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The Essex Steam Train Trip 6/27/2015

by Chris Guenzler

Before Robin and I left Willimantic, we had one last picture to take.

The New York & New England Railroad Railway Express building built in the 1870's.

We were really short of time trying to get to Essex for the 11:00 AM Train and I decided we would have to cut off some of the distance so we left Willimantic, took Connecticut Highway 66 west then took Connecticut 149 south to Connecticut Highway 82 then Connecticut 9 south to Essex. We parked with ten minutes left before train time. Luckily, I found a conductor who had our ticket in hand and Robin and I boarded the last coach on the train with five minutes to spare. I love it when a plan comes together.

The Valley Railroad History

The Valley Railroad is a heritage railroad based in Connecticut on tracks of the Connecticut Valley Railroad originally founded in 1868. It is best known for operating the Essex Steam Train and the Essex Clipper Dinner Train.

Essex Steam Train and Riverboat

This excursion starts with a 12 mile ride aboard the historic Essex Steam Train from the Essex station with scenic views of the Connecticut River up to Chester. The train reverses direction back to the Deep River Station/Landing. Passengers who have purchased the riverboat tickets can board the Becky Thatcher at this station which will bring you on a 1.25 hour trip on the Connecticut River up to the East Haddam Swing Bridge and back to Deep River Landing. The train then pickups passengers to bring them back to Essex Depot. The whole trip takes about 3.5 hours.

Essex Clipper Dinner Train

The Essex Clipper Dinner Train is a 2.5-hour train ride that departs Essex Depot and offers scenic views of the Connecticut River along the way. The train brings you to the northern end of the operable line in Haddam. A seasonal four-course meal is freshly prepared on-board and served in beautifully restored 1920s Pullman dining cars.

North Pole Express

Each November and December, the North Pole Express brings passengers on a fictitious ride to the North Pole for children and their families. Amenities include on-board entertainment, singing, trackside displays, cookies, hot chocolate and a gift from Santa.

History and Construction

The vision of a Valley Railroad started in the 1840s when President of the Charter Oak Life Insurance Company, James C. Walkley, traced the 44 mile route by stagecoach with friend Horace Johnson. Walkley and a group of businessmen obtained a state charter on July 17, 1868 to form the Connecticut Valley Railroad Company and start the process of building a railroad. During 1868-1869, survey crews worked to map out the line from Hartford to Saybrook Point.

Finally in April 1870, actual construction of the line began, with ground breaking taking place in Higganum, Connecticut. The plan called for three phases, the "Northern Division" starting in Hartford and continuing to Middletown, the "Middle Division" which continued to what is known today as Goodspeed Landing, and the "South Division" which finished the line to Saybrook Point. The Connecticut River Valley allowed for an easy construction as no tunnels or major bridges where required. The line was completed during the summer of 1871 with the first ceremonial train run over the 45 miles on July 29, 1871 at a steady speed of 22 mph. At $34,000 per mile the line ended up costing $1,482,903.

Connecticut Valley Railroad

The first "regular" train started on July 31, 1871. On August 24, 1871 the Connecticut Valley Railroad finally declared an official opening. The initial schedules of trains operating along the Valley Railroad called for one mixed train and four passenger trains each way daily (except Sunday) with fifteen stops along the way. The company grossed $34,000 in its first year. It would continue to grow, grossing $250,000/year in 1873. Financial trouble plagued many early railroads and the Connecticut Valley found it in 1876 when it defaulted on its second mortgage bonds and was placed in receivership.

Hartford & Connecticut Valley Railroad

On July 1, 1880 the Hartford and Connecticut Valley Railroad took control with president Samuel Babcock. The New Haven Railroad was rapidly building up its stature in Southern New England. Seeing a good chance to sell their new line at a good price, the owners of the Hartford & Connecticut Valley Railroad convinced the New Haven that it should buy control. In 1882 the New Haven did and ten years later, the Hartford & Connecticut Valley Railroad became part of the New Haven system.

The incorporation was good for the Valley Railroad as the New Haven put money and improvements into the line. During this time, the Valley Railroad grew to its limit: never being more than a busy branch line with passenger service and freight service consisting of deliveries of supplies and merchandise to communities and factories along the line. Shortly after World War I, as roads, automobiles and trucks improved, the Valley Railroad saw a reduction in service; and by the late 1950s it saw only weekday local service with the speed on the line down to 30 mph from nearly 55 mph.

Hard times fell on the New Haven Railroad itself and in 1961 it fell into bankruptcy. With a major reduction on spending money to maintain its branch lines, the Valley Railroad soon fell into disrepair, finding only two slow moving freight trains a week using the rusted rails.

Business failed along the Valley Railroad line and the New Haven also failed. In 1968 the New Haven was no longer a railroad with the last train run over the Valley in March 1968.

Concerned volunteers got together to keep the now abandoned railroad from being torn up by the new owners, Penn Central. This group managed to obtain a temporary lease from Penn Central in 1969 and on August 15, 1969, the Penn Central turned over this branch line to the State of Connecticut.

The State of Connecticut granted a formal lease to the Valley Railroad Company on June 1, 1970. This lease authorized the company to use the 22.679 miles of track for freight and passenger service; and on July 29, 1971 (100 years to the day of the first ceremonial run), after thousands of hours of mostly volunteer effort, the first train of the new Valley Railroad steamed from Essex to Deep River and has been steaming ever since. The current president of the railroad is Robert C. Bell.

The Valley Railroad offers a number of special programs and events. Some of these, such as "Santa specials" and visits from Thomas the Tank Engine, are similar to those offered by other tourist railroads. A more unusual example is the "Your Hand on the Throttle" program, in which participants are allowed to run one of the railroad's full-size steam locomotives (under supervision).

The Valley Railroad Company leases, from the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the track running from Old Saybrook up through Essex, Deep River, Chester, Haddam and Middletown, totaling 22.67 miles. The track is on top of gravel, and made of wood crossties with steel rails fastened to the ties. The track connects with Amtrak's Northeast Corridor track near the Old Saybrook Station to the south. Presently, 12.70 miles of the line are restored for train service with the remaining last seeing service in 1968. The rail corridor between Haddam and Middletown, which has been cleared of brush and receives property maintenance and surveillance from hi-rail vehicles, awaits full restoration.

The Valley Railroad Company has several grade crossings along its tracks. They vary in their nature, ranging from small caution signs at Private Crossings to flashing lights, bells, and gates and stop signs at public crossings. The busiest public grade crossings are located at Route 153 in Essex, Route 154 in Essex, and Route 82 (just before the East Haddam swing bridge) in Haddam.


The main station, where tickets are sold and all rolling stock is kept, is located in Essex; specifically, the village of Centerbrook. The main entrance and parking access is located off Route 154; there is a rear entrance (not for public use) on Route 153. There is a station building (used as offices for the riverboat operation) at Deep River Landing in Deep River and a small station (used by the Railroad's track department) in Chester - it was originally the station at Quinnipiac. Goodspeed station, located off Route 82 in Haddam, houses an antique shop and is not affiliated with the railroad. Across the tracks from the station is the Goodspeed Yard Office. This building was the original North Chester passenger station, located on Dock Road in Chester, but sold off and removed in 1874 when it was found that the railroad grade was too steep at that location for starting and stopping trains. Donated by the Zanardi family in 1993, it was retrieved by volunteers of the Friends of the Valley Railroad and moved by flatcar to its present location. It is believed that this structure is the sole remaining passenger station from the 1871 opening of the railroad.

On July 18, 2009, the Friends of the Valley Railroad built a passenger shelter in Chester on the site of the original Hadlyme station. The new building is a reproduction of the South Britain station, which was on the now abandoned Danbury Extension of the Hartford, Providence & Fishkill. The original station on this site served passengers of the town of Hadlyme, across the Connecticut River. Passengers use today's station to go to Gillette Castle State Park via the Chester-Hadlyme Ferry, the second-oldest continuously-operated ferry route in the United States.

Our Trip

My ticket for this trip.

The view along the train towards the steam engine.

Robin on the Essex Steam Train.

Myself ready for my first ride on this train.

Connecticut Valley coach 601, nee Delaware, Lackwanna and Western coach 692 built by Pullman in 1920 and later converted to "high roof" multiple unit trailer 1930.

Here is the Essex Steam Train leaving right on time at 11:00AM. Sit back, relax and enjoy a ride along the Connecticut River.

This was your northbound trip on the Essex Steam Train.

Now it would reverse to the siding at Deep River Landing where the steam engine runs around the train.

The trip to Deep River Landing where the boat passengers detrain to take their cruise on the Connecticut River. Now we will watch the engine run around our train.

The engine will now back us to Essex.

The steam engine is New Haven SY Class 2-8-2 3025 built by Tangshan Locomotive Works in 1989. The SY is based on the earlier Japanese-built Class 2-8-2, which was based, in turn, on a type built by Alco in the 1920's for use in Korea. The SY is one of the few steam locomotives still found in active service in the 21st Century, mostly working in coal and steel industries but also heading commuter trains from time to time. The SY class were also among the few Chinese steam locomotives to be exported. In 1989 and 1991, three were built for tourist railroads in the US, 1647 for the Valley Railroad, 1658 for the Knox & Kane and a third for the New York, Susquehanna & Western, which was lost when the ship it was on sunk in the Indian Ocean.

The Susquehanna later bought 1647 from the Valley Railroad and renumbered it 142. It ran until 2003 when it was transferred to the New York, Susquehanna & Western Technical & Historical Society. 1658 was renumbered 58 in the mid to late 1990's but was withdrawn from service and moved with other K&K equipment to an enginehouse in Kane, Pennsylvania. In 2008, it was bought by the Valley Railroad at auction, re-numbered 3025 and given a complete rebuild including cosmetic alterations to make it resemble a New Haven J-1 2-8-2. It went into service in November 2011.

The eye is always watching!

The trip back to Essex. Now we would explore Essex since we had some time.

Click here for Part 2 of this story!