Island Line Trail History


At a Glance

Name: Island Line Trail
Length: 13.4 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Inline Skating, Fishing, Wheelchair Accessible, Walking, Cross Country Skiing
Counties: Chittenden, Grand Isle
Surfaces: Asphalt, Gravel
State: Vermont

A Brief History

Long ago, the state of Vermont was once home to, and was served by, several different railroads. One of these was the Green Mountain State’s own Rutland, which once linked much of Vermont and its notable dairy industry. What is now known as the Island Line Rail Trail was built by the railroad during the late 19th century to span Lake Champlain as a last ditch attempt to reach farther northward, bypass a competitor, and open new interchange connections with several other lines. The Rutland struggled on and off throughout much of the time it was in service due to bankruptcies, unstable traffic, and nearby competitors. The company became famous for its long string of lucrative milk and butter trains, which was an important source of traffic for many years. Ultimately, it succumbed to union strike in the early 1960s and shutdown. Some of the railroad was saved and remained opened, although the section that is now the Island Line was abandoned and later converted into a trail.

What became known as the classic Rutland Railroad can be traced back to several subsidiary lines, the earliest of which was the Rutland & Burlington (R&B), chartered by the state of Vermont in 1843 to connect its namesake cities. Two other important railroads to make up the system included the Western Vermont, which began service in 1852 between Rutland and Bennington, and the Northern Railroad, which would complete a route from Ogdensburg to Rouses Point, New York (and was later renamed as the Ogdensburg & Lake Champlain in 1864). During 1867, the R&B was renamed as the Rutland Railroad Company, although by 1871, it was leased by the Vermont Central. In 1891, it came under the control of the Central Vermont (CV, and two different railroads with similar names that came to make up the classic Central Vermont Railway). During 1896, the CV fell into receivership, allowing the Rutland to regain managerial independence.

At the time, the road operated a route roughly shaped like an upside-down “Y”; from Burlington, the main line ran south to Rutland where two branches diverged, one heading southeast to Bellow Falls (and a connection with the Boston & Maine), and the another running due south to Chatham (where an interchange was made with the New York Central and Boston & Albany, the latter becoming another NYC subsidiary). Now independent, company officials realized that to remain so and increase the railroad’s marketability, it needed to expand northward to interchange with Canadian roads and other American systems near the border. So in 1899, construction of the Rutland-Canadian Railroad was authorized (a.k.a., the Champlain Island Extension), in part thanks to wealthy financial backers. This new rail connection would allow the Rutland to span the great Lake Champlain, where before it could only operate car ferries across the water and hope to receive friendly connections via other lines.

In all, the Champlain Island Extension stretched 47 miles from Burlington to Rouses Point and along the way hopped all of the lake’s island chains. The most expensive section of railroad was the first built; just north of Burlington at Colchester Point a quarter-mile marble-block causeway was constructed to span the water to reach the island of South Hero, which cost an incredible $1 million at the time. From there, crews worked north, reaching Grande Isle, North Hero, and Isle La Motte. Finally, the railroad connected Alburg, near the Canadian border, and headed due west to Rouses Point, where it interchanged with the Delaware & Hudson, Canadian National, St. Johnsbury & Lamoille County, and Ogdensburg & Lake Champlain (O&LC). Incredibly, by 1900, the Rutland-Canadian Railroad was opened after only one year of construction. The Rutland was also able to reach Noyan, Quebec, via subsidiary Rutland & Noyan. A year later, the Rutland acquired the O&LC, which gave it access to Ogdensburg and a connection to the St. Lawrence River. At its peak, the railroad stretched some 400+ miles, with a network that resembled a, “L,” running across upstate New York and then southward through Vermont.

Despite the new extension and interchange partners, the Rutland always remained heavily dependent on dairy and agricultural traffic. It operated through the incredibly beautiful Vermont countryside; its slogan even began the “Green Mountain Gateway.” Unfortunately, this didn’t pay the bills, and it always seemed like the railroad was one step away from financial troubles. Flooding during November 1927 hit the company hard; coupled with the Great Depression, it was forced into bankruptcy on May 5, 1938. A year later, it launched fast-freight rail service, known as “The Whippet,” to sustain and grow its customer base, which was successful to some extent. During 1950, the company was reorganized as the Rutland Railway; two years later, it abandoned the unprofitable Chatham Branch between Bennington and Chatham.

That decade also witnessed new management working hard to make the Rutland a more profitable railroad. It purchased American Locomotive Company (Alco) diesels in 1951, and RS1 and RS3 models began to replace its steam locomotives. Additionally, it ended all passenger services after 1953 because of a strike that summer, which shut down the railroad for three weeks. Unfortunately, this was a sign of things to come. During September 1961, another strike hit, and with no way to move freight, the company petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to shut down; closure was granted in September 1962, and on January 29, 1963, the Rutland Railway ceased to exist. Sections of the railroad in the south were saved during 1964 to form the Green Mountain Railroad, while the Champlain Lake Extension was abandoned, creating today’s Island Line Rail Trail.

Railroad attractions near the trail include the Green Mountain Railroad (mentioned above) and the New England Institute & Transportation Museum; both are located in White River Junction. Additionally, just south of Burlington is the Shelburne Museum, which has a small collection of railroad equipment.

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