Greene: The West River Line

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(HOST) As work continues to repair, upgrade and restore Vermont’s
railroad infrastructure, particularly after Tropical Storm Irene,
commentator Stephanie Greene is reminded of a legendary line that ran in
Southern Vermont around the turn of the last century.

You have to be a flexible romantic to love train travel. While airline
travel is quick and (hopefully) uneventful; a journey by train is full
of adventure. Once you get out west, for instance, since it’s basically a
one-lane route, a grain elevator falling onto the track in North Dakota
will affect the timetable in New Mexico. You learn to build a little
"give" into your plans.

There can have been no more flexible
passengers than the ones who embraced southern Vermont’s West River
Line, which was opened in 1880 and ran until 1936. The idea was
eventually to connect the Atlantic to the Great Lakes. The West River
line moved northwest through Windham County from Brattleboro to South
Londonderry. It was assumed that a rail line would enrich the lucky
towns it touched, by providing reliable freight and passenger travel
between them.

The West River Line, known as "the Gauge" because
it as built on a narrow, three foot rail gauge to save money, used wood
burning locomotives for steam power. In its best decades, before the
turn of the century, the "mixed" train carried three passenger cars and
up to twenty five freight cars, averaging 1200 passengers a month.

test of passenger patience was the train’s stops on sidings for loading
freight, which provided ample time for passengers to go berrying, pick
flowers or visit with local farmers. During deer season, passengers
carried rifles, and there are several reports of a buck being added to
the train’s cargo.

Crews were required to shovel snow from the
tracks, or add water to the boiler from streams. Usually passengers
pitched in as well. There were even reports of trees being felled in
nearby woods to feed the firebox. On one run, then Governor Levi Fuller
helped heave wood from one of the trackside stacks into the wood box. 
My favorite story is about a passenger who lost his false teeth leaning
out a window. The train was stopped. Passengers and crew searched the
field until the teeth were found.

The Gauge never made a profit.
It was flimsily built: the rail bed sank, the ties rotted, the iron
rails sagged under the weight of heavy freight and even bridges
collapsed. Repairs – to say nothing of overtime – were constant and

In theory the Gauge cut the trip from Brattleboro to
South Londonderry from two days (via horse and buggy) to two hours. But
its longest run – held up by blizzards and snowdrifts – lasted eight

In our time, train travel has become very reliable. We
don’t have to shovel snow, fell trees or search for lost teeth. Though
the Gauge never enriched any town, perhaps its passengers knew something
we moderns too often forget: it is the journey, not the destination,
that matters.

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