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 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:
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.