History Around the Corner: Phil Houk

Phil Houk, Special to The Times

It’s fair to say that I’ve loved trains of all kinds since I was 8 years old. Though I was sidetracked in my later youth with a fascination of all things aviation, I remain a fan of the rails and its power to move mountains and make men and women sing songs and write poems. The rail systems remain the backbone of our economy for over two centuries, but like all lifelike systems, they evolve to become more efficient and more profitable in order to survive. The detritus of these systems is primarily thrown away or recycled. But not entirely. There are small groups of people throughout our land who believe things like railroad history and railroad equipment should not be left behind but preserved and conserved because they tell us so much about our cultural heritage and they are just plain fun to play with.
While browsing lists of Connecticut museums with one of my favorite librarians we came across the Connecticut Eastern Railroad Museum, about 40 minutes from Montville in Willimantic.
Near the Willimantic Town Hall there is a railroad crossing on Bridge Street. Turn right or left depending on your heading. Look for the museum sign and drive down a gravel road and follow the tracks to a parking area under the trees on the bank of the river. Continue your search on foot until you come upon a shanty that serves as a ticket booth where you pay the asking admission price of $5. The diminutive size of the shanty is deceptive once you enter the main rail yard and spot the roundhouse and rolling stock. Visitors can browse the grounds or find a docent who is happy to provide a guided tour. I recommend the tour because there is work on-going that could potentially be a hazard to the unwary.
There is a lot to learn about this small slice of railroad history in Willimantic. The museum is on land that was once the New York, New Haven, & Hartford’s Columbia Junction. Maybe the most interesting part is the reconstructed 1892 roundhouse used to turn trains around. The roundhouse was destroyed sometime between 1924 and 1934 and has been rebuilt with grant money, private funding, and volunteer labor. It was mostly completed in 2008. A priority is to finish work on all the doors for each segment of the roundhouse building that provides shelter to most of the significant rolling stock locomotives. Rolling stock for the museum has come mainly through donations from institutions: the museum houses locomotives that include an oil-fired steam locomotive and a collection of diesel locomotives such as switch engines and at lease three examples of caboose. It has been particularly challenging and very expensive to transport railroad rolling stock to the museum. We must thank a small group of enthusiasts for their persistence and dedication without whom there would be little to look at or stories to tell.
In addition to the rolling stock, museum members have reconstructed and restored historic buildings from around eastern Connecticut and placed them in the rail yard as they might originally have been located. The members are particularly proud of the reconstruction of a unique gallows signal that was once used to govern train movement on the Central Vermont and New Haven railway.
The Connecticut Eastern Railway Museum was formed in November 1991 dedicated to the preservation of railroad history in our region. The museum has set a very ambitious restoration plan that will take the efforts of many motivated volunteers who can offer their skills and talents to a very worthy cause. Plan to spend two or more hours on a guided tour and be amazed at all that has been accomplished and all that remains to be done.
There is a souvenir and gift shop near the entrance. The railroad museum address is 55 Bridge St. (Rt. 32), Willimantic, CT 06226, and an informative website is at www.cteastrrmuseum.org. The museum is open only on weekends 10 a.m. until 4 p.m.

Phil Houk is a former submariner, UCONN grad, and retired field service technician. He can be reached at plhouk@ct.metrocast.net.