by David Flint
For those in the Taconic Valley who remember the days when the trains of the Rutland Railroad were part of the daily scene, or for those who just have a nostalgic interest in railroading, James R. “Jim” Jones has created a special treat. The radio personality, railroad buff and media professional has just put out the sixth and last in his “Rutland Remnants” DVD series, this one entitled “North Bennington, VT to Chatham, NY – Corkscrew Rails & Tales.”
Jones describes it as a documentary in the style of a Ken Burns production. “I prefer that local people tell the story, not me,” he said. Some of the local people that appear include Art Koepp of Stephentown, Carol Lobdell VanHeusen of West Lebanon, Bruce Cobb of Chatham and Bev Bowman Chiarella of Canaan.
The video starts out at North Bennington. “The railroad had a smell, and the smell was of soft coal,” recalls Jim Shaughnessy, renowned railroading author who appears in the DVD along the way as one of the expert commentators. From Bennington we head south, make a sharp right turn and start on “the many bends of the fabled Corkscrew.” Travelling west toward Hoosick, then turning south, we cross over the busy line of the Boston & Maine at
Petersburgh Junction. North Petersburgh was just a crossing, but down the line at Petersburgh we come to a bustling station. Then on to Berlin, which, with its agriculture and light manufacturing, was an even busier station. The daily train at Berlin, we are told, “was cause for celebration.” At Center Berlin the tracks crossed to the south side of Route 22. Trains made their way down to South Berlin, renamed Cherry Plain in 1919 to avoid confusing train orders. There was at one time a depot, a water tank and a siding at North Stephentown. Down the road at Stephentown there was also an engine house, a turntable, a creamery, a hotel and a GLF feed store. Shaughnessy recalls that there was still an agent at that station in April of 1953 just before the line shut down for good. Below Stephentown there were stations at Wyomanock, Lebanon Springs, New Lebanon, Lebanon Center, West Lebanon, Brainard, Riders Mills, Old Chatham and on down to the terminus at Chatham.
Jones flips back and forth with his pictures and stories between yesteryear and today. Rather than produce a dry documentary, he wanted to bring the railroad back to life, to let people remember how it was, how it sounded. But 1910 keeps dissolving into the present day so we can see clearly what was and what remains. He makes it human with anecdotes and tales told by local people who lived along the line as well as with commentary from former railroad employees,
enthusiasts and historians. Art Koepp recalled how, “You could see the tracks suspended in the air,” following one of the great floods that tore up and disrupted the rail line. Billy Chilton remembered that, “The tracks were way out in a field…all bent up.”
Koepp also recalled students coming to school in New Lebanon on the train from Chatham. The school train for some odd reason was called “the Scute.” Students also travelled to Berlin from Petersburgh and from Stephentown. Some would ride a horse to the station and stable it nearby. Coming back they would saddle up and ride home. According to railroad employee Bob Adams, in winter time it was necessary to keep a fire going in the cars over weekends so they wouldn’t freeze up.
Rutland employee George Cameron said the milk train was the “cash cow.” Milk would come all the way from Ogdensburg and points down the line to Chatham where it would be transferred to the Harlem line so as to arrive in New York City the next day.
Jones is concluding the Rutland Remnants series where it began ten years ago at a family reunion in Chatham. He has always had railroading in his blood. His grandfather was a station agent with the Canadian Pacific up by the Canadian border. His father, Robert C. Jones was a part time railroader and noted author of 24 rail books. Jim grew up in Burlington, VT, worked at radio station WJOY for five years, then got itchy feet, headed west and became a national network radio personality based in Denver. Returning to his roots in the Northeast, he formed Tell-Tale Productions and began creating professional productions from rail videos he had put together out West, then branched out to do story documentaries of various railroads in Vermont and Canada. At the Chatham reunion he decided to embark on a series on the Rutland Railroad. He started at the top with “Ogdensburg to Lake Champlain” and now has finished at the bottom with “Corkscrew Rails & Tales.” It was last but not least – the Corkscrew segment of the Rutland is his favorite, and he thinks it’s maybe the best one. He first learned about this line and this part of the country at age 10 reading Jim Shaughnessy’s The Rutland Road. He got interested in places like Stephentown, Petersburgh, Berlin and Chatham. He has been looking forward a long time to “bringing back life to something that’s been gone for 60 years – but not all gone.” A lot of the remnants continue to disappear. Stephentown’s station was torn down earlier this year. Yet some things besides just traces remain. Berlin still uses their station as a community center, known to Berliners today as the Watipi Building. Two local artists who have provided musical background for the DVD also have restored Rutland stations and made them their homes, namely piano player and piano restorer Wally Stock at the Brainard station and jazz artist Joe Finn at the Old Chatham station. The New Lebanon station still stands but in a decrepit state and covered with overgrowth.
Passenger traffic on the Corkscrew Division was discontinued in 1925. Bus service was provided up until 1931. The milk trains continued to run until, according to Shaughnessy, New York City was for some reason cut out of the New England milk shed. In 1952 the Interstate Commerce Division granted the Rutland permission to abandon the Chatham branch and on August 7, 1953, the last rail on the line was taken up. “It was sad to see – kind of a comfortable old friend disappear – is what it amounted to,” Shaughnessy said.
Passenger excursion trains ran once a year for four years starting in the fall of 1949. Passengers dressed up in Gay 90s apparel and relived the days of riding the rails from Chatham to Rutland and back.
“Corkscrew Rails & Tales” is available at local stores, including Hewitt’s Market in Berlin, and can also be purchased online at www.Vermontmadevideos.com.