The new old way of getting around.

As someone who doesn’t own a car of her own, recent news about proposed upgrades and expansions to the rail network in Massachusetts is a thrilling prospect, particularly for my future life in New England. Paul and I were thinking about these issues over the weekend, when we added another stretch of the Air Line State Park Trail to our walked-it list. The Air Line was a rapid route between Boston and New York City, operated by the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad beginning in 1873, which began to be abandoned in the 1950s, although parts remained in operation until the 1970s. In the early 2000s, it was gradually turned into a long state trail, which runs 40-odd miles and counting across central-east Connecticut. We’ve walked a couple of its easternmost sections now, and each time we turn to one another and say, “Would it be incredible if we could just hop on a train in Middletown and be in Boston or New York in a couple of hours?”

The Air Line crossing the impressive Lyman Viaduct, ca. 1880.
The Air Line crossing the impressive Lyman Viaduct, ca. 1880.

The explosion of rails-to-trails projects in the past two decades, and the current interest in restoring and improving rail service in places like New England, as evidenced by Deval Patrick’s plan in Massachusetts and some improvements Amtrak has been making of late, are certainly reason for hope and celebration in times of high fuel prices and airfares. I have been taking the train regularly between Washington and New Haven, and have found it to be a wonderful way to get around, one I wish I could make use of whenever I travel. It is nowhere near the hassle of air travel, and I can actually get work done (which I can’t do on, say, the bus). If we could invest in more high-speed rail in this country, I think it would make a lot more sense for many travelers.

But while there is much to be enthusiastic about, when I walk on the Air Line, or get a glimpse of an abandoned track while driving around Connecticut, I feel like we are forgetting things. The first is the enormous set of changes we have witnessed in the past 60 years or so in how places in the U.S. are connected to one another. We have a tendency to imagine that we are always becoming more and more connected — through cars and highways and phones and the internet — but a mile on the Air Line, or a glance at an old rail route map, should dispel us of these notions. It’s not that we’re becoming more connected; we’re connecting up different places in different ways.

One of the big changes we’ve seen is how small towns are connected to big ones, hinterlands to centers. When doing my own research, which relates to rural life in the 20th-century U.S., I am often struck by how closely connected rural places were, both to urban areas and to one another, for most of the century between the Civil War and the 1960s. Extension officials and agricultural and home demonstration agents write of their extensive travels across their states and counties, going primarily by train. While there is plenty of truth to the story of how the automobile transformed life for farm families in the early decades of the twentieth century, we have a tendency to imagine that these places were more isolated before the Model A than they are today. But that is only if you are speaking of short-distance travel between farms and from farm to town. If you want to know how easy it was for people living in small towns to travel beyond that space, contemplate some of these railroad maps from the late-19th and early-to-mid-20th centuries:

Railroads and Townships of Massachusetts, A. Williams & Co., Boston, 1879.
Railroads and Townships of Massachusetts, A. Williams & Co., Boston, 1879. (Library of Congress Geography and Map Division, digital ID g3760 rr002350.)
New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad lines, 1929.
New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad lines, 1929.
New Haven Railroad, 1956.
New Haven Railroad, 1956.

It’s clear that, while major urban areas have always had great connections to one another, one of the big differences between even the 1950s and today is how big cities are connected to smaller towns that are not necessarily their suburbs, and how those smaller towns are connected to one another. In most cases, they aren’t anymore, by any means of transportation other than the automobile.

For instance, in the 1920s, it would have been possible for Paul and I to take a steamboat directly from our home in Middletown, CT, to Trefethen Landing on Peaks Island, Maine, where the Ericksons have a summer cottage. To get there now, we drive about five hours overland, including the always-a-huge-pain-in-the-butt stretch of 495 around Boston, then have to pay an arm and a leg to either park our car somewhere in town, or bring it over on the ferry. I’m sure it’s faster, but I’m not sure it’s better.

Ithaca, NY, another town in which I’ve spent a lot of time, is another great example. When I lived in Ithaca during the summer of 2011, I had my bike as my sole form of transport. When I wanted to visit my parents in Albany, I had to rent a car. If I wanted to go to New York City to visit a friend, or to Connecticut to visit my husband, I would have had to either fly or rent a car again. There was no bus service to be found. But each day I was in the archives, reading reports of extension workers who were taking trains from Ithaca all over the state and beyond, to towns as small as Geneseo and as large as Chicago or New York City. I was jealous. Why was I trapped in Ithaca’s heat wave, when the people I was studying could travel so freely?

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that “things were better in the old days” or anything like that. As we are wise to remember, the railroads were the original trusts and monopolies, the corporations that gave us standard time, that helped exterminate the buffalo, that benefited more than possibly anyone from government subsidy, and that mastered the art of turning state favor into enormous profit. They explain so much about landscape change in this country, about settlement, about politics. They are surely deserving both of our pride and our invective, from the Canadian Railroad Trilogy to The Octopus.

Nonetheless, I still like to travel by rail. I hope to be able to do it more and more in the future. Although there is something magical about walking along a track once traveled by high-speed trains, on the whole I think I’d rather be able to travel that way, too.

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2 thoughts on “The new old way of getting around.

  1. Hmmm: We love train travel ~ for your reasons and owing to nostalgic motives of our yesteryears here and across GB and the Continent. Euro-trains retell the American story of rail “failure” for someone with the memory for it — and I am one, having grown up in the last years of steam, and having seen the age of the diesel come into being: every night I could lie abed and literally feel the trains lift and lower the nearby rails along Elizabeth Street in my hometown — hear the whistles, the brakes, the spin of the drive wheels starting a pull over in the depot.

    The News: Efficient, accommodating, and comfortable passenger train travel across America never brought in the dollars for the operatoring partners that freight did — and still does; but when the government pulled the postal service off rail cars, passenger _service_ funneled down, down, down … and what remained became relatively crummy (literally) owing to the failure of providing dignified rail conductors and others who had previously staffed those rail cars — service cars, Pullman cars, and the like.

    The European rail services prove the point: just as a cowboy in New Mexico used to be able to load himself and his pony on rails cars in Albuquerque and climb off, re-saddle, and remount in Santa Fe later, a bicyclist, skier, motorcyclist, and all kinds of whatever can be loaded on a train super-quick and dumped off with no less efficiency up at the snow covered station near Mont Blanc; likewise, skiers and bicyclists across the Euro-landscape can mount a bus as efficiently — throw the skiis of a bike into the bins at the front and rear of the bus.

    This is because the buses go everywhere, and they do that because the mails have to go everywhere, and likewise the train service goes nearly everywhere. Freight may drive the economics of train service, but the mails drive the economics of passenger service. When and where that is forgotten, kiss passenger rail goodbye…and no amounts of levels of government subsidy are going to change that simple truth. _[However, I have long suspected that there was another and much darker reason why the postal service was pulled from the rails. And that the dark thinkers who caused it knew that the level of American government subsidy that would be obligatory to bring back passenger service and dignity would ensure a citizen refusal to pay for what they do not wish to use {when the rails had — as they now have — been pulled back from the small towns and between small towns and cities that people came from and/or want to go toward — back to).]_

    Can the mess be undone? Why, yes it can be! But not the way ‘we’ are doing it and not through the present Amtrak “service” management or congressional oversight. The government would have to have a regulatory part in bringing such a dream about, but anything else ought to be much less influenced by government — because the postal service is no longer a government agency,only quasi, eh ;-D — Hey-ho!

  2. I am so happy that you are blogging again. I miss train travel also, and all the activity surrounding departure and arrival. My home town in Minnesota was connected to lots of other small and mid-sized towns by rail, though less in my day than a generation earlier. I remember my father telling me about an incident from his youth. The high school football team was playing an “away” game against its arch rival, in a town about 15 miles distant. The school superintendent had just gotten a car, and he decided to drive it to the game. But so accustomed was he to rail travel that he hopped on the train for the return trip, forgetting about his car until his wife inquired about it the next morning.

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