It makes people riding their bikes or pushing their children in strollers stop and read. A broken open pit lined with heavy stones, draws your attention from a heavy running workout and makes you stop and imagine life back in the 1800s and early 1900s.
Welcome to Vernon Depot, a passenger and freight station during the late 1800s through the 1930s, that served trains and trolleys running along the Hartford, Providence and Fishkill Railroad. Although little remains of the busy depot, Bruce Dinnie, director of Vernon's parks and recreation, and a group of train enthusiasts have created an "outdoor museum" – as Dinnie calls it – at the main trailhead to Vernon's Rails-To-Trails Park along Church Street.
Dinnie said he got the idea for the museum after visiting Gettysburg and seeing the dozens of interpretive signs detailing the history of the battlefields. Using a grant provided by the Federal Highways Administration Recreational Trails grant program, Dinnie assembled a team of historians. The amateur historians and train enthusiasts included Scott Lent, Charles Bettinger, Russell Green, Brian Smith, Don and Scott Sierakowski and George Roraback.
"Recently we've had so much trail use, it just seemed natural to put something there that really showcased the history of this depot," Dinnie said. "We wanted it to be a place where school kids could come to visit and learn about the history of Rockville and how the country was developed by railroads. There were once eight tracks going across there. You never would have guessed that."
Today, the 5-mile multiuse trail created on the old abandoned railroad bed runs through town from the Manchester border out to Bolton where it becomes the Hop River State Park trail. Outside Vernon Depot, old transmission line poles, ledge cuts and an old stone tunnel are pretty much the only tangible reminders that this was once a bustling railroad.
It really is amazing when you try and picture this narrow piece of land between Church Street and Birch Street once held a passenger station and platform, freight house and platform, section house, switchman's shanty, pump house, water tank, turntable, bunk house and coal bunker.
The interpretive signs are full of factual information about the depot along with dozens of archival photos and even a few train tickets. The signs detail the area's industrial legacy and the history of the railroad pointing out that as many as 22 passenger trains stopped here. The depot also served as a trolley stop connecting to places such as Hartford and the resorts of Stafford Springs.
One of the neatest places at the depot is the well-preserved remains of a turntable pit where locomotives were turned around to run to Rockville. There are also footings of a 30,000 gallon water tower that once refueled steam locomotives running between the yards of Hartford and Willimantic.
"Take a hike out to the Vernon section of the Vernon/Rockville rail trail," as one reader suggested I do, "and look at the new railroad-based historical markers and clearing work that's been done where the old Vernon Depot once stood. Exercise and education at the same time."
To visit the depot, take Exit 65 off I-84 to Route 30. Turn south on Dobson Road and take a left on to Church Street. Visit http://www.vernondepot.com for more detailed information and photographs.