The Air Line Trail
Though the rails are long gone, this rail bed once offered fashionable, rapid transit from New York to Boston. Those who travel the corridor today witness the same inspiring panoramas and absorb the same solitude that has greeted travelers since the line was constructed. Stretching across eastern Connecticut from Thompson to East Hampton, this linear trail dates from the 1870s, and today draws walkers, hikers, horseback riders and bikers from across the state for the views, the relaxation and the solitude.
The trail takes its name from the imaginary line drawn from New York to Boston, through the “air” so to speak, to illustrate the shortest possible route between these two major east coast cities. Building a completely new rail line however proved economically infeasible so, for practical reasons, the “Air Line” as it came to be called, used existing rails from New York to New Haven and began its journey to the northeast from there. On its way to Boston, the Air Line overcame tremendous obstacles in Connecticut’s eastern highlands including ridges, valleys and of course, politics.
Construction began in New Haven in the late 1860s, and by 1873, the line was completed as far as Windham. This was an especially challenging run because of the landscape which demanded a winding or serpentine rail bed. Despite being limited to the technology of the day, tremendous cuts through the hillsides were accomplished in combination with equally massive “fills” in the valleys to keep the rail bed at grade.
Further east, another entity laid the rails from Windham to the Connecticut border for the connection with Boston. Here a major obstacle was the crossing of the Quinebaug River in Putnam. But the construction was complete in August of 1872 and, within a year, the reality of the original plan had come to fruition.
Intermittent rail traffic for passengers built up until 1876 when the first dedicated passenger run was scheduled. But it could only be effective if it offered time savings from the pre-existing shoreline route. Slowly, incrementally, time was trimmed from the Air Line travel schedule and by 1885, with an hour savings on the six hour coastal run from New York to Boston, the New England Limited was established.
As time marched onward to a new century, technology increased, railroad engines became faster, cars became longer and everything became heavier. The quaintness of the Air Line’s winding grades, and the weight restrictions of the spindly trestle bridges built for an earlier era of travel, began to show their limitations. As a result of these limits, traffic began to taper off. Though local runs and intermittent passenger trains continued to run along the line, passenger service concluded on May 17, 1902 when service defaulted to the shore line rails.
Once the faster passenger trains moved to the shore, it was the slower freight trains and local passenger traffic that kept the rail line alive for many years afterwards. Disastrous flooding of August, 1955 washed out critical bridge work in Putnam precipitating a string of route cancellations and section closures that systematically crippled the line from ever regaining its usable status. The construction of the interstate highway throughout the 1960s sealed the fate of any future hope of rail bound traffic.