Keeping Connected

Vermont Public Radio Commentary
by Chester H. Liebs

© 1999 by Chester H. Liebs, Aired 11/24/99
Made possible by: The Alma Gibbs Donchian Foundation and the Preservation Trust of Vermont

In the 19th century new railroad connections were big news. So big that when the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, officials attached a telegraph wire to the hammer used to drive the final “golden spike.” Each time the hammer struck it completed an electrical connection, causing telegraph receivers to click throughout the country. Click, Click, Click, then silence. When the last click was heard, newspapers rushed to print the news. “The nation had been linked by rail”.

In this last year of the twentieth century, an important railroad reconnection here in Vermont received only a media whimper. After half a century it was again possible to take a train, from Burlington to Rutland, and then to New York and beyond. This new train was called the Ethan Allen Connection. I read it in a tiny newspaper ad. Could it be true?

When I worked in rural Japan I could travel almost anywhere by rail. Back in Burlington options for travel are often less attractive. Especially in winter, a trip down the Champlain valley, for example, is often a choice between slipping and sliding on snow-covered roads or risking a white-knuckle flight with ice covered wings. But now there was another way to go. I had to try it out.

So one late September day I found myself aboard one of two silver coaches being pulled out of downtown Burlington by a gleaming red locomotive. As we picked up speed I caught a glimpse of Shelburne Road where cars seemed to be backed up for miles. I was glad to be gliding along on the train instead of wasting time stuck in traffic.

Through Shelburne and the fields of Charlotte-- now sprinkled with giant new houses-- we finally put Chittenden county’s sprawl behind us, and entered the timeless world of rural Vermont.

Past fields studded with black and white cows, and hills bursting with the reds and yellows of foliage season, we glided through Vergennes, zipped by New Haven Junction’s old brick station, trundled over the Otter Creek trestle, and then stopped briefly at a wooden platform -- Middlebury’s makeshift station. It’s old station is now an auto parts store.

Off again, after glimpsing architect Lavius Fillmore’s beautiful 1809 Congregational church, we reentered the countryside where a fleet of ducks took flight from a nearby wetland and cruised beside the train. Past Salisbury, Brandon, Pittsford, and the marble buildings of Proctor, we eased into Downtown Rutland’s new station where an Amtrak train waited to take passengers further south.

On the trip back I chatted with several Burlington-bound passengers who transferred from Amtrak. Besides Vermonters taking the new way home, I met a number of cutting-edge tourists from Albany who, after an overnight stay in Burlington, would catch the ferry to Port Kent and then take another train back home. All without a moment in an automobile.

But making arrangements was difficult. Passengers reported Amtrak was generally clue less about the new service. Nevertheless everyone agreed the new train was a winner, both as practical transportation, and a magical trip through great scenic beauty.

Interested in going? Unfortunately you can’t. The Ethan Allen Connection has been disconnected. It seems it’s coaches belong to the State and are slated for the new commuter train which will serve a small portion of the line to Rutland, from only Burlington to Charlotte. Since the coaches were delivered early, and commuter service doesn’t start till next spring, the State loaned them to Vermont Railway for the Ethan Allen Connection, but only from mid August to the end of October. Now the equipment is sitting idle for the winter, just when Vermonters need the Ethan Allen Connection the most.

Despite its good intentions, what did the State expect to accomplish by authorizing (and subsidizing) a hopelessly-underpublicized major transportation link for such a short period. It takes time to build traffic on any transport system, even highways.

For the sake of better travel, the environment and the economy, its time to bring back rail travel, not only for suburban commuters, but for all Vermonters and visitors alike. We could begin by bringing back the Ethan Allen Connection. And this time let’s get the modern equivalent of those telegraphs really clicking to spread the news.

Author, and observer of the everyday landscape, Chester Liebs is Professor Emeritus of History and Founder of the Historic Preservation Program at the University of Vermont