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Luskin: West River Railroad

Thirty-Six Miles Of Trouble is the title of a slim and entertaining history of the West River Railroad that once operated between Brattleboro and South Londonderry. According to author Victor Morse, the railroad suffered a series of disasters that included poor track, worse equipment, and regular derailments. The original wood-burning engines weren’t powerful enough to pull a train from Brattleboro up to the highest point on the route in Newfane, so passengers had to get out and walk.

I first read this book shortly after it was published in 1959, when I was a child intrigued by the stone bridge abutments in the middle of the West River where the tracks once crossed. It turns out, the book emphasized the shortcomings of a railroad first conceived in the 1850’s during the great rush west, built in the 1880’s, refurbished in 1905, washed away in 1927, repaired in 1934, abandoned in 1936, and sold for scrap in 1939.

There’s more to the story. The West River Railroad carried people, mail, lumber, maple syrup, butter, cheese and fluid milk down the valley, and manufactured goods up. This was at the turn of the nineteenth century, when even a slow train was faster than the horse-drawn alternative. One train a day carried passengers and mail and ran to a schedule. Others were mixed trains of passengers and freight that stopped to shift cargo along the way. The trip could take hours, but people from up the valley still climbed aboard. For many, it was the best transportation around.

Some of the old railroad bed is still visible where it runs alongside the river and behind the villages it once served. In some places, the state highway runs on the old right of way. Several sections are now recreational trails, and some are under water due to the dams in Townshend and Jamaica.

A few of the surviving station buildings have been repurposed, but one, in Newfane, has stood dormant for seventy-odd years. The Windham County Historical Society has just purchased the station and plans to turn it into a West River Railroad Museum. Tours of the station – both the old depot and an intact water tower – will be given this Saturday at the Fifth Biennial Windham County History Fair in Newfane.

I’ve met valley residents who remember taking the train, but they’re fewer each year. Now, thanks to the efforts of the Windham County Historical Society, this tangible piece of West River Railroad history will be preserved.

Deborah Lee Luskin is a writer, speaker and educator.
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