"In the field" railroad history adventures...

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Airline Trail

East Hampton, CT

I started in East Hampton - a quaint little New England town and I first grabbed a sandwich at the restaurant right at the trail head (it was delicious!).
East Hampton Trailhead
EastHampton was nicknamed Belltown for the 30 Bell Companies in town during the railroad's heyday

 Below are enlargements from the lovely signage above - showing the railroad's presence in the town.

The Bike Ride

After the short climb and switch back descent over a bridge - the trail reaches the woods
One of many rock cuts
I started riding at exactly 12 noon and after a short bit, I rode thru a seemingly endless rock cut that was 10 to 15 degrees cooler. I was cold and thought I dressed wrong for the ride... but once thru the cut, it was warmer again.

A bit further up is apparently a more "official"starting point. There's a cranberry bog on the left.
The Official Trailhead!
The trail was really wide - loose gravel and dirt the whole way - a bit bouncy at times but never worrisome enough to pop a tire on a road bike.

The elevation chart shows about 400 feet change (about 1400 ft of total up and downs!) but it was a rail trail so the climbs were long gradual slogs - it was tiring but exhilirating at the same time!
See Willimantic map enlargement below as well

Although this was a rail trail and somewhat monotonous compared to mountain biking, there are a variety of scenic changes to make it interesting. You ride by ponds, cranberry bogs, fields, marshes, etc. At one point I almost ran over a snake!
Nice stonework
Finally, a railroad tie
All along the trail there are many offshoots
- great for exploring on a mountain bike!
The now filled-in viaducts were pretty impressive but probably more so in the winter or early spring when there isn't any foliage.

From the Spur Connection,  North

Once past the Colchester spur connection you begin to see a lot more railroad ties scattered off to the side.  IMHO its gets even prettier along this section. For a short stretch you even get to ride by a farm and see cows grazing - a welcome change from the usual green canopy of the deep woods.
Signage is good
Beautiful Marsh section

The Google map is NOT up to date. Instead of the rail ending at the south side of the Willmantic River, then you can continue on over a bridge and ride all the way to Bridge Street. You pass the Eastern CT Railroad Museum. This added another mile or so to the trip:
New bridge and extended trail

I had planned to stop in Willimantic for a snack but decided to turn around and head back instead. The ride back to the new bridge was interesting as the river is on your left and an old railroad yard and the railroad museum in on your right. Right at the bridge there is a connection to the Hop River Rail Trail as well so you could ride for days!!

This is the new bridge over the Willimantic River
Signage at the new bridge - the Hop River trail goes off the the  right
The Connecticut Eastern RR Museum
Finally reached my (extended) destination - Bridge Street in Willimantic

The Colchester Spur

Once I reached the Colchester Connection, I headed south on the spur. What a bore! Don't waste your tine on this section - the only thing that kept me going was the chance to see the Colchester station(s).

When I arrived at Colchester, the railroad stations didn't disappoint! They were kept up nicely - the old freight station was a bike shop and the passenger station was a package store. Although I had a craving for a nice ice cream, I had to make do with a tall Yuengling instead!

I headed back up the Colchester Spur (yawn) and was happy to reconnect with the main trail - anxious at this point to finish up this trek. The ride back seemed to take an eternity as I was getting a little tired but the scenery was pleasant and the mileage good for me.

Check out a short video (2:26 minutes) of the ride

About the Railroad

"The Air Line" was envisioned as a direct route between New York City and Boston. Built to bypass the Shoreline Route east of New Haven Railroad, the Air Line at its completion connected to the New York, New Haven, and Hartford railroad at the Cedar Hill Yard in New Haven, CT, where it then continued on to Boston.

The Airline Route
"shortest distance between New York and Boston"

The Air Line route opened in 1873 and was 25 miles shorter than the Shore Line. In 1875, it was reorganized into the Boston and New York Air-Line Railroad, and later, the New York and New England Railroad (NY&NE).

One of the most memorable and most famous trains of the Air Line was the "Ghost Train." Created to attract wealthy travelers, the luxurious Pullman cars were painted white with gold trim, and the staff of the train wore white uniforms. The service started in 1891, but was short lived and ended in 1895.

After being bought by the New Haven in 1898, the NH upgraded the line by raising bridges and filling in the massive Lyman and Rapallo viaducts to handle heavier trains. Its amazing when you pan through an acme mapper topo and see just how many embankments were created.
A few embankment examples 

The most dramatic embankments are of course where the original Rampallo and Lyman viaducts were.
Locating the former viaducts using Acme Mapper 
Historical Photos of the Viaducts
Built 1871-73, buried by fill in 1912-13
Rapallo Viaduct
Lyman Viaduct
Be sure to check out the Bridgehunter links. There are some great historical photos:

History Details

New York-Boston through trains ended in 1924, and by 1937 most trains used the Shoreline, with the Air Line being used mainly for a few oversized and heavy freight trains. Sadly by 1964, the Portland to Willimantic segment was abandoned.

Be sure to visit this excellent site: to read more history details. The above texts were sourced and condensed from this site.


  1. More details on the history:
    "At the risk of oversimplifying a lot of history and early consolidations and corporate name changes, the Air Line name was historically applied to the trackage between New Haven and Willimantic via Middletown, which was part of a through route between Boston and New York that also involved what became the New York & New England RR east of Willimantic and the New York, New Haven & Hartford west of New Haven.

    The heyday of Boston-New York passenger service over the Air Line was the 1880s-1890s and through service ended in 1924. Passenger service via the New Haven RR's Midland route (Boston-Franklin-Putnam-Willimantic-Hartford) lasted until the big flood of August 19, 1955 took out a bridge just west of Putnam that was never replaced, although by then it was down to a single daily round trip by a solo RDC.

    Both of these "inland" routes between Boston and New Haven became secondary once the Shore Line was completed as an all-rail route with the bridging of the Thames River at New London, replacing ferries."
    Tom Nelligan - from a post

  2. Very nice piece Rich. I love the air line trail and continue to explore many of the features.