Rough Roads: Part 5, Railroads Change the Landscape

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(Host) All this week, VPR has been examining the state of Vermont’s roads, bridges and transportation system.

But before all the cars and trucks – there were trains to carry goods and passengers throughout the state.

Today in two reports, VPR’s Nina Keck looks at the history and future or rail transportation in the state.

This morning the history.

(Keck) Let’s go back in time

(Sound of tape player in reverse)

(Keck) Say 200 years.

(Music from early 1800s)

(Keck) Vermont is dotted with villages and farms connected by narrow dirt roads – which, as anyone who lives in Vermont knows, were probably impassible half the time. Jim Davidson is Curator of the Rutland Historical Society. He says in 1826, state officials – hoping to improve transportation – proposed digging a canal along the Castleton River to connect Rutland with Whitehall New York – then on to Albany and the rest of the world. They even talked of a connecting north south canal between Middlebury and Wallingford.

(Davidson) “The project didn’t fly. They did go so far as to survey the routes, but this was the era in the 1830s when people began to talk about what everyone needed is a railroad.”

(Sound of a train whistle and steam engine chug chugging)

(Keck) By the 1840s the country was in a track laying frenzy and Vermont was no different. In December 1849 Rutland was connected by rail to Bellows Falls. Not long after Burlington and other towns came on line.

(Davidson) “So it opened up a whole new way. . . not only was it a matter speed, but it was also a matter of time and weight.”

(Keck) Jim Davidson says weight was a key issue to Vermont’s budding marble industry. The state had been producing decorative fireplace mantels and gravestone monuments for years, but there’d been no way to market larger pieces.

(Davidson) “Now with a railroad, you could put it on a flat bed, no problem, you could move it. So the idea of marble being used as a building product for large buildings, it depended on the railroads and railroads had the answer for that.”

(Keck) The Rutland Historian says the railroads also drastically changed Vermont agriculture.

(Davidson) “This made dairying an industry and not a home market. If you could have your product to Boston or New York – ship it one day and it’s there on the market shelves the next day. It’s doable. This opened a huge market. Can you imagine the demand in the growing cities of Boston and New York?”

(Keck) Sideline businesses developed such as harvesting ice to keep rail cars cool. Convenient train connections to Lake Boolean and other getaways helped lay the foundation for the state’s tourism industry and created lots of new commerce.

(Davidson) “Suddenly someone from Boston can come up today to take photographs and he’ll be here for a week. Or someone may come up to sell life insurance. People may not know what that is, but he’s here to sell it – all sorts of things.”

(Keck) By 1880, the power of the railroads had helped Rutland become the largest city in the state. Many of the immigrants who moved to Vermont worked on the rail lines there. Paul Cassarino and his father were among them. Both Sicilian immigrants, Paul’s father began working for the Rutland railroad in 1910 and spent 40 years as a lineman. As a teenager during the depression, Paul Cassarino says he spent summers working for his dad.

(Paul Cassarino) “You know, we changed tires, we changed rails. We surfaced all the rails — we done everything. . .. Like the tracks have to be in a certain position and the curves got to be the right way and sometimes they sink down a little bit. So in the day time we used to jack them up and chuck the dirt under the ties and then my father used to have to line up the gosh darn things.”

(Keck) Cassarino says he made 33 cents an hour as a so called gandy dancer.

(Paul Cassarino) “When you work on a section like that. Two men work together and you know when you chuck dirt underneath the tie – you do it with a short handled shovel. And you put one foot on the shovel and chuck it. Both of you and then you lift and it’s as if you was dancing! Yep.” (laughs)

(Keck) Paul Cassarino worked a total of 15 years for the railroad. But by the 1950s, with larger trucks, cheap gas and new highways, rail lost its luster and workers like Cassarino had to find other employment. Train stations in Rutland and across the country were torn down to make way for parking lots and shopping centers. There would be a forty-year slump, industries would close and populations would shift. But today, thanks to escalating fuel costs and congestion on our highways, the railroads are making a comeback.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Nina Keck.

Note: This afternoon, VPR’s Nina Keck will look at the future of rail in Vermont.

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