With the Industrial Revolution in full swing in the early 1800s, it was only a matter of time before businesses and travelers in Connecticut seized upon a then-novel technology, the railroads. By 1899, there were 1,013 miles of track, with another 416 miles of trolley lines.
Today, only 629 miles of passenger and freight rail are still in use in Connecticut. The remainder have fallen victim to the convenience of cars and trucks.
So what happened to the other 800 or so miles of relatively flat rail bed?
Well, quite of bit of it has found new life as recreational trails for walkers, bikers, joggers and even horseback riders.
Nineteen "rail trails" have been laid over nearly 185 miles of abandoned railroad rights-of-way across Connecticut. Unlike the miles of hiking trails that climb over hill and dale and greenways that twist and turn along the banks of rivers, rail trails are generally flat with long, gentle curves. The weekend of June 3 Connecticut will celebrate National Trails Day, a great time to try one of the state's trails.
Among the longest rail trails in the state is the Air Line State Park Trail, which extends nearly 56 miles from East Hampton, near the Connecticut River, to Thompson, which borders both Massachusetts and Rhode Island in the state's northeast corner. Among the shortest are the Trolley Trail, a three-quarter mile link in Plainfield between the
Moosup Valley State Park Trail and the Air Line, and the mile-long
Cheney Rail Trail, which previously linked the Cheney Co. silk mills in Manchester by rail to the rest of the world.
Beyond the Air Line, other rail trails are works in progress, including the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail, which follows the Farmington Canal and subsequent rail line that linked New Haven and Northampton, Mass., in the 1800s. Thus far, the trail exists in four Connecticut segments that trail advocates are trying to piece together to form a roughly 84-mile, multi-use recreation trail.
About $7 million in federal funding has allowed the state to make improvements to its trails, including upgrades to make them more accessible to people with physical disabilities.
A Guide To The Trails
Air Line Trail — 53 miles along the former New Haven, Middletown and Willimantic Railroad right-of-way. Its two sections, East Hampton to Willimantic and Willimantic to Putnam, were linked by completion in May of a bridge in Willimantic. The trail comprises the Rapallo and Lyman Viaducts and a 3.4-mile spur that links Colchester to the trail system.
Farmington Canal Heritage Trail — 58 of 60 miles in Connecticut are complete in four sections – New Haven, Hamden to Cheshire, Southington, and Farmington to the Massachusetts border at Southwick, Mass. The trail follows the right-of-way of the former Farmington and Northampton Railroad's Canal Line that carried goods and material between New Haven and Northampton. The canal was out of business by 1848, while sections of the freight rail service lasted into the 1980s. When finished, the trail will extend 80 miles from New Haven to Northampton.
Farmington River Trail — An 18-mile trail built in large part on the former Central New England Railroad right-of-way. It forms a loop with the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail that it connects with at Tunxis Meade Park in Farmington and at Drake Hill Road in Simsbury.
Hop River State Park Trail — Roughly 20.2 miles through the eastern Connecticut countryside in the towns of Manchester, Vernon, Bolton, Coventry, Andover and Columbia. It follows the path of the former Hartford, Providence & Fishkill Railroad.
Pequonnock River Trail — A 12-mile stretch of the former Housatonic Railroad line that currently exists in sections between
Bridgeport and Monroe. There's the 1.6-mile Berkshire Spur Trail in Bridgeport, the 5.6 mile Pequonnock River Trail in Trumbull and 4.2 miles of the Pequonnock River Trail in Monroe.
Larkin State Park Trail — This multi-use trail of 10 miles or so, formerly a bridle path, passes through the towns of Middlebury,Naugatuck, Oxford and Southbury. It follows the former
New York & New England Railroad right-of-way. The line ran between Waterbury and Brewster, N.Y., until 1939. Dr. Charles Larkin bought this particular stretch of the line for a bridle path. In 1943, he gave it to the state for use as a state park and bridle trail.
10 MILES OR LESS
Moosup Valley State Park Trail — 5.8 miles between the center of Moosup in the town of Plainfield to the border with Rhode Island, where it connects to the Coventry (R.I.) Greenway, a 19-mile multi-use trail, also along the former Providence, Hartford, & Fishkill Railroad right-of-way.
Stratton Brook State Park Trail — Roughly 2 miles of the former Connecticut Western Railroad line in Simsbury. The park, which was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression, features picnic areas, fishing and swimming. The trail will eventually connect to the Farmington River Trail that links to the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail.
Vernon Rails-to-Trails Park — 5.9-mile extension of the Hop River Linear Park Trail in Vernon between the town lines with Manchester and Bolton, it was built along the Hartford, Providence & Fishkill Railroad right-of-way. A 1.8-mile spur connect Rockville to the trail system.
Middlebury Greenway — An 8-mile path that follows the former Connecticut Co. trolley right-of-way between Waterbury and Quassy Amusement Park in Middlebury. The trolley line, which originally ran from Waterbury to Woodbury, added the stop at the Lake Quassapaug resort in 1908. The trolley ended service in the 1930s.
Plainfield Trolley Trail — A three-quarter mile stretch of former trolley line running through Plainfield that connects the Air Line and Moosup Valley State Park trails.
The Branford Trolley Trail, Goss & Vedder — A three-quarter mile path that follows the former Connecticut Co. trolley right-of-way that now links the Vedder and Goss preserves in Branford.
Sue Grossman Still River Greenway — The 2.9-mile, multi-use trail between Lanson and Harris drives in Torrington follows the right-of-way of the New York, New Haven & Hartford's Naugatuck branch.
The Railroad Ramble — A 1.7-mile trail in Salisbury built on the right-of-way of the former Central New England Railroad.
Ridgefield Rail-Trail — A nearly 2.5-mile path through the woods of Ridgefield. It passes town parks and open spaces including the Florida Refuge. The trail was built by Connecticut Light & Power Co.
Cheney Rail Trail — A one-mile section in the right-of-way of a 2.5-mile spur of the former South Manchester Railroad that connected the Cheney Bros. silk mills to the Hartford, Providence and Fishkill Railroad.
Meriden Linear Trail — A 1.3-mile trail that follows the right-of-way of the former Meriden, Waterbury & Connecticut River Railroad through the city of Meriden. The trail, which opened in 2007, passes through the Quinnipiac River Gorge.
Kress Family Trail — 2.5 miles of the former Shepaug Railroad line in the town of Roxbury. The trail follow along the Shepaug River. It connects to other trails in the Golden Harvest, Erbacher and River Road preserves, also in Roxbury.
Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, ct.gov/deep/; Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, railstotrails.org; The Farmington Canal Rail to Trail Association, farmingtoncanalgreenway.org; and The Farmington Valley Trails Council, fvgreenway.org