The Hop River State Park Trail follows more than 18 miles of former New York, New Haven & Hartford (NYNH&H) right-of-way in central Connecticut between Hartford and Willimantic. Unfortunately, while the New Haven was one of New England’s most important railroads, many of its lines became redundant in the postwar years as freight and passenger traffic was lost to highways, airlines, and the decline of the region’s once-vast industrial base. With the abandonment of several of these routes, they have since been converted into recreational trails. This particular corridor was one of the oldest components of the NYNH&H built during the 1840s. After the New Haven was merged into Penn Central, the line—with little business—was shut down in the early 1970s.
Long before bankruptcies and mergers witnessed the company’s end, the New Haven was the dominate railroad in southern New England. It provided high-speed passenger and commuter service between Boston, New York, and the many suburbs of both cities. During the company’s height, it blanketed Connecticut and Rhode Island, served southern and eastern Massachusetts, and stretched into southeastern New York State. However, the New Haven wasn’t a singular company but formed through the merger of two primary systems as well as an infinite list of smaller railroads. According to Mike Schafer’s book “More Classic American Railroads,” well over 200 railroads helped create the modern New Haven system; the most notable of these included the New York & New Haven and Hartford & New Haven, which merged in 1872 to form the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad. At that time, the new NYNH&H linked New York with Springfield, Massachusetts, via Hartford and New Haven, Connecticut.
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Another notable predecessor was the New York & New England (NY&NE), which came into the New Haven fold in 1898, then known as the New England Railroad (following an 1893 bankruptcy). The NY&NE was also a created through several smaller railroads. It operated between Boston and Providence, running through the interior of Connecticut and linking Willimantic, Hartford, and Waterbury. The railroad reached as far west as Beacon, New York, along the Hudson River, where car-float operations provided a connection with the Erie at Newburgh, New York. What is today’s Hop River State Park Trail was originally chartered as the Hartford & Providence Railroad (H&P) in 1847, which later became part of the NY&NE. The H&P was envisioned to connect Hartford with the Rhode Island border, where it would establish through-service to the east with the Providence & Plainfield (P&P). In 1849, the H&P merged with the New York & Hartford (intended to connect Hartford with Brewster, New York) to form the Hartford, Providence & Fishkill Railroad (which also later acquired the P&P).
The new carrier changed its western connection from Brewster to Fishkill, prompting the town’s inclusion into the new system’s name; that same year (1849), service opened between Hartford and Willimantic. Alas, typical of New England railroads then, a rash of bankruptcies and reorganizations ensued. In 1863, the Boston, Hartford & Erie was formed, taking over the failed HP&F property. The BH&E survived for only a decade before it, too, fell into receivership and was renamed as the New York & New England in 1873. Additionally, the process of completing the entire route between Boston, Providence, and eastern New York was slow, not occurring until early 1882.
At its peak, the New Haven operated three routes between Boston and New York via Willimantic, one of which was the former Hartford & Providence corridor. This line became known as its Midland Division. As a through-route, today’s trail was once quite busy, witnessing considerable passenger and freight traffic until the Great Depression saw a precipitous decline. These hard times forced the railroad into bankruptcy in 1935 from which it did not emerge until 1947. While the World War II years were profitable, enabling the carrier to exit bankruptcy, the railroad struggled once more in the 1950s as a result of poor management and declining traffic, forcing it back into receivership in 1961. Another major blow occurred when heavy rains from two hurricanes during summer 1955 damaged its main line in northeastern Connecticut so severely that the railroad elected to abandon the route rather than spend money on needed repairs. This decision severed the corridor and brought passenger service to an end between Willimantic and Hartford.
The New Haven always relied heavily on its extensive passenger and commuter operations and is most well known for its electrified service between New York and southern Connecticut. The railroad also handled a respectable level of freight via its western connections at Maybrook, New York, where it interchanged with the New York, Ontario & Western; Erie; New York Central; Lehigh & New England; and Lehigh & Hudson River. Remaining freight service continued between Willimantic and Hartford through the 1960s. As a condition of the Penn Central merger in 1968, the New Haven joined the soon-to-be-doomed conglomerate on January 1, 1969. The new railroad failed almost immediately and filed for bankruptcy on June 21, 1970. In an attempt to reduce losses, the company began abandoning unprofitable lines, including the former New Haven’s Middle Division between Manchester and Columbia. The last train ran the line on September 29, 1970.
Railroad attractions in Connecticut include the Connecticut Eastern Railroad Museum in Willimantic; Connecticut Trolley Museum in Windsor; Danbury Railway Museum in Danbury; Essex Steam Train in Essex; Naugatuck Railroad in Thomaston; Shore Line Trolley Museum in East Haven; and the SoNo Switch Tower Museum in South Norwalk.