Connecting The Dots Of The Old Air Line Railroad

Peter Marteka
Contact ReporterThe Hartford Courant

"All aboard!"

Those two words usually conjure an image of a conductor glancing at his pocket watch while standing outside a train billowing steam. But it could also describe Portland and East Hampton's efforts to bridge a gap in the Air Line Linear Trail that would bring the path down to the Connecticut River.

I grew up in Portland, but much of my youth was spent in those two towns exploring the vestiges of the railroad that once thundered through on its way to Boston or New York City. I would explore the giant culverts under the railroad bed or tiptoe across the ties of an old trestle bridge. As the years passed, I would lament the loss of portions of the old line in Portland to development, while towns like East Hampton worked to preserve their sections, turning the old railroad bed into hiking trails.

But in February my hope was rekindled when I wrote a column about Portland trying to secure a grant to convert a three-mile section of the former railroad in the eastern part of town to its border with East Hampton. And now East Hampton is seeking a $500,000 grant from the Rails-To-Trails Conservancy to fill its gap toward Portland. The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has its eye on the gap. And an environmental group – Jonah Center For Earth and Art – is bringing some of the players to the table for a community presentation on Tuesday.

"The closer we can get to Portland, the more momentum there will be for funding," East Hampton Parks and Recreation Director Ruth Checko said.

With all the hopefulness, I suddenly felt as breathless as a passenger running for the train as the conductor yells "All aboard!" And on a cold morning, I walked a portion of the railroad with John Shafer, president of the Johan Center. Walking past huge cuts in the ledges and overlooks across the Connecticut River, you don't need a grant application to see the potential of the link.

"It's a very valuable project, especially when you think of the interconnections not only of Portland, East Hampton and Middletown, but to the eastern part of the state," Shafer said of the trail, which runs 50 miles from the center of East Hampton to Thompson.

"The time is right for this project," he added. "It hasn't been viable to this point because there was nothing to connect to. This segment [Portland] is not as meaningful if it's not connected to something."

Shafer will lead a program called "Bringing The Air Line To Portland" at the Portland Library on Tuesday. Residents who attend will hear the latest updates on the efforts from Deanna Rhodes, the planning and zoning administrator for the town. The program will use maps and photographs to show how the trails will be connected, as well as describing the cost estimates and potential funding sources.

"If everyone works together and everyone's on board, it's a matter of coordinating efforts and getting the community involved," Shafer said.

And when it comes to bridging a gap in a popular trail, a cry of "All aboard!" might be just what is needed to get the job done.

Tuesday's meeting will be held at 7 p.m. in the Mary Flood Room of the Portland Library, 20 Freestone Ave. Visit for more information.

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