In its railroad heyday from 1850-1950, Willimantic hosted 50 trains a day on three businessman special lines that traveled between New York and Boston on six-hour trips, a decent time even today. All three lines — one Central Vermont and two New Haven — junctioned at Bridge Street off of Main Street by the Willimantic River.
For the last 20 years, a group of avid railroaders who started from scratch have been nurturing a life-size museum on 45 acres near there that boasts a 60-foot-long, 19th century, hand-operated turntable, attached to a gorgeous roundhouse and an array of rolling stock on the grounds. Visitors can climb in and out of buildings, cars and engines, and operate a pump car, for instance.
On Saturday, May 21, the museum dedicated a full replica of the Gallows Signal, created from the original blueprints, that controlled all trains at the Bridge Street crossing for 100 years beginning in 1854. Museum member Dick Arnold of Mansfield was the project leader. And Doris Johnson gave the $3,500 for materials in honor of her late husband, Frank, a Manchester modeler who specialized in crossings and was a member of the museum.
“I know that Frank is looking down from there and is very proud,” she said. Emcee and museum president Mark Granville added, “He might also be looking up; we have some of his ashes on the track here.”
The volunteers and people who love this place work like the dickens. It’s hard work to lay track. They have a master carpenter who is restoring a caboose and an area Eagle Scout restored an operator’s shanty recently.
They found a turntable so like the original one discarded in a field in South Carver, Mass., and got the owner to sell it to them for $10,000, including delivery, in 1994. They worked for seven years to get the mechanics together and unveiled it in 2008. It’s so smartly engineered that a few kids can turn the mammoth machine with their own strength.
A couple of years ago, some beyond prankster criminals broke the custom glass out of the roundhouse and defaced the property. The police didn’t have much to go on, but other glass breakage occurred on train property around the same time in Palmer, Mass. Binswanger Glass in Bristol, CT, replaced thousands of dollars in glass and is in the process of redoing the 8-foot-diameter gable window on the end of the roundhouse.
The next step in the museum vision is to finish laying 2 miles of track and running rides for visitors the ¾ mile down to Bridge Street. “Once we’re able to give train rides, people will flock to the place,” says Jeff Laverty of Mansfield, museum treasurer and one of the very informed docents you can find on site just about any weekend.
This is an escape for the budding train geek in your household or just for you and your own love of the rails. It’s a gem. Don’t miss it.
The CT Eastern Railroad Museum is at 55 Bridge St., Willimantic, CT 06226. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays from May through October. Admission is $5 adults, $4 for seniors, $1 for children ages 8-12 and free for those under 8. For information, call 860-456-9999 or visit the museum website.