The Watertown & Waterbury Railroad

By Henry P. Stearns

Watertown Station, late 1800's

Four years after General Lee's surrender at Appomattox, the first American transcontinental railroad was completed. It was this completion that touched off a new wave of railroad building that extended to many parts of the Nation, including Watertown, Connecticut. For in that very year, 1869, the Watertown & Waterbury Railroad, later known as the Watertown Branch, was chartered.

It speaks well for Watertown's initiative and enterprise that this railroad was conceived and built by Watertown people, who were eager to find a better method of transportation between their village and Waterbury than was afforded by Col. Hotchkiss' stage line, and "to prevent the emigration of business men, retain our enterprising young men and add enlarged facilities for business to all." It was not unusual for a small town of that era to entertain such ambitions, but it was most unusual for such a town to actually build its own railroad. The fact that the railroad went bankrupt five years after its opening should not diminish the accomplishment of its founders. The Line remained in service right up through the Penn Central merger in 1969, but was later torn up in 1974.

   Watertown Local, circa 1910

The Act of the Legislature of June 23, 1869, incorporating the Watertown & Waterbury Railroad named the following incorporators: Merrit Heminway, Eli Curtis, Hubert Scoville (sic), Charles W. Warren, Owen B. King, C. T. Hickox, William E. Curtis and Leman Cutler. Capital stock was set at $150,000, and might be increased to $200,000 - no more. Shares were to be offered at $50 each. The Company was "empowered to locate, construct and finally complete a single or double railroad or right of way, from some suitable point in the town of Watertown to connect with the Naugatuck Railroad at some convenient point in the town of Waterbury, or not connect therewith, as shall be deemed best; but to terminate in said town of Waterbury." After one thousand shares had been sold, the Company might elect from nine to thirteen directors, and start construction. It was further provided that the towns of Watertown and Waterbury might subscribe for shares of stock not to exceed at par value 5% of the total amount of the Grand List. They might also issue bonds not over 5%, provided town meetings were called for that purpose, and that two-thirds of those present agreed. The Railroad was authorized to borrow money for construction, maintenance and equipment by selling bonds with interest not to exceed 7%.

Switching in Watertown, late 1940's

Apparently the idea of a railroad between Watertown and Waterbury was not new, for a map of 1858 shows a projected route for the Hartford, Providence & Fishkill Railroad from Waterbury to Watertown and beyond, finally terminating on the Hudson River at Fishkill, New York. This line was changed, however, to run by way of Southbury and Danbury.

Commenting editorially on the proposed Watertown & Waterbury Railroad, the Waterbury American called attention to the Watertown town meeting of June 28, 1869, and remarked, "the good people of Watertown have never been of the 'penny-wise and pound-foolish' order. They need this railroad, and they will have it, and we hope they will have it speedily." The town meeting adopted a resolution favoring the project, and another meeting on July 10 voted 221 to 34 to make Leman W. Cutler Agent for the Town and to authorize him to purchase for the town 1,300 shares of the railroad stock.

Previous to this time transportation to Waterbury had been handled by a daily stage, operated by a Mr. McNeil until 1868 and thereafter by Col. William Hotchkiss. The railroad soon put this line out of business, but the resourceful Colonel shifted his route to connect Watertown and Woodbury and also became Watertown station agent for the railroad in 1871.

Construction of the railroad began August 16, 1870 with the laying of the first rails. The Naugatuck Railroad, which had been running between Bridgeport and Winsted, via Waterbury since 1849, helped with the building, and operated the completed line under a five-year lease. Construction was pushed forward rapidly that summer, and we find in the diary of Henry T. Dayton, who sold the railroad some land for its right of way near the old cemetery, the following entry for September 26: "The cars ran onto my land today for the first time." This refers to an inspection trip by members of the Connecticut State Railroad Commission, whose approval was necessary before the line could opened for business. Although operated by the Naugatuck Railroad, the Watertown & Waterbury had its own officers, the President being O. B. King and the Secretary-Treasurer Leman W. Cutler, both of Watertown.


The inspection trip of September 26, 1870 carried, in addition to the members of the Railroad Commission, President King, Director Henry Merriman, Superintendent George W. Beach of the Naugatuck Railroad, contractor Minahan, who did the grading of the line, and a reporter of the Waterbury American. The conductor of the train was Frank Lutz and the engineer Agustus Hines.

Leaving Waterbury at 1:30 P.M., the train moved very slowly over the new line, stopping to permit inspection of every bridge, trestle, cut and fill, of which there were many. Branching off from the Naugatuck tracks just above Brown's Bridge, the line crossed a fill of 600 feet, then a 122 foot Howe Truss Bridge over the Naugatuck River, a 900 foot trestle across Brown's meadow, and went through a cut of 1,000 feet at the Poor House (present Brookside). A heavy grade was encountered at Grist Mill cut, then a 25 foot truss bridge over Turkey Brook. After crossing the Suspender Company's road, the line entered Minahan's Cut, 600 feet long and 13 feet deep, from which no less than 2,500 yards of rock had been removed. This cut was named for the contractor, who said that the unexpectedly large amount of rock encountered there had reduced the profit from his contract greatly. Continuing, the line passed the site of Oakville station, crossed Steele's Brook and the Watertown road on a 250 foot trestle, and went on past the Pin Factory to an 800 foot fill on David Welton's land. Mr. Welton, the railroad's inspector, boarded the train here. After this came a trestle of 230 feet over the Watertown road and Steele's Brook near the Wheeler and Wilson Factory (present Seymour Smith Co.) and another 800 foot fill on Mr. T. R. Candee's land. The bed of the brook had been shifted at this point to accommodate the railroad. Here the party encountered a work train, blocking the way, so borrowing the work train's locomotive, they continued on without their car. Extending over the meadow land of Messrs. Judson, Osborn, Hickox, and Truman Dayton, the line crossed Steele's Brook once more on a 30 foot bridge, then went over East Side Road (present French Street) at grade and past the cemetery on Henry Dayton's land. Apparently the train or the tracks did not reach the station that day, for Mr. Dayton's diary for the following day, September 27, says "...the cars ran to the depot tonight for the first time."

Watertown engine House, 1926

The station site and adjoining lands had been bought from Leman W. Cutler, and the station was described by the American's reporter as "a neat building 30 by 60 feet with ladies' and gents' rooms, ticket, baggage and freight offices and other conveniences." Water was piped from a spring on the hill, and the foundations for an engine house and turntable had been made. Thirty years later the station and engine house were connected with the town's water system.

The long time required for the inspection of so many bridges, cuts and fills caused President King to invite the party to his hotel, the Warren House, where, to quote the American's reporter again, "some other fillings were made in a highly satisfactory manner." Perhaps it is unnecessary to add that the commissioners approved the line. The return trip to Waterbury was made in only twelve minutes with but one stop, probably to let off Mr. Welton. Even so, the commissioners missed their connection with the Hartford train, and had to spend the night in Waterbury.

The railroad was completed just in time for the Watertown Fair and Horse Show of that year, an affair that attracted people from all over the state. The Fair was held annually and lasted two days, the location being the old Fair Grounds on Guernseytown Road. Advertisements announced that special trains would be run for the Fair on September 28 and 29, and on the latter date the American noted "The city will be emptied today by the railroad to Watertown" and "omnibuses and carriages will be waiting (at the station) to carry such as wish to avoid the disagreeable walk through the dust." That year the railroad was the chief factor in giving the Fair its largest attendance to date. (Ed. note: through 1950)

Despite the fact that special trains were run to the Fair, the railroad did not open for regular service until November 1, 1870, at which time Leo C. Lyon was appointed station agent for Watertown. Passenger service consisted of two trains daily in each direction, connecting at Waterbury with trains to and from New York. An embarrassing incident occurred on the day service was to begin. About 50 people waited at the Watertown station for the arrival of the first scheduled train. When, after a long wait, no train had appeared, President King started on foot down the track to meet the train. He walked on until he finally reached the Watertown station, where he learned that the locomotive had broken down. History does not record his remarks, which is perhaps just as well.

Watertown Branch

When the lease to the Naugatuck Railroad expired November 1, 1875, it was found that the Watertown & Waterbury Railroad could not meet its financial obligations, probably as a result of the Panic of 1873, which brought similar misfortune to many railroads. The State Treasurer took over the railroad as trustee, and appointed George W. Beach of the Naugatuck Railroad as his agent to operate it. The Naugatuck Railroad later obtained control of the line by purchasing the stock owned by the Town of Watertown, and on March 8, 1893 the line was merged with the Naugatuck. The Naugatuck Railroad in turn was leased to the New York, New Haven and Hartford in 1887, so since that date the branch had been part of the New Haven system.


The Watertown Branch, as the railroad had been known since 1875, began to attain prosperity as Watertown and Oakville grew in size, and, by the turn of the century, was operating no less than ten daily passenger trains in each direction, in addition to freight service. At that time more passenger trains ran on the branch than were operated between Waterbury and Bridgeport, Winsted or New Haven. The Watertown News could even boast in 1914, "Oakville has twelve trains a day to and from all parts of the earth...and two railway stations." This was probably the peak of passenger traffic, for competition from the streetcar line and the rapid increase in the number of automobiles caused a steady decline in passenger revenues, the dropping of many trains from the timetable, and finally the abandonment of all passenger service in 1924. As went passenger service, freight service survived through the early 1970's with only one train as needed, until that too, disappeared. The freight service, however, had a long and profitable record on the branch and was important to the areas' agricultural producers and manufacturers. The Watertown Branch was even said to have done well financially during the Depression.

The Watertown Branch had a "prohibitive" grade, requiring locomotives with small driving wheels and high tractive effort. The "ruling grade" (the grade that sets the maximum load that a given locomotive can handle) is 2%, which is steep for an Eastern railroad, while the grade between Oakville and the site of the former Welton's station varies between 2.5% and 3%. The grade summit is opposite the Seymour Smith Company. Bridges were light and further limited operations to locomotives of 50 tons or less.

The Naugatuck Railroad, and later the New Haven, took care to maintain and improve the line. The original Howe Truss Bridge over the Naugatuck River was replaced by an iron structure in 1882 and Potter signals were installed at the junction with the main line in 1888 (this area later became known as Highland Junction). The long trestle over Brown's meadow was eventually filled in. Sidings were constructed in Oakville for Slade & Sons (340 ft.) in 1890 and for the Oakville Company (825 ft.) in 1902, in Waterbury for Heminway & Bartlett Silk Company-154 ft.) in 1902, Munson's (present Co-operative coal siding-381 ft.) in 1891, East side (to present Princeton M ills-764 ft.) in 1891, in Waterbury for the Town Farm (Brookside-364 ft.) in 1891. An iron crane was installed at the Watertown freight siding in 1891. The Watertown engine house and turntable were maintained until the locomotives in service became too long to be turned on the 45 foot turntable. The Annual Reports of the State Railroad Commission frequently mentioned the excellent condition of the Watertown Branch.

The length of the Watertown Branch was 4.9 miles. In addition to the Watertown and Oakville passenger stations, there were during the days of passenger service two flag stops, Welton's and Brown's. The former, opened in May 1887, was in Oakville about opposite (in 1950) the present Ray Garnsey Garage, while the latter was in Waterbury, just below Brookside Home. For the convenience of the Watertown Branch and Waterville passengers the New Haven opened a platform station at West Main Street, Waterbury, November 1, 1897.

Good maintenance and the care and watchfulness of the train crews had given the line a good safety record, but there had been numerous interesting happenings. June 17, 1880 was an important day for Watertown and its railroad, for that was the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of the town, and a large and impressive celebration marked the occasion. The first of a number of special trains pulled into the Watertown station at 8:35 A.M. with six crowded cars. The little "Wolcotville" was gaily decorated with American flags, festoons of evergreens and the date 1880 under its nameplate. Other specials followed during the morning, one of which struggled in with eight cars, and the line transported no less than thirteen hundred people in each direction that day. Tickets at the Watertown station gave out, and homemade pieces of cardboard had to be substituted.

Sometime between 1884 and 1888 the little locomotive "Litchfield" is said to have made the run to Watertown and back to Waterbury at the rate of a mile-a-minute.

In the summer of 1902 Engineer Ed Lyons brought his westbound freight into Watertown at a high rate of speed in order to clear the line for a passenger train that was about to leave. For some reason the brakes failed to hold, Lyons and his fireman Harry Rowe jumped, and the engine ran off the end of the track, plowing across the yard of the Heminway & Bartlett Silk Company.

An informal speed contest occurred in the summer of 1877, when Dr. John DeForest of Watertown, driving his horse under the bridge near the Seymour Smith factory, noticed a train pulling out of Welton's station. Whipping up the horse, the doctor raced the train to Watertown, and is said to have reached the comer of the depot road a minute and a half before the train pulled into the station.

Miss Gertrude Welton of Watertown recalled that during heavy snowstorms the engine sometimes had to leave the train behind at Welton's and run light to Watertown in order to clear the track. At such times the passengers had a long and chilly wait in the cars, although often the residents of that area took pity on them and brought hot coffee.

Always highly spoken of by Watertown people was Conductor Clarence Cook, whose friendly ways and willingness to do such favors as holding the train for late arriving passengers, won him many friends in his thirty-one years of service. Mr. Cook retired on pension about 1910 after being injured in a fall from a defective freight car ladder. He had been in charge of the first train to reach Oakville from Waterbury after the great blizzard of 1888. Conductor Frederick Dickerman was in charge of the train that opened the line from Watertown to Oakville that same day. Also pleasantly remembered by former passengers was Conductor Charles W. Munson, who served the Naugatuck and New Haven Railroads for fifty-nine years until his retirement in 1940. He began service on the Watertown Branch in 1906, held the passenger run regularly after the retirement of Clarence Cook, and was in charge of the last passenger train to operate on the line in 1924.


Probably the most distinguished passenger carried by the railroad was President William Howard Taft, who made several trips over the line to visit his brother, Horace D. Taft, Headmaster of the Taft School. The President's trip in 1909, for the purpose of attending the funeral of Mrs. Horace D. Taft, was recalled by many. Leaving Washington late in the afternoon of December 17, the President's private car, "Colonial" arrived in Waterbury at 8:30 A.M. the following day, and was immediately switched to the regular Watertown train, in charge of Conductor Cook, with Engineer Tom Fray at the throttle. Conductor Cook, when asked how it felt to be carrying the President of the United States, replied; "Well, this isn't the first time the President has ridden my train. The last time he came up here, when he was Governor of the Philippines, he rode in the passenger coach just like an ordinary person." First to board the train at Watertown was the President's twelve year old son, Charles Phelps Taft, who, according to one account, bounded up the steps, only to be collared by a suspicious Secret Service agent. According to the newspaper account, however, the boy was immediately recognized and admitted to the car. After visiting with his son for a few minutes, the President emerged with two Secret Service agents, his aide Captain Archibald Butt, and Assistant Secretary Mischler. Mrs. John Buckingham's closed carriage was waiting, and the President delighted the coachman, William Hanning, by shaking hands with him. Mr. Hanning is said to have proudly declared he would never was his hands again! Difficulties were encountered when the President, who weighed over three hundred pounds, tried to squeeze through the carriage door and became stuck. A vigorous shove from behind by Capt. Butt, however, solved the problem. The crowd at the station included about half the population of the town, but, because of the sadness of the occasion, there were no cheers or other demonstrations.

The President's return trip started that night at 10:50, the private car being attached to a special train which was handled by Engineer Harry Gates and Conductor William Barnes. The train ran without stop to Bridgeport, where the "Colonial" was attached to the Federal Express for Washington.

Engine 191, before 1903


This story was reprinted from Volume 11, Issue 2, 1980 of the Shoreliner which is a publication of the New Haven Railroad Historical & Technical Association, Inc.

Reprinted with permission of NHRHTA Inc.

Copyright NHRHTA Inc. 1980 all rights reserved.


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