Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Wordy Wednesday: On the New Haven Railroad 81 Years Ago Today - Cycle Trains

(Ok - so this post has nothing to do with the Valley Line, and I post it on this day every year, but I include it because it gives me a chance to combine my two primary passions: the New Haven Railroad & bicycling.  It's also an absolutely wonderful window into the past - a veritable time machine, a trip down Memory Lane despite the fact that you're viewing it on a computer or tablet. So, turn back the pages of history and get a little glimpse of what life was like in New England on the New Haven Railroad on the eve of World War II, 81 years ago today . . .click to cue the music) 

September 28, 1941 was a Sunday. An early autumn day in Southern New England, clear and mild.

World War II had been raging in Europe for exactly two years this month.  The German army had advanced into the Soviet Union over the summer and was riding high on the success of having already conquered most of Western Europe.  France had just been split into German-occupied and Vichy zones the previous month.

It wasn't learned until much later that at some point in the days leading up to September 28, 1941, there was an important meeting concerning Nazi Germany's capacity to develop nuclear weapons.  We thought the atomic age didn't start until four years later.

We didn't yet have to "Remember Pearl Harbor."

On this particular Sunday, the Japanese were celebrating the 10 year anniversary of occupying China's northeast territory of Manchuria.  At some point during that same day, perhaps as some sign of heaven's outrage at such an audacious celebration, the sun was blacked out during a total eclipse visible in most of China - from just northeast of the Black Sea to the Pacific ocean.

Just three weeks earlier, the Japanese government assured President Roosevelt that it had "no imperialist designs on any foreign nation."

Britain had survived the Blitz, which ended the previous May - the same month Glenn Miller first recorded "Chattanooga Choo Choo" which was featured in a hit movie starring Sonja Henie.  "Blue Champagne" by the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra was the #1 song of the land on September 28, but the Henie movie, "Sun Valley Serenade," was released to theaters exactly a month earlier.  By then "Chattanooga Choo Choo" was already a top ten on the Hit Parade, well on its way to becoming the first gold record ever the following February.  It was the nation's #1 hit by that December.

Bobby-soxers fed the voracious appetite of juke boxes across the country one nickle at a time and made Frank Sinatra the top male vocalist that year.

Families had probably gone to church that Sunday morning in Connecticut, though some navy yard workers may have slept in having worked so hard to launch the Gato Class submarine USS Greenling (SS-213) at the Electric Boat Co., in Groton the previous Saturday.  Some were still marking the 3 year anniversary of the Great New England Hurricane that devastated the Connecticut coast and rendered Hollywood screen siren Katherine Hepburn temporarily homeless, having to rebuild her family's home in Old Saybrook.

But there was no sign of bad weather on this day, and at least a few folks took advantage of the beautiful Sunday afternoon to go for a bike ride and have a picnic - all courtesy of the New Haven Railroad.

There aren't many left that remember the "Hobby Trains" run by the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad (aka the "New Haven") during the late 1930s and early 1940s.  In an effort to boost ridership, the New Haven took advantage of the fact that their railroad connected the Great Metropolis of New York with New England.  There were camp trains in the summer and ski trains in the winter.  Photography specials in the spring and all year 'round.  But what better time for a Bike Train than Autumn and what better place than the Berkshire Hills?

Thanks to a discovery of raw film footage by the NHRHTA, we can go back to that Sunday almost eight decades ago and enjoy the sights of a pre-war bike ride.  You'll have to pedal your single-speed cruiser over a bunch of rolling hills before you get to eat.  Don't worry if you have to walk up some of them - and ladies, be sure to mind your skirts that they don't get caught in the spokes.  There are no "rest stops" as we think of on 21st century rides - bits of orange and Powerbars - but an entire spread complete with potato salad, Boston baked beans, chicken and watermelon awaits us.

So give your Schwinn, Columbia or Raleigh to the porter to put in the baggage car, give the conductor your ticket, and enjoy the trip.  The train is about to arrive at the station . . .


For more about the cycle trains - and all the other "Hobby Trains" the New Haven Railroad ran - be sure to check out the comprehensive article by Marc Fratassio in Volume 40, Issue 2 of the NHRHTA's Shoreliner magazine.  I also came across the following article from the May 2, 1936 issue of Railway Age magazine which covers the New Haven's cycle trains shortly after the first one ran.

Hope you enjoy this additional little journey down Memory Lane . . .


Sunday, September 25, 2022

Sunday Funday: NHRR DEY-7 (SW-1200) Review

 

While noodling around the internet recently, I happened to notice that my review of the DEY-7 has been posted in full on the Model Railroad News website. While I mentioned way back last October that it'd be in the November 2021 issue, this is the first time I've noticed that it was posted on the MRN site.

So if you missed it you can click here and read it for free - enjoy!

Monday, September 19, 2022

On the New Haven, 84 Years Ago This Week. . .The Great New England Hurricane

September 21, 1938 marks a somber - and for the New Haven Railroad, a devastating - event in history.

Making landfall that dayThe Great New England Hurricane was - and remains - the most powerful and deadly storm to hit New England in at least 300 years. It killed an estimated 682 people, damaged or destroyed 57,000 homes and cost an estimated $5.6 billion in 2019 dollars. Even as late as 1951, you could still see damaged trees and buildings.

The New Haven's Shore Line route was hit especially hard. . .




But the railroad - despite being in receivership after having gone into bankruptcy a few years earlier - restored its many washed-out lines in record time. The little booklet above tells the story:
"On September 21st, 1938, with flood waters already threatening major washouts at important points along the New Haven Railroad where the tracks paralleled or crossed the swollen torrents of New England's rivers...suddenly, just before dark, in the teeth of a howling southwest gale which increased momentarily to hurricane proportions, a steadily rising tide which in some places rose twenty feet in as many minutes, swept inland along the New England coast-line across the Shore Line Route of the New Haven Railroad...carrying on its crest hundreds of boats, ships, cottages, buildings, and wreckage. Communications by rail, wire, and telephone with many devastated areas was completely cut off. No one realized as yet what a staggering blow had been dealt by this combined hurricane - tidal wave - flood throughout the length and breadth of southern New England. But the next morning revealed a grim picture of death and desolation. Where fast freights and through passenger trains, including the crack Shore Line Limiteds had sped in rapid succession between New York and New England points carrying passengers, mail, express, and the vital necessities of life...now miles of silent track hung at crazy angles over yawning chasms in a hopeless tangle of power lines, signal towers, houses, boats, and thousands of tons of debris. Further inland at Hartford, Springfield, Norwich, Willimantic, and Putnam the hurricane had left its toll of felled trees and communication systems, crumbled freight sheds and roofless factories...and to add to the chaos, the raging rivers from the north broke through dams and temporary dikes, washing out railroad bridges and miles of track...rendering useless the strategic points through which Shore Line trains might have been re-routed. The vital life-line between New England and points south and west had been effectually severed. It had to be restored without delay. Thousands of men were needed for the Herculean task of rebuilding a railroad. The summoning of trackmen, engineers, skilled repair crews, and laborers had to be carried out without the help of modern communications systems. In an incredibly short time an army of 5,000 men were at work...toiling 24 hours a day in 3 shifts...many of them eating and sleeping in work trains and Pullman cars on the job..."
Those of us living in New England a few years back went through "Superstorm Sandy" and got a taste of what The Great New England Hurricane might have been like. But, as it turns out, it was a pretty small taste - as bad as Sandy was, it didn't come anywhere close. Check out this site for an eye-opening comparison of the two storms.

There are fewer and fewer folks that have first-hand memories of that fateful day almost 85 years ago, but thanks to the extensive coverage the storm received - not to mention the wonders of the internet that allow all that coverage to be easily saved and shared - the heroic efforts of the employees of the New Haven Railroad, including those on the Valley Line and most especially along the Shore Line, will never be forgotten.

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Friday Fun - Hartford's State Theatre

One of the best "side benefits" of modeling a particular time and place is opportunity to really get into and absorb that time and place - everything from the music, to the movies, the cars, what going on in the world at the time. In fact, I embrace this aspect of the hobby explicitly when I share what I've learned in the Crew Calls I send out before my operating sessions.

It really creates the closest thing to a time machine that I can imagine - and it's a great way to get my operators to join me on my journey into the past.

The only downside I can imagine is that there's no "new" old stuff being created - it's all back there in the past, and not being added to. But some of it is still waiting to be (re)discovered - and every once in a while, just when you think you know everything there is to know about your chosen era, you discover something new.

That happened to me this week.

I was listening to Benny Goodman's 1938 Carnegie Hall recording of Sing, Sing, Sing for about the millionth time, and was mesmerized my Jess Stacy's piano solo toward the end. That sent me down a rabbit hole to learn more about Jess Stacy (which is a really interesting story, btw) and the BG band of the late 1930s.

Other than the time traveling aspect, what does all this have to do with the Valley Local? Well, this site isn't just about the model railroad I'm building in my basement - it's as much about the time and place that sets the stage. And while it predates my chosen era by about 10 years, for one brief, shining moment, the famous Benny Goodman Band played at the State Theater in Hartford, CT - only a few blocks from the Valley Line - and BG even performed a special song for the occasion called The Hartford Stomp.

Here's the full broadcast:


And you can hear The Hartford Stomp below:

Another fun find down that rabbit hole was a series of programs broadcast by Hartford's WTIC radio that focuses on that golden era. Click here for that. And for more about Hartford's State Theater (which, at the time, was New England's largest theater, with almost 4,000 seats), click here. If you want to learn more about the Big Bands that used to perform in Connecticut, click here.

As you can probably tell, these little research rabbit trails can be an especially enjoyable part of this great hobby. I thought I had heard everything that Benny Goodman ever recorded, and now - thanks to following one of those trails - I've discovered a lot of new music that will provide the perfect background and soundtrack for a day operating on the Valley Line.

Friday, September 2, 2022

Friday Fun: Labor Day Weekend, 1948

I'm told it was just 74 years ago "today," - the Friday of Labor Day Weekend, September 3, 1948 - when an 8 year old little boy went down to the Old Saybrook station platform to watch trains. The sun was going down - it'd be totally set within a few minutes - and in the gathering dusk a dull roar like thunder could be heard . . .

Looking eastward down the tracks, toward the gathering darkness, the sound seemed to get closer and he could just start to make out what looked like a plume of smoke - or maybe it was two? That didn't make sense. Almost all of the trains on the Shore Line were dieselized now, but, as loud as a pair of back-to-back DL-109s are, they sure don't sound like this . . .

It was the glimmer on the rails, lighting up the curve in the far distance, that was the first giveaway that a train was for-sure coming. Of course, the little boy knew a train was due. He'd been into trains for as long as he could remember and he knew how to read a timetable.

He knew that the approaching train had just crossed the Connecticut River and was accelerating hard off the bridge. It sure sounded like it - and the distinctive bark meant this train had to have a steam locomotive on the point. And with it being a little past 7pm, that meant it had to be The Merchant's Limited.

But was it early? The Merchants wasn't due through Saybrook until 7:17 . . . but just then, the train came blasting around the distant curve - exhaust roaring and headlight blazing! Before he could fully comprehend it all, The Advance Merchants Limited flew by at 65 miles an hour behind not one, but TWO! I-4 Pacifics with 23 heavyweight parlor cars on their tail.

In the rush of the passing train, little John Pryke could just make out the glow of two fireboxes and just as quickly as it had come, it was gone again with the tail sign receding quickly toward the sunset.

As the dust settled and the thunder of the Merchants' passing began to fade, the impression of the sight seared itself into the little boy's memory, and sparked a passion for the New Haven Railroad that would last the rest of his life and spur him into recreating this memory in miniature, someday.

* * * * * * * *
I try to relate this story at or at least near the anniversary of this event, which is all - mostly - verified as true. Especially since it not only inspired John to a life-long love of the New Haven RR, but - indirectly - influenced my choice not only of prototype, but of era and locale. John often mentioned visiting his grandparents in Old Saybrook and going with them down to the station to watch the trains go by. And he remembers seeing the double-headed, steam-powered Advance Merchant's Limited the Friday evening of Labor Day Weekend, 1948. It was this event, more than anything else, that he always pointed to as the inspiration for getting into model railroading and trying to recreate the New Haven in HO scale.

In fact, all of John's layouts - all featured at one time or another in books or the pages of Model Railroader - were firmly set in space and time: Southern New England's New Haven Railroad was the space, and the time could only ever be "September, 1948."

Now, almost nine years after his passing, I'm closer than ever to being able to recreate this memory in miniature. I have the Old Saybrook station scene as a highlight on my layout and, while I don't mind varying my chosen era within the narrow confines of "1947-1949," for all intents and purposes I'm modeling the Autumn of 1948.

I think - and hope - John would be proud of the effort. And I know he'd get a kick out of seeing a little HO scale version of his 8 year old self on the Saybrook station platform, waiting for another train to go by . . .

* This post originally appeared 9/27/2018, 70 years to the month since the event took place. I've reposted it not only to commemorate such an important time in John's life, but to remind myself that preserving these memories is one of the reasons for embarking on this project in the first place.