NEWFANE—As a contractor, David Ross is used to relying on his carpenter’s level.
But on his latest job — transforming the historic Newfane Railroad Station into a new West River Railroad museum — Ross is learning to live with all the idiosyncrasies of a 136-year-old building. Preservation, he believes, requires a light touch.
“I hope that we can get back to the feeling that the building had when it was used,” Ross said. “In the ideal world, [future visitors] wouldn’t know I was here.”
Leaders at the Historical Society of Windham County are happy with Ross’ work and with the progress of the museum project so far.
With support pouring in from the West River Valley and from rail enthusiasts nationwide, the society has raised $125,000 and has paid off a mortgage on the property just a few years after purchasing it.
“Last year at this time, I don’t think we ever imagined we’d be where we are now,” said Laura Wallingford-Bacon, the society’s president.
‘36 Miles of Trouble’
The Newfane station was a stop on the famed — and infamous — West River Railroad. When it opened in 1880, the rail line “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,” according to “36 Miles of Trouble,” a 1959 historical account of the railroad by Victor Morse.
The book’s title, though, refers to the many problems that plagued the West River Railroad. Some of those issues were environmental, like snow drifts and washouts. And there were devastating wrecks, including an 1886 bridge collapse in Brattleboro that killed Newfane’s first station agent, J.J. Green.
The West River Railroad closed in 1936. Portions of the former rail bed have been transformed into a rail trail for walkers and bikers, but some artifacts of the railway — including the Newfane station — still remain.
The Historical Society of Windham County has many West River Railroad artifacts at its headquarters on Route 30 in Newfane. So the society jumped at the chance to purchase the nearby Newfane Railroad Station in 2014, with the idea that the building can serve as both a railroad museum and an annex to the current county museum.
“We have a significant collection already at the [county] museum, which we’re very eager to move out of that building and into this one, because that building is chockablock full,” Wallingford-Bacon said as she stood outside the rail station.
The county museum expansion is one reason the project quickly drew support. But the fact that the Historical Society is saving a piece of the nation’s transportation history also played a big role.
In addition to more than $34,000 in grant funding from a variety of sources, there have been “some significant donations and an accumulation of contributions from the community and the railroad community, which is from here to California,” Wallingford-Bacon said.
“People have come out of the woodwork — railroad enthusiasts find these things on the internet,” she said. “People step up who we don’t even know and are so supportive of the project and excited about preserving railroad history.”
Closer to home, there also have been successful fundraisers and in-kind donations of time and work at the station site.
Ross’ company, based in Guilford, is handling most of the renovation. He noted that the station — which later served as both a real estate office and a youth club — has undergone multiple renovations.
“Those typically are bigger challenges than challenges the original building might have left,” Ross said. “The original buildings typically started out pretty close to level and square and plum, and as they change over time, people come in and do a renovation, and they’re working within whatever the building has become.”
It has become clear that the station changed even during the relatively brief life of the West River Railroad. It appears that, when the train line switched from narrow to standard gauge in 1905, “the baggage room suddenly was not big enough,” Ross said. “So they added more space.”
Inside the station, crews found an original Fairbanks freight scale that had been manufactured in St. Johnsbury. Fairbanks Scales still exists, and company representatives determined that the mechanism in Newfane remains in working order.
“It’s still pretty accurate,” said Larry Robinson, Windham County Historical Society treasurer. “Which is amazing when you consider how many people have walked over it.”
While historical society administrators expect to preserve as much of the building as possible, the project has included some upgrades such as a new roof and electrical connections. The job also includes installation of the restored original windows and insulation.
“It’s not going to be open year-round, but we could feasibly use it in the off-season,” Wallingford-Bacon said.
She expects that the depot building will be complete by the end of this construction season, with an official opening in 2017. Another part of the project — restoration of a nearby building that had held water for steam locomotives — likely will take longer, and the historical society continues to raise money for that work.
In the meantime, the society’s collection of West River Railroad artifacts continues to grow as word of the restoration project spreads. Donations have ranged from photos and documents to spikes and portions of original rail.
“These are the kinds of things that are appearing in our hands now,” Wallingford-Bacon said.