White River Junction

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History of the Village

White River Junction as a Railroad Mecca

Edgar T. Mead, “The Glory of White River Junction,” Springfield (Vermont) Reporter, 23 June, 1971.

I remember visiting the station platform at White River Jct. in the spring of 1940. I was small then, but the memory has grown with the years. It was a real junction in those days, with steam freight and passenger trains coming in the leaving from every direction, north to Woodsville, west to Montreal, east to Boston and south to New York. There were times during the day when two or three passenger trains would be in the station at once, and as soon as they left, a heavy freight would clomp by; and then the heavy eight-wheeled switch engine would keep the hills and valley reverberating with the rise and fall of its powerful exhaust sounds. There was plenty of smoke around, but railroading was the lifeblood of the community, and since railroad men lived to the ripest of old ages, not one could possibly associate smoke with shortness of life.

Those broad, dull, sunbaked expanses of cement super highway hadn’t slashed through the woods ad fields in 1940, and dc-3 plane travel out of the White River Junction Fairgrounds carried its own set of hazards. In a word, people took the trains, and the trains were there for them ot take. The chief railroad in White River Junciton was the Boston and Maine, but bear in mind that much of its equipment dated from prior to World War I. Imagine driving a 30 year old automobile or airplane at the same speeds permitted when factory new. Yet the old Moguls, Pacifics and Consolidatnos huffed and puffed along over hill and dale, running on time more often than not despite blizzards, rainsqualls, frost heaves and other torments of the rugged nothern climate.

The place to stand, of course, was close to where the line from Boston crossed the Connecticut River line. From there one could spot train movements in every direction, with the bonus of keeping tabs on locomotive operations all day and night, but certain times were more exciting than others, for instance, between 2 and 3 p. m. when the east and the west bound “Ambassadors” rolled through town. The Ambassador No. 332 left Montreal at 9:10 a.m., reaching WRJ about 2 p. m. With luck, a traveller could catch south bound trian 74 for Bellows Falls and Brattleboro. Stopping only a minute or two to change engines, the Ambassador would accelerate across the river bridge, stampeding uphill through Lebanon toward Boston, which it would reach at 5:30 p. m. Often there would be a cleanlined B & M p-3 Pacific on the headend. The train was a reserved seat affair, and carried a buffet-lounge car The two Ambassadors passed at Canaan, and if on time, the westbound would squeal into WRJ at 3 p. m.

Service north was limited to two passenger roundtrips daily. There was a morning mail, express and general accommodation train that whistled out of White River Jct. at the unholy hour of 6:25 A. M. It stopped at local villages and at 7:47 stamped into Woodsville, another of those wonderful northern New England Junction town that come alive at certain hours of day when the “big” trains roared up for an engine change or a tank of water. This same 6:25 train wound up in mid-morning at Berlin, New Hampshire, a town then so impossibly remote as to defy access by any other route but the train. But the important train at Woodsville was the “Alouette,” a Canadian Pacific high-stepper that came with a brightly-painted small Pacific and on the tail end a magnificent Canadian Pacific broiler-buffet car with a brass open observation platform.

Back at White River Junction, 300-class Boston & Maine “Mudhens” lumbered up and down with anywhere from 20 to 100 cars, doing local and mailine work without caring greatly which. Modern 4100-class Mountain 4-8-2s came in to do the fast freights, with an occasional 4000-class Vermont used massive 2-10-4 rialpounding monsters, supplemented by 2-8-0 Consolidation types, for freight. Tehre was avariety of passenger power, ranging from Ten-wheel 4-6-0 types through Pacifics and Mountains. Then as now, Caadian National and Grand Trunk power circulated freely. On the River line north, bridge restrictions necessitated the use of midium–heavy B&M Consolidations and Canadian Pacific Ten-wheel types, often double and even triple-headed south of Newport, Vt.

On a typical weekday, there would be six passenger trains bound for New York (and two or three extra trains in summer), four for Boston, two for Woodsville, and three for Montreal. There was a story that E. S. French, the B&M president, who hailed from Springfield, Vt., provided an extra excuse for good service, but people then were travelling by train. Remember too that most of the passenger trains carried milk, mail, newspapers, express, perishables and all manner of fast frieght that rumbles night and day over public highways today. Tehre were night sleeper and milk jobs that would head out of town with two big Pacifics and 14 or 15 cars regularly.

Train No. 77, which originated in New York at 8 A.M. dialy except Sunday, was called “The Dartmouth”. It carried the usual mixture of New Haven and B&M coaches, a parlor-broiler-buffet car winters and a full length diner in sumertime. If “The Dartmouth” was on time, it required seven hours for the trip, but this involved engine changes at New Haven and Springfield, plus stopping to offload mail at any settlement busier than a cow pasture. In fifty years, the B&M had made little improvement in road time, preferring plenty of slack in the schedule considering the hazards of floods, snow drifts, time lost at meets and so on.

The “Washingtonian” and “Montrealer” were Queens of the Fleet on the River line, and it was almost worth styaing up all night to see them roar in and out of a station such as White River Junction. The train carried sleeping cars from Montreal to Washington and New York, and St. Albans to New York. There were deluxe coaches and also a lounge car. The train carried the reputation as quite a ballast scorcher, and the fact that it ran at ghostly hours of the night merely added to the magic. It left Montreal at 9 P. M. sharp, making stops at only the larger towns en route, arriving at White River Junction at 1:38 A. M. Inevitatbly there would be some fast-paced switching, adding a car of express or mail, and a lightning change of motive power. Sometimes it would be a great greyhound such as the 6039, a mondern Mountain type 4-8-2 with Boxspok drivers, lightweight rods, and roller bearings throughout. (You can see 6039 at Stematown today, and someday she will run again.) The B&M engine might be one of the giant P-4 Pacifics, such as the 3713, which you can see today at the Boston Museum of Science. Below Springfield, Massachusetts, the New Haven would tack on one of their speedsters, possibly the 1376, which often drew the Washingtonian about this time. At New Haven, the high-drivered Pacific would chug away smartly, to be replacded by one of the New Haven electrics for a quick rush into New York, arriving, generally on time at Penn Station just before 8 A.M. Minutes later, the train would hum effortlessly out of Penn Station and through the Hudson tubes behind a Pennsylvania RR GG-1, and you would watch the scenery flash by at 90 miles an hour from the saftey and comfort of a PRR diner. At noon time, you would be in Washington.

Exciting? Practical? Effortless? Yes, the train trip was all of these things.