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It was a gala event, 100 summers ago, when Union Station opened for rail passengers in Brattleboro.

Voices / Memoir

Comings and goings

Once upon a time, this stately train depot was a place that took you away or brought you treasures from around the world. Today, as home of the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, that tradition continues. Here are a few of the stories of the people who came, left, and passed through the lives and lore of Brattleboro via Union Station, which turns 100 this year.

Kevin O’Connor, a Brattleboro native, writes for a variety of publications, including The Commons, the Brattleboro Reformer, and the Vermont news website VTDigger.org.

Brattleboro

Ever hear the story of the “ski train?” The exotic actress who spent summers in a fur coat — and nothing else? The chambermaid who saved the day by standing in the shadow of a wrecking crane?

This building — called Union Station upon its opening in Aug. 12, 1916 — is as much a part of the local landscape as the surrounding mountains that were quarried to provide fieldstone blocks for its walls.

Physically speaking, the former railroad depot boasts red tile floors, brown oak woodwork, and white marble steps that once led to a bridge crossing over the southbound track to the northbound trains along the bank of the Connecticut River.

“There isn’t a city or town on the whole route that has as clean and sightly, commodious and efficient a railroad station outfit as has Brattleboro today,” local author Charles E. Crane wrote upon its debut. “The station spot may be so beautiful that it will rival Hollywood as a background for the movies.”

The station was constructed for $75,000 to cement a new relationship that replaced a decades-old rivalry.

Since the first locomotive lumbered into Brattleboro in 1849, the Central Vermont and Boston & Maine railways each sought a direct route from the Eastern seaboard into Canada. But a 70-mile bottleneck between the Massachusetts border and White River Junction blocked both from their mutual goal.

Controlling the line from the state border to Brattleboro, the Central Vermont ran trains from Massachusetts into town, turned the cars around, and backtracked south. The Boston & Maine, owning the rails from Brattleboro to Windsor, continued train travel north.

It wasn’t until 1916 that the two railroads reached an accord to share tracks, laying the foundation for a new community crossroads.

Permeating all is an intangible yet ever-present spirit. Once upon a time, this was a place that took you away or brought you treasures from around the world. Today, as home of the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, that tradition continues.

This year marks the building’s 100th birthday. These are some of its stories.

* * *

When the late David Hannum — my grandfather — was 16 years old a century ago, he’d wake before sunrise, milk cows at his family’s Putney farm, then walk two miles to a steam train bound for Brattleboro High School.

“There were six or eight cars on it,” he once told me as he described a lineup that included an “express car and the mail car and the baggage car.” The train crew “put all us students in one car at the back end,” he recalled.

But the train wasn’t just for school. It delivered the farm’s milk, chilled by ice cut from the river. It brought daily newspapers in an age before radio. And, at twilight, it afforded a trip to the movie theater.

The films were silent. Black-and-white. And, as seen through the eyes of a Vermont teenager in 1916, exploding with images of romance, adventure, and escape.

* * *

Before the Interstate and internet, trains carried everything: people, parcels, an occasional touring circus pachyderm. Then came Madame Sherri.

Traveling from New York City in the 1920s, she brought a bankroll, tales of Broadway, bootleg booze, and a reputation for being one of the first women to be seen locally with makeup and a lighted cigarette.

She wore a fur coat, even in August, As the old timers would attest: “There was nothing under it but her.”

Local gossip mills flowed with bushels of grist. Was Madame Sherri a vaudeville dancer? A stage designer? Or was Madame’s title actually Madame’s profession?

“It was like a spectacle whenever she came to town,” one local once said. “You just stopped and watched, like you were looking at a parade.”

* * *

When the first “ski train” arrived in 1931, anyone who wasn’t riding it appeared to be staring at it.

Nearer to metropolitan areas than other Vermont ski centers, Brattleboro was one of the first towns to benefit from winter tourist trains.

In January 1936, the town prepared to host an anticipated 200 skiers. Instead, more than 500 came by way of the Boston & Maine and New Haven railroads.

Townspeople greeted them with a big welcome — so much so, local leaders had to ask residents to stop gathering and gawking at the station because they were taking up all the parking spaces reserved for buses commuting to nearby slopes.

* * *

World War II melted any interest in winter sports. Trains once brimming with inbound skiers carried out some 15,000 Brattleboro-built Estey military chaplains’ organs, as well as pontoon bridges and bomb and ammunition boxes the company hammered out for shipment overseas.

Dick Fleming remembers how he and his schoolmates would “dig foxholes and play soldiers” as his father manned downtown’s air-raid siren and his mother canned vegetables from a backyard “victory garden.”

Then one day the student received a request from his uncle, a local funeral director: Would the boy bring his snare drum to meet a hometown soldier arriving at Union Station?

“They unloaded a casket and draped a flag,” Fleming recalls, “and I walked behind a hearse, playing a funeral dirge — boom, boom, boom — up Main Street.”

* * *

Judi Miller remembers the station as the place where her father departed for World War II — and, thankfully, came back alive.

“Emotions were so high,” she says. “It made everything larger than life.”

With the end of fighting, Brattleboro tried to return to regular business. Some 23,000 tons of freight, as well as 12 passenger trains, rolled through daily when the railroad celebrated its centennial of local service in 1949 — just as Dick Fleming went off to college.

Four years after the war, the student was still drumming behind caskets finally returning from the far reaches of the world.

“I did that 15 or more times,” Fleming says. “I was just a kid, but I felt pretty proud and honored I was asked. It was a way of paying respect.”

* * *

In 1966, with automobiles speeding almost as fast as rockets, the Boston & Maine railroad announced its intention to discontinue passenger service in Vermont. Standing idle and unused, Union Station withered. In 1972, the town bought the building and planned to demolish it for a parking lot.

As train travel declined, so did Madame Sherri. She still wore her fur coat, even in August. Underneath it until her death — were rags. Only a half-dozen mourners attended her funeral. Two pallbearers had to be hired.

“What about your friends in New York?” one man asked during her last days. “Wouldn’t they help you if they knew you needed it?”

“Ah, no, cheri!” she replied. “They must never know what happened to Madame Sherri!”

* * *

In 1972, Helene Druhl’s official title was director of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce. But she preferred to call herself “the Chamber maid.”

Tourists would ask Druhl for directions to downtown art attractions. Instead of acknowledging there weren’t any, she pointed to trucks in nearby loading alleys, explaining “it’s a masterpiece to see them block traffic.”

Soon after, Druhl and a group of volunteers secured a lease for the empty railroad station at a token fee of $1 a year. On Sept. 10, 1972, with its woodwork painted and its marble steps polished, the new Brattleboro Museum & Art Center opened to the public.

Nearly a half-century later, subsequent generations have proved Druhl to be prophetic.

“Once we get started,” she said on that first day, “the possibilities are endless.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #372 (Wednesday, August 31, 2016). This story appeared on page E1.

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