The Farmington Canal Heritage Trail is one of the largest recreational corridors in Connecticut, running nearly the state’s entire length north of New Haven. It uses a former branch of the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad (New Haven, or NYNH&H), which traces its roots back to the mid-19th century. The line would grow into one of the New Haven’s longest branch lines, handling freight traffic for well over a century. Sections were abandoned under the railroad’s ownership and then continued to be cutback during Penn Central’s ownership. Segments of the route in Connecticut survived into the 1980s when lack of remaining traffic resulted in its abandonment under the Guilford Rail System. During the 1990s, work began to open the corridor for public use.
The New Haven was one of New England’s most important railroads, offering the most direct route between New York and Boston. Today, its main line is still used as part of Amtrak’s busy Northeast Corridor. The earliest predecessor of the New Haven was the Hartford & New Haven, chartered in 1833 to construct a route from New Haven to Springfield, Massachusetts, via Hartford, Connecticut. Another important component was the New York & New Haven (NY&NH), chartered in 1844 to connect its namesake cities. During 1872, both railroads merged to form the now-classic New York, New Haven & Hartford, but its growth did not stop there. The new company continued to expand its reach throughout New England. One of its important additions was the New Haven & Northampton Railroad (NH&N), which it formally leased on May 14, 1887. Much of the NH&N now comprises the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail.
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The NH&N was first chartered in 1846 to construct a new railroad north of New Haven using the right-of-way of the Farmington Canal, a privately funded transportation artery that began construction in 1825. Within 10 years, it was opened to Northampton, a distance of 84 miles. Unfortunately, the canal almost immediately ran into competition against the railroad, a new form of travel that was faster and could be operated year-round. The waterway was never considered a financial success, which led to the incorporation of the New Haven & Northampton a decade later in an effort to continue using the right-of-way for commercial purposes. By 1848, the same year the canal ceased operations, the NH&N opened its first segment between New Haven and Plainville. During the next 10 years, the railroad continued extending northward and had reached Northampton by 1858. From the main line, notable branches in Massachusetts reached Williamsburg via Northampton (1868) and Holyoke via Westfield (1871). Also, in Connecticut a branch line split at Farmington and reached New Hartford, which was opened during autumn 1876.
Under New Haven’s direction, the route was officially known as the Northampton Division and then later was referred to as the Air-Line-Northampton Division. However, unofficially it simply became known as the “Canal Railroad” or just “The Canal.” By the early 1900s, it was a busy component of the New Haven, seeing several passenger and freight trains daily, with a connection via the Boston & Maine at Northampton. Other interchanges with B&M were also established at Holyoke and Easthampton. By the World War I era, the New Haven had an impressive network, which it had either constructed or acquired by purchasing smaller systems. It reached downtown Manhattan, in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Railroad, and electrified its main line as far north as New Haven, including branches to Danbury and New Canaan. Its high-speed “Shore Line Route” to Boston witnessed dozens of daily trains and in most places was double-tracked, while others—particularly nearer the Big Apple—were quadruple-tracked. Thousands of New England commuters depended on the New Haven to get to and from work every day.
The New Haven blanketed most of Connecticut and Rhode Island as well as southeastern Massachusetts, even reaching Provincetown along the shores of the Cape Cod Bay. Its lines also reached Worcester, Fitchburg, Lowell, and Sudbury, where numerous other interchanges were made with the B&M. It came to control the “Poughkeepsie Bridge Route,” an important New England freight line that bypassed busy New York and offered an interchange at Maybrook, New York, with the Erie Railroad, Lehigh & New England, Lehigh & Hudson River, New York Central, and New York, Ontario & Western. This impressive bridge, which spans the Hudson River, is now also a rail/trail known as the Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park. During this era, New England was regarded for its industrial might, producing a wide range of products, from textiles to general goods (tools, munitions, furniture, etc.), all of which was hauled over the New Haven’s lines.
Unfortunately, the company’s dense regional passenger and commuter network began to take its toll on the railroad’s financial health over the years. These services generally did not make money and back then were not subsidized like today. Still, the New Haven provided excellent service for many years and was one of the first to experiment with streamlining when it inaugurated the sleek “Comet” in 1934, a three-car trainset built by the Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation. The Great Depression forced the New Haven into bankruptcy in 1935 although it was able to come out of receivership during 1947, thanks to the surge in World War II traffic. However, the railroad again ran into trouble during 1950s, with sinking traffic and poor management. In 1961, it entered bankruptcy again and shortly thereafter began abandoning sections of the former New Haven & Northampton, beginning with much of the Williamsburg Branch in Massachusetts.
In 1968, New Haven was included in the new Penn Central, created largely through the merger of the New York Central and Pennsylvania railroads. Under PC, the route was cut back to Easthampton, and when Conrail was formed in 1976 (to save rail service in the Northeast), additional segments were abandoned, leaving most of the line gone north of Avon. During the 1980s, Conrail sold much of the remaining route to the regional Guilford Rail System, which went on to abandon most of the corridor before the end of the decade. Today, only a small section at and south of Plainsville still sees trains while the rest has been converted into what is now the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail.
New England is home to many railroad attractions; those closest to the trail include the Connecticut Eastern Railroad Museum in Willimantic; Connecticut Trolley Museum in East Windsor; Danbury Railway Museum in Danbury; Essex Stream Train in Essex; Naugatuck Railroad in Thomaston; Shore Line Trolley Museum in East Haven; and the SoNo Switch Tower Museum (a former New Haven switcher tower) in South Norwalk.