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Biking the Air Line Trail Today

Yesterday was a beautiful day to take a bike ride on one of Connecticut’s “rails-to-trails”.  “Air Line” State Park Trail comes from the name of a former railroad route that operated from New York to Boston and was built like a “line drawn through the air”.   The Connecticut section is nearly 50 miles and takes you through ten towns starting in Thompson and ending in East Hampton.  There is a northern and southern section.  The southern section is 22 miles, from East Hampton to Windham and the northern section is 27.6 miles from Windham through Putnam and up to Thompson.

In 1846, a charter was applied for to build the railroad.  Construction began in the late 1860s and after overcoming many obstacles, because of the landscape and the associated engineering feats, as well as financial and political impediments, the line was completed. It opened in 1873 as the New Haven, Middletown and Willimantic Railroad, later to become the New York and New England Railroad (NY&NE) and finally becoming part of the New Haven Railroad.  In 1876 the first dedicated passenger run was established.  In 1891, the New England Limited began running one of the most memorable trains over the Air Line known by locals as the “Ghost Train”.  Created to attract wealthy travelers, Pullman cars were painted white with gold trim and engine crews and staff wore white uniforms. The train carried businessmen and famous passengers including President Benjamin Harrison and authors Charles Dickens and Rudyard Kipling over the 213 mile, six-hour journey. 

The name “ghost train” might not have alluded to just the white Pullman cars,  but to The Great East Hampton Train Wreck.  In 1891, four trains would meet in East Thompson, Connecticut with disastrous consequences.  This horrific crash was considered the “only train wreck of its’ kind in the history of railroading in the United States”.  Due to a number of errors and miscalculations within a matter of minutes, two trains collided head-on, a third train smashed into the debris of that wreck and then a fourth train barreled into all the debris.  Amazingly, although hundreds were injured and 500 yards of track destroyed, only two trainmen were killed.  The devastation was so extensive that they rerouted the track and eventually razed the East Thompson station.

As competition increased and technology improved, the Air Line’s usefulness was limited to local use between towns.  The demise of the Air Line came in 1955 with unprecedented flooding, washing out bridges and destroying tracks.  The cost of repair was beyond the value of the link and today the old railroad route is preserved in the Air Line State Park Trail. 

Managed by the CT Department of Energy & Environmental Protection State Parks Division,  the trail is nicely graded with a fine gravel that makes it perfect for hiking, biking or running.  We began our bike ride from a large parking lot off Route 85 in Hebron and traveled to a little over eight miles to a bridge in Willimantic.  Since it is a railroad bed the trail is wide enough for cyclists, horseback riders, children in strollers and hikers to pass with no problems and it is flat for easy pedaling.  We had ridden south on the trail previously, past the Raymond Brook Marsh, a birding favorite, so instead decided to venture north, which was just as beautiful.  We passed by gorgeous wetlands, including a beaver pond, a farm with cows and rode over well maintained footbridges.  Although the weather was perfect for biking, a slight breeze, but sunny and not too hot, the tree covered trail would offer welcome relief from a hot summer day.  This trail is one that should be visited throughout the year to appreciate its beautiful display of color during each season and the amazing wildlife…a deer wandered across the path as we were heading back to our cars and many birds, including swallows and catbirds, flew overhead.  I hope you get the opportunity to take a ride on one of the nicest rails-to-trails – the Air Line (two words) State Park Trail!

Resources

Air Line State Park Trail with Maps and Description

https://portal.ct.gov/DEEP/State-Parks/Parks/Air-Line-State-Park-Trail

Connecticut History:  The Day Four Trains Collided in East Hampton

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