Thursday, May 23, 2019
Railroad, Transportation

The Iron Horse of the Housatonic

The Iron Horse of the Housatonic

By Eric D. Lehman

In 1835, a year before Bridgeport became its own city, a railway along the Housatonic River Valley was planned to connect Stockbridge, Massachusetts with Danbury and Bridgeport. This was an ambitious plan, because most people still distrusted the “iron horse” and its ridiculously fast 15 miles per hour speed.

The private turnpike companies, which controlled most of Connecticut’s transit, protested in every way they could. They lawyered up and even brought out widows and orphans who would supposedly “lose stock” in the soon to be defunct chartered businesses. The Bridgeport and Newtown Company, in existence since 1801, would be particularly hard hit. However, they were fighting against history, and they lost.

The railroad planned to end its run in Bridgeport, even though the nearby town of Stratford was still bigger at the time. Finally, on March 2, 1837, the new town passed a resolution that gave $100,000 to the new railroad company (later increased to $150,000) and secured that outcome. Paying for that promise was trickier, and it caused endless problems for the first two decades of the town’s existence. However, it also helped Bridgeport eventually become an important nexus of business and travel.

By 1840 the section between New Milford and Bridgeport was complete and a celebration was held on the winter day of February 11. Church bells rang, cannon roared, a band played, and the steam engine whistled. Early travelers found themselves having to keep clear of jumping spikes, avoiding sparks that sprayed back into the cars, and trying not to hit their heads when the train hand-braked to a stop.

Nevertheless, trade increased and more trains were added to the line. One was the “Big Milk” which came to Bridgeport from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, taking milk from all the farms of western Connecticut along the way to sell at the markets.

By 1849 another train connected Bridgeport and New York. The one dollar fare seemed steep, but many took this opportunity for easy travel, including showman P.T. Barnum, who shuttled between his businesses in the big city and his home in Bridgeport.

Then, on August 14, 1865, just after the end of the Civil War, disaster occurred on the Housatonic line. Conductor H.L. Plumb found his passenger train blocked by a broken down freight train. While he backed up, another train came up behind him and smashed into him. Ten people died and another twenty were seriously wounded and burned. Harper’s Weekly called it the “Housatonic Railroad Slaughter.”

However, despite this and other accidents, the iron horse was here to stay, shaping the history of Bridgeport in the century to come.

Want to learn more about the Iron Horse? The Bridgeport History Center has the following materials available:

Books:

Bridgeport: Tales from the Park City. Lehman, Eric. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2009.

The Story of Bridgeport 1836-1936. Danenberg, Elsie Nicholas. Bridgeport Centennial, 1936.

Eric Lehman
Eric Lehman
Eric D. Lehman teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Bridgeport, and is the author of several books, including Bridgeport: Tales from the Park City; Becoming Tom Thumb: Charles Stratton, P.T. Barnum and the Dawn of American Celebrity; Afoot in Connecticut: Journeys in Natural History; and A History of Connecticut Wine; and ; A history of Connecticut food : a proud tradition of puddings, clambakes and steamed cheeseburgers. You may contact him at elehman@bridgeport.edu.