MERIDEN – Back in August, the Meriden Lions Club repainted South Meriden’s red bridge to bring its shine back to life. The bridge, built in 1981, marks the beginning of the Quinnipiac River Gorge Trail, which follows along the original line of the Meriden & Cromwell Railroad.
The railroad, which originally began at Center Street in Meriden and stretched to the Connecticut River in Cromwell, was designed as a solution to what local residents considered unfair rates charged by the New Haven railroad. Cities like Meriden were left clamoring for their own lines to reduce the cost of coal and heavy supplies that were transported by railroad.
Hearing rumblings of proposals for the construction of Meriden’s own railroad, the New Haven line agreed to reduce rates by 25 percent, but momentum toward a new line was already too strong to stop. Meriden wanted a line to Cromwell that provided access to the Connecticut River for easy boat and cargo access, and that desire would be brought to life by Horace C. Wilcox, who sought out stockholders and later became the president of the committee that would spearhead the project, according to the Wolcott Historical Society.
Original designs for the railroad were proposed and approved in 1882, though an alternate route that would cut construction costs was designed and approved shortly after, in May of 1883. Construction began in September, though rough winter weather and swampland near Pratt’s Pond slowed construction considerably, and it wasn’t completed until the first regular day of train service commenced on April 6, 1885. The first conductor was Meriden resident C.H. Stebbins.
Travel from Meriden to Cromwell via the new railroad took 35 minutes, with three stops along the way. The railroad began with two functioning passenger trains in addition to its freight trains, which had overnight service to New York. The passenger cars provided transportation to New York City as well, and even took passengers as far south as Philadelphia for a whopping round trip price of $6.50.
A trip to New York took two nights to complete and the rail service offered free sleep accommodations. Today, a one-way ticket to New York from Meriden would cost roughly $40.
New York was an obvious attraction that the rail provided Meriden residents, but they also rode the rails to Cromwell, hopping a train at night for moonlit walks on the banks of the Connecticut River.
The new railroad provided new opportunities for local residents and companies, but it didn’t come without its fair share of early troubles. Less than a month after its grand opening, flooding at the Connecticut River in Cromwell caused over 50 feet of the railroad line to be submerged in two feet of water and the currents damaged those stretches of the track.
By the late 1880s, after an extension was made on the rail to Waterbury, resulting in the line being renamed the Meriden, Waterbury and Connecticut River Railroad, a number of train derailments were reported. A notable incident occurred on Aug. 10, 1888, when the original Meriden & Cromwell Railroad Engine #1 came off the tracks just shy of the original red bridge, before the current one was built in 1891. The main engine came completely off the tracks, while one of the cars in tow fell over, spilling coal and cargo onto the ground. The main engine was out of commission for a month, but railroad operations were stalled for only a day.
The then-named Meriden, Waterbury and Connecticut River Railroad continued to operate until 1895, when it became part of the New England Railroad system. They would suspend traffic on the railroad a year later, and while the New Haven Railroad attempted to bring it back in the form of a trolley service in the early 1900s, only small portions of the railroad remained in Meriden and Waterbury by the 1930s, according to University of Connecticut library archives.
By 1976, the final tracks of the Meriden-Cromwell Railroad were abandoned, but the original locations of those rails now offer residents a chance to hike along a path of history, starting at the red bridge in South Meriden.