Danbury Railways

by Joseph Brennan

Danbury Railways (PDF).

Danbury Railways (JPG).

Hawleyville Tunnel (JPG).


The base map is tiled from USGS 15-minute quadrangles dated 1892 to 1904. You can see historic topographic maps and download them at the USGS Topo Viewer web site.

The standard state-wide railway history reference is: Connecticut Railroads by Gregg M Turner and Melancthon W Jacobus (Hartford CT: The Connecticut Historical Society, 1989.)

Detail on abandonment dates is from: Lost Railroads of New England by Ronald Dake Karr, third edition. (Pepperel MA: Branch Line Press, 2010.)

A tremendous amount of detail on Danbury stations, with maps and illustrations, is at "High Drama in the Hat City : Links, Loops, Depots, and Dummies in Danbury, 1850-1925" at Tyler City Station (tylercitystation.info).

The local transit agency HART has a page describing the trolley routes (and subsequent bus lines), History of Public Bus Service in Danbury.

Some additional detail on station locations comes from the road maps in the atlas "Motor Trips" New England and Eastern New York for The New England Federation of Automobile Clubs. (Hartford CT: The Guyde Publishing Co, 1923.)

Checks on station names were made in the Official Guide of the Railways for June 1893 and January 1910.

Paths of unbuilt railways were gleaned from several sources, notably : Atlas of New York and Vicinity by F W Beers. (New York: F W Beers et al, 1868) seen at the David Rumsey Map Collection ; maps in "How mapmakers viewed Ridgefield" at the Ridgefield History Shop page (jackfsanders.tripod.com) ; and at the University of Connecticut Map and Geographical Information Center (MAGIC), the historical town maps, the New Haven Railroad valuation maps, and the 1934 Connecticut Fairchild Aerial Photography set.

Historical Sketch

Railways were proposed in the Danbury area in the 1830s, the decade when advances in civil engineering and steam locomotive design made railways practical. Bridgeport businessmen promoted the Housatonic Railroad, which would run near but not through Danbury, and others promoted the Danbury and Norwalk Railroad. Danbury by this time was an important inland market town with a popular annual fair.

The Housatonic Railroad was the first local railway to open. It ran generally north from rail and water connections at Bridgeport to northwest Connecticut and eventually to Pittsfield MA. The first section to be completed opened in 1840 up to New Milford. It included a rock tunnel in Newtown often called the Hawleyville Tunnel. The original goal of the railway was to reach quarries, iron mines and foundries, potteries, and other industries in northwest Connecticut. Later it became an important passenger route to the Berkshires.

The Danbury and Norwalk Railroad had been proposed around the same time as the Housatonic, but financing and construction was much delayed. It opened in 1852 between its namesake cities. The Danbury terminal was at Main Street.

Both the Housatonic and the Danbury and Norwalk depended on the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad at Bridgeport and Norwalk for rail connections to other points, and the New Haven Railroad's management made the most of their monopoly. The Housatonic did have a dock for water connections as an alternative, and the D&N eventually built a dock at Norwalk too.

In the later 1860s two new railroad projects were proposed in the area. The New York, Housatonic and Northern Railroad was intended to provide the Housatonic Railroad with an alternate rail route to New York. The first section constructed was the only one opened, from Brookfield Junction on the Housatonic to Danbury, in late 1868. This much of the line was useful in its own right.

For a few months the NYH&N ran into the D&N's Main Street station in Danbury, but in 1869 the company built a separate station a few blocks away at White Street, and removed the track connection to the D&N. From White Street station the line was intended to continue around the west side of Danbury to the Fair Grounds, and then southwest through Ridgebury and North Salem, and on to White Plains and Mount Vernon. Along this route the company acquired and graded 23 miles of line that was never used. The company was foreclosed in 1875 and all the unfinished line was sold off. Local historians and railfans report that some of the grade is still visible.

The Housatonic began operating the Danbury section of the NYH&N in 1872, and later purchased it. This began a period of competition for Danbury freight traffic. For passengers going south the D&N's route via Norwalk was shorter and faster than the Housatonic.

The second proposed line of the 1860s was the Ridgefield and New York Railroad. Like the NYH&N the company purchased and graded many miles of its route from Ridgefield to East Port Chester (in Greenwich), but none of the R&N's line ever opened.

The Danbury and Norwalk hurriedly constructed a branch to Ridgefield in 1870, in a bid to stop the town from offering financial assistance to the R&N. The branch began at the former Ridgefield Station, known ever since by the obvious name Branchville. Passenger service ran only until 1925, and the whole branch was abandoned in 1964.

Although work stopped in 1873, the R&N was not dead. The company kept applying for extensions of their time limit through the 1880s and did not sell off the land. By 1886 it was described as running from Danbury. The New Haven acquired the property in 1906 and still held it in 1915 when the company prepared valuation maps (available online at the University of Connecticut library). The survey route to Danbury is shown, meeting the New York and New England line at the Fair Grounds curve, but the property north of Titicus was not owned.

A short line called the Shepaug Railroad opened in 1872 from Hawleyville station on the Housatonic up to Litchfield over a very twisty route. The Danbury and Norwalk built a branch from Bethel to reach it, which was operated by the Shepaug. The D&N link, which had no stations, was one of the earliest abandonments in Connecticut, 1911. From 1908 the Shepaug's trains ran to Danbury instead, via the NY&NE route.

The east-west main line at Danbury was proposed as early as 1845, by the New York and Hartford Railroad, which would have run from the New York and Harlem at Brewster via Danbury and Waterbury to Hartford. This route was not built for 35 years. After a series of corporate reorganizations, the last link was completed by the New York and New England Railroad in 1881, from Waterbury to Brewster to Fishkill on the Hudson River.

The NY&NE came the closest of any company to competing with the New Haven system for traffic between New York and Boston. Oddly enough, considering the cutthroat competition, the two companies did run through and connecting services using the NY&NE east of New Haven or Hartford. The NY&NE west of Waterbury was in a much weaker position for passenger services, because the curves and grades and poor connections made through travel on it much slower. For a short time from 1881 there was an attempt to promote connecting service at Brewster via the newly opened New York and Northern, another railroad burdened with curves and grades, later known as the Putnam Division of the New York Central.

The NY&NE routing in the Danbury area was closely related to the existing railways. Coming in from the east, at Newtown it came alongside the Housatonic, running parallel on the north side through its own tunnel and through Hawleyville. It then crossed over to the south side of the Housatonic and then diverged to run toward the former NYH&N line at what was later called Berkshire Junction.

The NY&NE then ran on the NYH&N grade itself into Danbury. This was possible because as a Housatonic branch, only one track had been laid on the two-track grade. Just before entering Danbury center, the NY&NE crossed to the north side of the Housatonic and entered another White Street station next to the Housatonic's station.

From here the NY&NE ran west along the intended route of the NYH&N as far as the Fair Grounds, possibly using the NYH&N grade. This was most likely also the intended route of the plans dating to 1845, and so was the the rest of the NY&NE route west to Brewster.

At this point, 1881, there were three stations in Danbury, offering service south from Main Street station on the Danbury and Norwalk ; north from White Street station on the Housatonic ; and east and west from the other White Street station on the New York and New England. But the era of consolidation would soon begin.

The Housatonic acquired the Danbury and Norwalk and the Shepaug in 1886. Three years later the Housatonic built a connecting track at Danbury so that Brookfield trains could run into Main Street station, and closed its White Street station. Through trains to New York began using the Danbury Branch instead of the longer route via Bridgeport. Some stopped at Danbury Main Street, a stub terminal that required a reverse move, and some bypassed Danbury using another new connection at Hawleyville to the ex D&N Shepaug branch. Freight trains also ran down the Danbury Branch to a dock at Wilson's Point, Norwalk.

The New York and New England, still trying to create routes avoiding the New Haven system, ran two unusual services around this time. In 1891 the NY&NE started the Long Island and Eastern States Express, which came down from Boston on the NY&NE to Hawleyville, over the Housatonic to Wilson's Point, by carfloat to Oyster Bay, and over the Long Island Rail Road to Long Island City. But the New Haven acquired the Housatonic in 1892 and cut off this longer and more expensive routing. The NY&NE then started an an overnight Pullman train that ran down to Brewster, stopping at Danbury in the wee hours, and then over the New York and Northern to the 155th Street terminal in Manhattan. It took eight hours, not counting the connecting ride on the Sixth Avenue elevated railway to the main part of the city, and was dropped in 1893.

The "Consolidated" New Haven system acquired the bankrupt New York and New England in 1895, completing its acquisition of all the railways in the area except the New York and Harlem, off to the west in New York State. The New Haven was known for obsessively purchasing almost every other railway in its territory of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and southeastern Massachusetts, even local trolley roads. This probably accounts for its purchase of the unbuilt Ridgefield and New York in 1906.

One of the very few Connecticut railways not acquired by the New Haven was the Danbury and Bethel Street Railway. This company, originally the Danbury and Bethel Horse Railway, operated horsecars and then electric trolleys from 1887 to 1926. The north-south route ran from northern Danbury down Main Street and out to Bethel. The east-west route ran in various streets within Danbury, with a long branch west to the Fair Grounds and the company's "trolley park" amusements at Lake Kanosha. All of the trackage was in streets. Like many trolley companies, its revenues dwindled in the 1920s as more people acquired automobiles, and the rail system was abandoned in favor of bus services.

Around 1900 there was a boom, akin to the more recent dot-com era, in which there was much excitement about building interurban trolley lines between cities. No plan was too foolish to get funding. Some visionaries formed the Danbury and Harlem Traction company ("traction" was a name for trolley services) to build a route from Danbury to Goldens Bridge station on the New York and Harlem. It was imagined to provide a faster route for passengers and freight than the Danbury Branch.

The D&HT line branched off the Danbury and Bethel Street Railway near the Fair Grounds and ran through Ridgebury and into New York State. Most of it did not run in streets. From 1900 to 1901 the company purchased land, graded the line, laid track and erected wire, and built a powerhouse. A Danbury and Bethel trolley made a test run, probably in 1901. And that was all. The New York Times reported in 1908 that the route was two-thirds built, and the Bridgeport Herald in 1909 said the track ended "six miles short of Goldens Bridge", which would be somewhere in North Salem. But the occasion for both reports was the sale and demise of the company.

The D&HT grade in Ridgefield and part of North Salem is well defined in aerial photographs taken in 1934 (available online at the University of Connecticut library). Part of it is now a street called Old Trolley Road. Local historians and railfans report that much of the grade is easily seen winter.

The first few miles out of Danbury follow a route very similar to the New York, Housatonic and Northern graded some thirty years earlier. It is not clear whether some of the D&HT grade actually is that grade. South of its few blocks of street running in Ridgebury, the D&HT takes a sharp turn that seems to bring it back to a continuation of a smoother curve. The map on this web page is a little speculative on these two. While two different alignments are shown, the D&HT is based on the 1934 aerial photographs, and the NYH&N is based on older maps that are somewhat loosely drawn. From those sources, the paths seem to be different, but maybe they are not.

Back on the main lines, the New Haven began a program of improvements shortly after securing control of the local rail network. At Danbury, a loop was built in 1896 to eliminate the reverse move for ex Housatonic through trains, which were now known as Berkshire Division trains. But trains using the loop bypassed Main Street station and stopped instead at the (ex NY&NE) White Street station. Danbury passengers heading south had to check carefully whether their train began at Danbury (Main Street) or was coming down from the north (White Street). The awkward situation was rectified in 1903 with the opening of the new larger White Street station, sometimes called a "union station" even though all the trains were run by one company. With this Main Street station was closed and the land was sold off.

The New Haven was also busy during this period creating a major freight route known as the Maybrook line. At Maybrook, in Orange County, New York, coal from the Lehigh and Hudson River, the Lehigh and New England, the New York, Ontario and Western, and the Erie, and general freight from the Erie, were made up into trains that crossed the Hudson on the Poughkeepsie Bridge of the Central New England Railroad, a New Haven property. From there the Maybrook line followed the ex New York and New England to Brewster, Danbury, and Hawleyville, and then cut over to the ex Housatonic to Bridgeport and New Haven.

About 1908, the parallel ex Housatonic and ex New York and New England out of Danbury were made into a single double-track line, diverging at Berkshire Junction (which had not been a junction at all until this time). The parallel lines around Hawleyville were more heavily rebuilt in 1911. The ex Housatonic loop through Hawleyville was abandoned along with the ex Danbury and Northern link to the ex Shepaug. In the area of the tunnels, a completely new line was built at a higher grade with a cut instead of a tunnel. Beyond this point the new line curved south into the ex Housatonic line which it met north of Newtown station.

The Housatonic tunnel of 1840 was abandoned. It still exists and is still open straight through. The NY&NE tunnel of 1881 was not abandoned until 1948. The ex NY&NE to Waterbury branched off the new higher grade Maybrook line and ran on its old grade, passing under the new line, which in effect lengthened the tunnel with a new west portal bearing the date 1911. This tunnel also still exists and is still open all the way through.

The Maybrook line was used briefly for a through passenger service. Until November 1910 the Pennsylvania Railroad and the New Haven had run two through trains a day between Boston and Washington by using a specially built steamboat to transport the rail cars between the Bronx and Jersey City, without a station stop for New York. The boat services were dropped in November 1910 when New York Penn Station opened, ending through travel. Passengers were required to transfer in New York between Grand Central Depot and Penn Station. The overnight train, the Federal Express, was greatly missed, and so it was revived in October 1912 using a freight routing around the city. From New Haven the train ran on the Maybrook line through Danbury, over the Poughkeepsie Bridge, and down the Lehigh and Hudson River Railroad and the Pennsylvania's Bel Del branch to join the Pennsylvania's main line at Trenton. It was discontinued to January 1916 because the Maybrook line was too congested with freight trains— which shows how heavily used the Maybrook line was. The Federal Express resumed in April 1917 running through New York Penn Station and over the newly opened Hell Gate Span.

The local network was pared down in the 1940s. The ex Housatonic had long been functionally cut in two, with the portion north of Brookfield connected to the Danbury line, and the portion south of Hawleyville operated as part of the Maybrook line. The connecting link near Brookfield was abandoned in 1940. In 1948 the New Haven abandoned the ex Shepaug and a section of the ex NY&NE from east of Hawleyville to west of Waterbury. Both lines had had no passenger service since the early 1930s.

Freight traffic on the Maybrook line dwindled after the formation of the Penn Central, which preferred routing New England freight over a bridge near Albany. The Poughkeepsie Bridge was closed in 1974.

The only busy railway now at Danbury is the Metro North (Connecticut Department of Transportation) passenger service south to Norwalk and New York. The stations at Danbury and Bethel were relocated in 1996, and West Redding in 1999. The 1903 White Street station still exists and is used for the Danbury Railway Museum.

The Berkshire line to the north had passenger service until 1971. It has freight service run by a new Housatonic Railroad, which also runs the Maybrook line. Studies around 2010 have proposed extending passenger services north of Danbury.