If you’re looking for some family fun this summer, consider visiting one of Connecticut’s many living museums celebrating our state’s railroad heritage. And remember… children are free in CT museums this summer!
The Shore Line Trolley Museum in East Haven (www.shorelinetrolley.com) was founded in 1945 and today has more than a hundred trams in its collection. It is listed on the National Register and is the oldest continuously operating commuter streetcar line in the United States, still in operation with excursion trolleys for a three-mile run on tracks once used by The Connecticut Company for its “F Line” from New Haven to Branford. You can also stroll through the car barns and watch volunteers painstakingly restore old cars. There is also a small museum exhibit and a gift shop.
The Connecticut Trolley Museum in East Windsor (www.ct-trolley.org) began in 1940, making it the oldest carriage museum in the United States. It was also launched on an existing right of way, the Rockville branch of the Hartford & Springfield Street Railway Company. You can ride a few different trams a few miles into the woods and back, perhaps disembark to visit their collection of trams, elevated and interurban in the museum sheds and barns.
If you’re looking for a day trip, especially for kids, I highly recommend either of the tram museums. But if you are looking for real trains, you are also in luck.
Danbury Railway Museum (www.danburyrailwaymuseum.org) is within walking distance of the Metro-North station in “The Hat City”, making it potentially a full-day all-rail adventure. They are open seven days a week and on weekends they offer train rides and for a fee you can even ride the caboose or motor. They have a large collection of old wagons and a well-stocked gift shop.
For the nostalgic, The Essex Steam Train (www.essexsteamtrain.com) offers not only daily classic steam train rides, but also boat rides to the vicinity of Gillette Castle and back. In addition to the seats on the coach, you can ride an open-top coach or a lavish first-class coach. There is also a large dinner-train, “The Essex Clipper” which offers a 2.5-hour four-course meal and a cash bar.
In downtown South Norwalk you can visit what was once a busy railroad signal tower, now SoNo Switch Tower Museum (www.westctnrhs.org/towerinfo.htm).
Admission is free (donations welcome) weekends from noon to 5 p.m.
Also only open on weekends is the Connecticut Eastern Railroad Museum in Willimantic (www.cteastrrmuseum.org). In addition to guided tours, visitors can ride a replica 1850s-style pump car along a section of rail that was once part of the “New Haven Railroad”Airline company“.
The New England Railroad Museum in Thomaston (www.rmne.org) offers train trips on Saturdays, Sundays and Tuesdays along the scenic Naugatuck River, in addition to a large collection of restored locomotives and passenger cars, including a 1929 New Haven RR first class “smoker”, the last of its kind, with leather bucket seats. Among their special excursions… a Whiskey Train, an Ice Cream Train and a Chocolate Decadence Tour.
All of these museums are run by volunteers who will appreciate your sponsorship and support. They love working to preserve our state’s great rail heritage and will tell you why if you express the slightest interest in their passion. Bring your kids and let them see railroad history come to life.