NEWFANE—For something that hasn’t existed for more than three quarters of a century, the trials and tribulations of one little railroad has a powerful hold on the imaginations of those living in the West River Valley.
How else could you explain seeing a standing-room-only crowd of about 150 people jammed into the NewBrook Firehouse on Oct. 15 to celebrate the preservation of a key piece of the long-defunct West River Railroad?
The Historical Society of Windham County held a program at the firehouse, complete with music by singer-songwriter Gene Morrison of Jamaica and a 90-minute slide show and dissertation by railroad historian Glenn Annis of Dummerston, to mark the purchase of the former Newfane station.
Of the 10 original stations on the West River Railroad, the Newfane station, built in 1880, is notable for being one of only two still in its original location — South Londonderry is the other — and that it is pretty much intact after all these years.
The railroad it served is long gone. It started its life as the Brattleboro and Whitehall Railroad, part of a grand plan to connect Brattleboro and Whitehall, N.Y. It got only as far as South Londonderry.
“The railroad resulted from the valley’s desire for one, a desire so fervent that it was subsidized readily and heavily,” wrote Victor L. Morse in his book, “36 Miles of Trouble: The Story of the West River Railroad.”
“In return the people of the valley got its social benefits and on the whole were well satisfied. Of economic benefits there was none and, if they expected any, most of them accepted the disappointment gracefully.”
Service began in 1880, and the last train traversed the 295 curves on the line in 1936.
In between those dates was a 56-year history of a 36-mile-long railroad that, in Morse’s words, “never paid its way … nor did it ever contribute to the prosperity of the towns it served. It added nothing to their little industries and gave them no new ones. It made their farms no more profitable. In short it brought the valley no extra business at all.”
While the railroad was a financial failure, Morse was quick to add that “the value of a transportation system is not calculated on ledgers alone. Social benefits may justify it and the valley folk for the most part prefer to think this was the case with their railroad. It cut the trip from South Londonderry to Brattleboro from two days to two hours (if the train didn’t break down) and brought all the valley towns closer together.”
With the frequent breakdowns, derailments, floods, blizzards, rock slides, and other mishaps that befell the trains on the line, the West River Railroad was never considered reliable transportation but it was the valley’s own railroad — and the struggles to keep it going are a reason why people remain fascinated by its history.
Laura Wallingford-Bacon, president of the historical society’s Board of Directors, said that when the opportunity came up to buy the old Newfane station, it could not be passed up.
“We realized we had a chance to save a piece of history that would’ve been lost forever,” she told the audience at the fire station. “The railroad’s impact on this valley was enormous. And this is more than just buying the building. It is also about preserving the stories.”
The last station master in Newfane, Walter C. Ballou, bought the station and the immediate property around it after the railroad stopped running. He died in 1959, and the Ballou family sold it 1965 to William and Fannie Mantel.
When the Mantel family decided to sell the property they gave the historical society first dibs on the building, and sold it for $41,800.
A first round of fundraising will help cover the purchase price, Wallingford-Bacon said. A second round will pay to renovate the building.
She said work is expected to begin this spring.
And when work is complete, it will serve as an annex for the historical society’s main museum in Newfane and will house its collection of West River Railroad artifacts. It will also be a community gathering place.
“We’re very excited about this. This station is a gem,” she said.