‘Trains, Mills and a River:’ A walk for history buffs

By Kitty LeShay - ReminderNews
Windham - posted Mon., Oct. 3, 2011
Roy Axelrod (left) gives the history of train travel in Willimantic along the road leading to the train museum. Also pictured are Dave Ramsey and Beth Desjardin. Photos by Kitty LeShay.
Roy Axelrod (left) gives the history of train travel in Willimantic along the road leading to the train museum. Also pictured are Dave Ramsey and Beth Desjardin. Photos by Kitty LeShay.

Old mill towns have at least three things in common; beautiful old buildings of brick and stone, abandoned railroad tracks and rivers.

The Oct. 2 walk, “Trains, Mills and a River,” led by Ray Axelrod gave participants a history of the importance of those three things in the development of Willimantic as a vibrant city of the past, with a view for their uses in the future. The walk was sponsored by the Connecticut Eastern Railroad Museum and held as part of The Last Green Valley’s month-long “Walktober” program.

Axelrod led his group down the gravel road off of Bridge Street, along the river and tracks, as he told the history of trains, mills and the river. Participants were able to browse through the Connecticut Eastern Railroad Museum located at the end of the road following the short walk.

“At one time, there were tracks entering Willimantic from six different directions; as many as 40 to 60 trains a day. It was a busy place,” Axelrod said. Now there is just one route open from Willimantic to Plainfield. “This is primarily to get the interchange from New London for container traffic. Having fewer trains in use is good and bad. Now the tracks are often used for recreational purposes. But I would rather see the trains,” Axelrod said.

The last passenger traffic to Willimantic ended in 1995. The Washington, D.C., to Montreal train stopped in town. There had been a lot of excitement when the train made its initial stop and the station house was dedicated. “About 1,000 people came out after midnight, and when the train came in the passengers had their faces pressed to the windows wondering what was going on. Only a few people got on in Willimantic, but the rest were partying and enjoy the music from the band,” Axelrod said.

American Thread was the largest mill in town, employing as many as 3,000 people. Other mills were located around town at Moulton Court, and along Main and Valley streets. Today, the stone buildings of American Thread are condos, office space and art studios. The former Jilson Bridge is now known as the Garden Bridge. Volunteers from the Windham Garden Club have transformed the old bridge into an oasis of peace and tranquility.

Today, the river is being claimed for recreational purposes. From the mid-19th into the 20th century, it was dammed in several places for industrial purposes. During the early years of the last century, there was a Canoe Club which enjoyed the river.

This Walktober event was more history than walking, and participants seemed to have come for that reason. “My grandfather was a brinkman for the Airline Railroad before the Putnam Bridge was washed out by the ’55 hurricane and effectively ended that route, and my father was a manager of the Pomfret Station,” said Ron Jacques. “Trains are in my blood.”

The railroad museum is open from the first week in May to the last weekend in October, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The Windham Textile & History Museum is open Friday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., all year. The Civil War exhibit runs through the month of October.

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