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Greene: The West River Line

10/13/11 7:55AM By Stephanie Greene
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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.

(GREENE) 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.

One 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 expensive.

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 days.

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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