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  • Phil Hastings' Country

    Text and Photography by Ben Bachman

    RIGHT: A northbound Boston & Maine/Canadian Pacific freight rolls along the banks of the Connecticut River, near Wells River, Vt., in July 1980. ABOVE: The CP train order signal at Richford, Vt.

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    Has Time Finally Run Out In Northern New England?

    The year is 2015. The bright March day feels like spring one moment, the dregs of winter the next. Mud season may not have quite arrived, yet the ground is finally starting to thaw, and out across the Connecticut River bottom lands, down on the flats where the Boston & Maine Railroad used to run, the sharp, sinus-clearing smell of manure is back in the air. The bicyclists are back too, decked out in funny looking helmets, Spandex and day-glow nylon. Like the killdeer in the stubble cornfields, the cyclists herald the changing season, returning every spring to the Great Vermont Rail-Trail. Their appearance has be come a turning point in the tourist year, almost as well-known as the arrival of the leaf peepers or the skiers. In fact, cross-country skiers use the trail too. People ride horses on it. Part of it hosts a popular marathon in September. The trail is a tremendous recreational asset. And in a way, it actually offers a more intimate view of the northern New England countrysidee than did late, lamented trains like the Day White Mountains or the Alouette (which also hauled their share of tourists). You're closer to the ground on a bike. You're out in the open air. If you want to pause and focus binoculars on a warbler, you can. If you want to sit underneath a tree for a while, you can do that too.

    On the other hand, you do not get to see semaphore blades dropping or milk cans lined up on depot platforms or granite mileposts flicking by the windows. You cannot savor the familiar, deeply satisfying sounds of the railroad. The whistlings, screechings, clankings, thumpings, and clunkings have all vanished, like the smoke that used to drift back over the track and out across the pastures.

    Most of the business of New Hampshire's Claremont & Concord involved shuttling cars between the B&M main and downtown Claremont. But every three or four weeks, a little red 44-tonner would venture out along the Sugar River to Newport, crossing two covered bridges along the way.
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    The heart remembers, of course. It remembers, too, that even without trains-and traffic on this line was never really what you would call intense-the living railroad presented a unique sensory experience-the smell of creosote, the unpredictable pinging of rails warming in the sun, the music of wind in the telegraph wires, and a thousand other things. But not now. Now there is silence.

    There is silence and there is the subdued whir of tires-on-gravel. Except for a few short stretches of asphalt, the trail surface is compacted ballast, so knobby tired mountain bikes work best, but almost any kind of machine-or a good pair of walking shoes-will serve. In the beginning, recreationists could only go from White River Junction to Wells River, Vt. (40.4 miles according to ancient B&M time tables), but following the acquisition of an abandoned Canadian Pacific route, the main trail was extended another 63 miles up to Newport-almost on the Canadian border-and branch trails were constructed along the right-of-ways of still other moribund lines, such the hallowed old St. Johnsbury & Lamoille County. Indeed, trail advocates are casting a jealous eye on Vermont's few remaining active railroads.

    The lines of the upper Connecticut Valley were never northern New England's strongest. Joint B&M/CPR passenger service on the Connecticut River route ended in the early 1960s-long before the advent of Amtrak. Freight traffic remained comparatively heavy for a nother 35 years, with an emphasis on newsprint, paper products and Canadian bridge traffic. Period photographs tell us what these trains looked like, but fail to recreate the visceral, intensely personal, often inspirational experience of being present at trackside. As the decades accumulate, the idea that K-8-c Consols, lanky Pacifics, baby blue geeps, and bellowing, smoke belching, action red MLW road switchers once made the ground tremble here is starting to lose its reality, in this now-peaceful sylvan corridor.

    Yet the fact that the trains are gone, gone forever, is equally difficult to comprehend. Like the old stone walls and stark farm houses along routes, the Boston & Maine Railroad seemed eternal. Not just a New England institution, it was more like a force of nature, as much a part of classic Yankeedom as town meetings or maple syrup. Do the cyclists of today have any awareness of that incredibly rich legacy? Probably. Not as much as we do, of course, but still, northern New England is a place where all things old, outmoded or obsolete are venerated. And abandoned railroads certainly qualify. Besides, the trail builders have done an excellent job with interpretative signs and displays.

    In any event, the pedaling is extraordinarily pleasant. And it is easy. That, just as much as the scenery or the Vermont mystique, has been a key ingredient in the trail's phenomenal success. On the main line between White River Junction and Newport there is only one hill of any significance-between Lyndenville and Bartonsville, a CPR helper distric during steam years-but it doesn't slow cyclists down very much. Typically, even out of shape tourists on rented bikes can cruise most of the trail at 10 or 15 mph.

    Which would have been a reckless sprint for the in frequent local freights that ventured north of White River during the last days of Guilford operation in the 1990s. Bridge traffic and through freights were already gone by then, and for all practical purposes, the B&M had ceased to exist as a meaningful entity, replaced at the corporate level by the "Springfield Terminal." ST, in case memories fail, was a former trolley line that used a single 44-tonner to haul road salt and the odd car of lumber between Charlestown, N.H., and Spring field, Vt., and also operated a toll bridge across the Connecticut River. It was an appealing little road as shortlines go-I lived in Springfield for many years-but to paste its name on the B&M seemed... well, it seemed like a bad joke. Traditionalists could only cringe. The Boston & Maine had always been a railroad with a lot of pride. Yes, it had faced plenty of tough times, and knew how to squeeze a dollar as well as anyone, but the pride was always there, even during the Great Depression-even during the dark, dark days of the early-to mid-1970s, when every railroad in the Northeast was sinking fast. Most turned to the government, or begged to be included in mega-mergers, but not the B&M. The proud, stiffnecked old B&M elected to go it alone, pulling itself up from the depths of bankruptcy by virtue of sheer grit and resourcefulness. After all that, it deserved a better fate than Guilford.

    THE BOSTON & MAINE DIESELIZED early. Fans who were just teenagers during the last days of steam are at least 80 now, but for the rest of us middle-aged codgers, there were those blue geeps. Battered, dented and rust-spotted, the venerable GP7s and GP9s (plus a few GP20s) were the B&M. You'd see them way up to Groveton or Berlin, or down in the big yard at East Deerfield, and everywhere in between, doing every conceivable kind of work. Thanks to pooled power and run-through trains, the geeps were also a ubiquitous presence on the CV and the CPO Lord only knows how many miles those units racked up; how many blizzards and sub-zero winter nights they endured, but somehow they had heart to spare. They kept on going. And what a fine thing it could be to pace three or four of the old gals up the Connecticut Valley through Thetford, Ely, Fairlee, Bradford, Newbury, Wells River Ryegate, and Barnet! To be there behind the wheel on a warm June afternoon with the greenness rushing by and a Red Sox game on the radio and the smell of mown hay flooding in the open car windows was to believe you really might live forever.

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    PREVIOUS PAGES: Central Vermont's yard in White River Junction, Vt., in January 1983. ABOVE: Northbound Berlin Route freight at Newbury, Vt., in the heart of the Connecticut Valley.
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    More often, though, the hunt for geeps-or for CPR Alcos, MEC baby U-boats, burly CN safety cabs, or Amtrak E-units-was an exercise in waiting, not chasing. Northern New England photography expeditions could be incredibly frustrating. We ought to be honest about that. You could drive for an hour, or two hours, or however long it took to get to your spot, and then you would sit. You would sit and sit and sit, until you started to wonder if you might fossilize. And because trains could be so infrequent and elusive, you felt obliged to make the most of each precious encounter. You'd start getting up a little earlier, driving a little further, and staying out a little later, whether you really wanted to or not.

    Now the pressure is off.

    Today, sunlight slants through the bare-branched maples, casting long, thin shadows across the old roadbed as you pedal northward. The Connecticut Valley is so achingly beautiful that it leaves most people speechless, and, if anything, the countryside is quieter now than it used to be in railroad days. Every once in a while a crow caws or a flock of mergansers takes off; splashing and quacking, but that's about it. The longest views are off across the river toward mighty old Moosilauke, monarch of the western White Mountains, but sharp-eyed cyclists who focus on what's right in front of them may spot the occasional tie plate or old snowplow warning sign. Obviously the brush has grown up along the right of way-no weed killer gets sprayed any more-but at this time of year, before leaves sprout, you can find concrete signal bases, some with the clipped cables still sticking out.

    ABOVE: A northbound B&M freight at Bath, N.H. The bridge in the background spans the Amonoosuc Ri er. BELOW, LEFT: A north bound Central Vermont train approaches Montpolier Junction.
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    Of course, the B&M was not the only rail road in northern New England. Long will we remember the Grand Trunk (CN), the Central Vermont, the Maine Central, the Delaware & Hudson, the Canadian Pacific, and the holy old Rutland. All are gone. Branches and short lines began to disappear as early as the 1930s. The first main line to be abandoned-a B&M route from Woodsville/Wells River down to Concord-was pulled up in 1954. A number of others followed it into oblivion, most notably the old "Northern Railroad, "a heavy-duty B&M main line between Concord and White River Junction, but the situation seemed to stabilize-or even perk up a little-during the B&M's heroic ascent from financial devastation in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Or was that just wishful thinking? Maybe. But anyone who stood beside the CV's Northern Division main line and watched a 9,000-ton freight thunder by with a mile or more of newsprint boxcars rolling smooth as silk on brand new welded rail became a believer on the spot. The Central Vermont was one impressive railroad. Unfortunately, though, much of its international bridge traffic (like the CPR's) depended on direct interchange with the B&M, and when Guilford, for what must have seemed like sound reasons at the time, abruptly shifted this business to other routes, a new Ice Age began. In little more than a decade, all semblances of mainline, Class I-style railroading (with the partial exception of New England Central, CV's successor) vanished from the region-and many of the newly formed short lines that attempted to pick up the pieces were teetering on the brink of extinction themselves.

    With the benefit of hindsight, it seems obvious that something like this had to happen. Northern New England simply does not have the industrial base, the agricultural economy or the population to support a viable 21st century railroad network. The largest city, Burlington, counted just 39,000 residents (metro 180,000) back in 1996. Only two other towns in Vermont topped 10,000. The paper industry was shifting more and more traffic to trucks. One of the three largest remaining mills switched entirely over to trucking. All that was left were some talc mines, a feed mill, a wood-burning power plant, and the usual assortment of rural feed stores, lumber yards and propane dealers. It just wasn't enough. The paradox for trainwatchers, though, is that many of the factors that made railroading so difficult in northern New England also helped make it colorful. Tough times brought out character. The lack of industry and the intensely rural demographics were interpreted as charming, quaint and picturesque.

    Charming? The word grates a little, but that's what we were thinking. People have always looked at northern New England that way, especially the people who flock to the Great Vermont Rail-Trail of today. With country inns and bed and breakfast places spaced every 10 miles or so in the picture-perfect Yankee villages, this is the ideal place to soothe the jangled nerves and burnt out psyches of weekend urban refugees. But was it ever really a good place for railroads? Do we even care any more?

    USE IT UP, WEAR IT OUT, MAKE it do, or do without. That has been the motto of many a farmer trying to gouge a living out of the rock-ribbed New England hills. The temptation is to apply it to local railroads as well, but if thrift had really been the guiding principle, a lot of these lines would never have been built in the first place. The bald truth is that there was way, way too much h'ack up there. Suppose, for example, a person wanted to travel from Boston to Montreal. He had a basic choice of day or night trains on three different routes (B&M/Rutland through Bellows Falls, B&M/CV through White River Junction and B&M/CPR through White River or Woodsville), although if you really wanted to get creative about it, there were at least twice that many options via Portland, Maine and St. Johnsbury, or Portland and Island Pond, or over on the Boston & Albany to Palmer or Springfield, Mass., and then north. The possibilities were dumbfounding.

    There is no way this could have lasted, but at least those of us who never got a chance to explore northern New England in the golden age had the option of becoming railroad archeologists. Sometimes there was a lot to work with, as at the B&M's abandoned but virtually intact "Westboro" engine terminal complex (just across the Connecticut from White River Junction), and sometimes almost nothing, as in downtown Rutland, where a parking lot occupied the former roundhouse site. Typically, however, a little poking around in the weeds revealed foundation remnants, filled-in turntable pits or other telltale clues, and many a wistful hour was spent among the ruins, communing with ghosts and pondering the flow of time. Northern New England has always been a good place to do that. Fortunately, a number of railroad buildings managed to escape the wrecking ball, finding new life as antique stores, restaurants, veterinary clinics, machine shops, etc. A few classic structures such as the monumental old three-story depots in St. Johnsbury and Island Pond still served their intended junctions. Over on the Central Vermont, at least eight open depots and/or operator's offices remained in use into the 1970s, and up to Newport, the CPR yard and subdivision headquarters presented a time machine-like display of early diesel age railroading, complete with oil burning switch lamps, S-2 yard goats and RS-2s inside the roundhouse.

    The textile industry gravitated to running water, and Littleton, N.H., on Ute swiftly nowing Amonoosuc River was a classic northern New England mill town. By late 1980s, Ute industrial base had diminished, but the road freight to Berlin, N.H., came through daily.
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    But still, if you looked hard enough, you could find stuff like that in most rural areas of the country. You could find scenery, history, tradition, and local color too. Of course you could. So what was it that made the railroads of northern New England unique?

    Basically, I think it was the incredibly strong sense of place. Any railroad up there would have seemed unique. Simply saying the word "Vermont" conjures up an overflowing cornucopia of images-white church steeples, village greens, nasal Yankee accents, barns, chairlifts, boiled dinners, Robert Frost poems, aging hippies, and natural food co-ops, to list just a few. The only other state that unleashes such a flood is Texas. To put the most benign spin on it, northern New England stands not so much for an unreal world as a lost world-a sepia-toned world where hard work, honesty and thrift are honored values; while garishness, run away consumerism and all the other perceived evils of the twenty-first century are unknown.

    Romanticism and myth making are obviously involved here. Remember, an amazing portion of the nation's literary and intellectual elite has been coming to northern New England for the last 150 years. There are probably more writers, poets, painters, and television producers per square mile in Vermont than in any other rural area on earth. Has that distorted our view of the region? Inevitably. But there's nothing we can do about it now even if we wanted to.

    THERE IS A WORLD OF difference, of course, between the crusty old Yankee farmer of myth and legend and the dispassionate bean counters who scrutinize corporate balance sheets. Railroads are the spawn of industrial capitalism, not rural culture. Yet one sector of New England railroading-the B&M's web of light duty branchlines in southern and central New Hampshire-truly did seem to exist in a kind of pastoral never-never land. Call them the "covered bridge and Mogul branches." They all used elderly, diminutive locomotives-the fragile track wouldn't stand any thing else-and eked out an existence hauling passengers, mail, l.c.l. freight, milk, livestock, feed, fuel oil, coal, and whatever else might be needed in the little towns along their bucolic, meandering routes. Mainly, though, they seemed to get by on pure charm. Aesthetically speaking, these amazing branches were nothing short of perfect. Needless to say, they were also among the first lines to disappear in the 1950s. Without World War II gas rationing, they wouldn't have lasted that long.

    ABOVE: Canadian Pacific locomotives roll north through the fields of North Troy, Vt., in September 1980. TOP: A fall scene at Wells River, Vt. ABOVE: Norwich, Vt., is just across the Connecticut River from Dartmouth College. The train is the north ward Berlin Route freight.
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    By the 1980s, the last surviving remnant was the Claremont & Concord Railway, a New Hampshire shortline that operated a segment of one of the classic B&M routes. Most of its business consisted of shuttling cars between the B&M main line connection at Claremont Junction and downtown Claremont, but once every three or four weeks, a little red 44-tonner would venture out along the Sugar River to the end of track at Newport, rumbling through not one but two covered bridges along the way.

    Kept safe from prying tourist eyes by a deep woods location, the twin spans (they appeared to be of identical design) reeked with authenticity, a bit worse for the wear after almost a century of use, but tremendously charismatic. One could be reached on a dirt road, the other only on foot (or by canoe), and visits tended to become pilgrimages. Indeed, beholding one of these bridges could be a spiritual experience. Even on a glaring summer day, it was always dark and cool beneath the high, peaked roofs, and gradually, as your eyes adjusted to the dim light, a flickering glow would come up between the ties from the swift waters below and you could begin to appreciate the scale of the huge truss timbers, held together with wooden pegs. It was awesome. It was almost like being inside a church.

    NEW ENGLANDERS ARE GOOD BUILDERS. The houses, the barns, the churches, and the mills all deserve admiration. Like those Sugar River bridges, they fit the landscape. Northern New England is a place where human beings, out of sheer necessity, have learned how to get along with the land. The only other option was to give up and quit. To this day there is a raw wildness in the New England woods and mountains that belies the cozy postcard image, especially up in the north country along the Canadian border where moose and bear still tend to outnumber people-and the climate is particularly severe. Flatlanders are for ever praising "the seasons" in Vermont, but the one season that puts all the others into perspective, of course, is winter. Winter is the unyielding anvil upon which the Yankee soul has been forged. It is relentless. It is unforgiving. And it is long. You do not just turn up the heat or buy a fancy parka and then go about life pretty much as usual. No way. A northern New England winter affects everything, and until that concept starts to sink in, there is no true understanding what railroading was like here.

    Of course, the light tends to dawn pretty quickly when temperatures sink below zero. Ten minutes standing beside the track, stamping your feet and gradually loosing all feeling in your extremities, is usually sufficient. But if the truth be told, winter in Vermont is also gorgeous. I never minded the cold or the snow very much. I kind of liked it. I didn't mind climbing out of the rack at five in the morning or the long drives either. But the waiting, the inevitable, too often fruitless waiting for a train to appear-that was a completely different story. I hated it. Yet as bored and fed up and totally disgusted as I often got, something kept bringing me back. Part of it was pure love of trains. If you have railroading in your blood the way most trainwatchers do, a few petty hardships aren't going to keep you indoors for long. Beyond that, however, I guess I really did buy into the Vermont mystique or the Yankee Myth or whatever else you might want to call it. I simply loved the look of Vermont. After all these years, I still think it is one of the most beautiful places on earth. And I have come to understand, too, that there was at least one other important factor at work work-and that was Phil Hastings.

    Not so much the man-I never met him-but his pictures. I understand, now, that those incredible pictures Hastings took in Vermont and New Hampshire in the 1940s and early 1950s were an indispensable part of my own photographic quest. They were almost a holy grail. Every time I got in the car and headed up U.S. 5 for St. Johnsbury, Whitefield, Newport, or Island Pond, I was responding at least as much to Hastings' haunting, evocative images of lost New England as I was to anything in the here and now. I just didn't realize it. Bear in mind that Phil Hastings' watershed influence was not nearly as obvious as it is today. I m an, we all knew he was good-any idiot could see that-but perhaps because he was still taking pictures in Iowa, chasing trains and standing hopefully beside the track like any normal fan, it was harder to think of him as a larger than life, seminal influence. But he was. He was a giant. Phil Hastings invented modern railroad photography. The rest of us have been following in his footsteps ever since.

    LEFT: Northern New England's fall colors sometimes don't pan out for photographers, but when they do, the result can be awesome. ABOVE: If you followed the Grand Trunk north out of North Stratford, you eventually came to Island Pond, Vt., one of the coldest spots in the state.
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    The problem with mimicking Hastings' northern New England work was that 85 percent of the stuff he aimed his camera at in the 1950s no longer existed. But I didn't let a little detail like that stop me. Somehow, I had gotten the idea that if I just tried hard enough, if I spent enough time at it and led a pure enough life, I could resurrect the past and recreate the environment of those classic pictures. It was stupid. All the more so because even though we think of Hastings as focusing on the old, the outmoded and the obsolete, whether in Vermont or on those famous road trips with TRAINS Editor David P. Morgan, the master's work is actually much more notable for its innovation. Far from being traditional, his pictures shattered the old rules. He changed the way we looked at the railroad. That is the part of the Hastings legacy I should have been concentrating on.

    I don't think it would have made much of a difference had Hastings grown up in Pennsylvania or Mississippi or California. His talent transcended geography. Still, Vermont is the place where Has tings began his creative journey, and for us lesser mortals, that seems important. Trainwatchers will never be able set foot in the state without feeling his presence-whether or not the last Vermont railroads do someday disappear. I don't know whether the railroads will fade away or not. Nobody, thank heaven, can predict the future.

    Article Details

    • Original Author Ben Bachman
    • Source RailNews
    • Publication Date April 1997

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