.
The years after World War II were hard on the New Haven. The 1950s witnessed a series of managers, such as Frederic Dumaine and Patrick McGinnis, who reduced services by discontinuing trains and deferring maintenance. While such practices worked to curb costs, they also came at the ire of travelers and, during the long term, created a further decline in services as infrastructure wore out. In 1961, the railroad again fell into bankruptcy, where it would stay until inclusion into Penn Central during 1968. In autumn 1960, remaining freight operations were terminated on the line from North Eastham to Provincetown and the trackage later removed. After Penn Central collapsed in 1970, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation purchased the remainder of the corridor for preservation. The section from South Dennis to South Wellfleet was converted into today’s Cape Cod Rail Trail, while west of South Dennis the line remains in use.
Nearby railroad attractions include the Berkshire Scenic Railway in Lenox; Cape Cod Central Railroad in Hyannis; Chatham Railroad Museum in Chatham; Edaville USA attraction and train rides in South Carver; Old Colony & Fall River Railroad Museum in Fall River; Shelburne Falls Trolley Museum in Shelburne Falls; and the Walker Transportation Museum/Beverly Historical Society & Museum in Beverly. Additionally, in nearby Rhode Island you can ride the Newport Dinner Train/Old Colony & Newport Railway in Newport and visit the Rhode Island Railroad Museum in West Kingston.