ST. ALBANS — During the second half of the 19th Century competition among the nation’s rapidly growing railroads altered the landscape nationally and here in Vermont.
Local architect and historian Laz Scangas spoke last Thursday about how the drive to connect to New York and then on to the Great Lakes and the western half of the U.S. led competing Vermont railroads to build lines through Alburgh to Rouses Point, N.Y.
Scangas’s talk was the first in the St. Albans Historical Museum’s 50th Anniversary event series.
“Unfortunately, railroads never helped each other,” said Scangas. “They always fought each other.”
In this case it was the Vermont & Canada Railroad, controlled by J. Gregory Smith, of St. Albans, versus the Rutland Railroad.
The Rutland was seeking a better route into New York. With Smith unwilling to let the company use any of the lines built by the Vermont & Canada, the only option for the Rutland Railroad was to go to Addison and then cross into New York via a floating bridge. “Of course the floating bridge had some problems,” said Scangas. “A lot of times stuff went in the water.”
Percival Clement, a future governor of Vermont and head of the Rutland Railroad, decided to build a railroad north through Burlington and then into the Champlain Island, ending in Alburgh with a bridge to Rouses Point.
Construction started in March 1899, with much of the work of clearing and leveling land and building embankments across the lake was done by hand. “They had steam shovels and that was about it,” said Scangas. “Everything else was done by hand.”
The Rutland had hired a New York City construction firm. The work went on nearly continuously, said Scangas, with 200 workers sleeping in tents at the work sites where meals were also served – provided the workers could pay for them.
The first embankment connecting Colchester and South Hero was 3.25 miles long. It was “pretty primitive, just rock and rubble,” said Scangas.
Each of the four railroad crossings over water had to have a drawbridge to let boats through. The bridges, which turned rather than rose, were maintained by a family or a couple of workers who lived in shanties built alongside the tracks.
Scangas quoted a man who as a child had lived in the shanty on the Bow and Arrow Point bridge with his family. “We lived in a three-room house. It was single boarded… You couldn’t warm it up,” the man wrote.
In the winter the family endured a strong west wind, which covered the side of the shanty in water. The water would freeze, sealing the cracks in the walls and warming the shanty.
The ice also would seal the door, forcing the family to enter and exit through a window. Members of the family could be called out day or night to turn the bridge.
That manual labor required at least two people.
Full construction took about two years, with the first train traveling the new tracks departing Burlington on Jan. 7, 1901 at 5 a.m. carrying 38 passengers. The trip to Alburgh took two hours.
One of the cars from the trip, the Grand Isle, is now on display at the Shelburne Museum.
“Being on the water had its challenges,” said Scangas. Water would work its way under the embankments, weakening the structures, he explained. While workers had to continually shore up the embankments, there was only one major derailment.
On Saturday, Jan. 31, 1920, a passenger train made up mainly of sleeping cars derailed over the water, with one car breaking through the ice. Twenty passengers were injured, but no one died in the incident. The train was traveling 15 mph at the time of the accident, said Scangas.
The Vermont & Canada and Rutland railroads converged in Alburgh, which had a rail yard, roundhouse and icehouse for storing the ice needed to keep milk cold as it was shipped.
“It was a tight little yard,” said Scangas, explaining there was little room for coal cars to dump their wares and trains to change direction. There also was a rail connection to Quebec.
When the first station burned in 1904, a two-story station was built to include a customs house on the second floor.
From 1905 to 1935, the icehouse was a major of employer of local men throughout the winter months, said Scangas. The Rutland Railroad in particular shipped a lot of milk, he explained, with trains picking up milk in Ogdensburg, N.Y. and continuing throughout northern New York and into Vermont, and the ice was needed to keep the milk cold.
“Rouses Point was also a happening place at that time,” said Scangas.
A hotel was located on a pier in Lake Champlain and trains could stop in the bottom level of the hotel. “It must’ve been interesting, these steam engines inside a hotel,” Scangas observed.
The Alburgh to Rouses Point railroad bridge went through several upgrades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The first bridge was a floating one.
The first stable bridge was 5,290 feet long, or a mile and two rods. The Vermont section was owned by the Vermont and Canada and the Vermont Central, with the New York side owned by a railroad out of Ogdensburg.
The drawbridge was a 301-foot boat bridge, which would be fastened to the railroad at either end. A small steam engine in the bottom of the boat could turn the bridge in one minute, said Scangas.
The drawbridge was upgraded to a wood truss around 1880. It would spin to open and close and included a residence, customhouse and tower. The bridge took five to 10 minutes to open, depending on the wind, and had to be turned by hand.
In the early 1900s, the drawbridge was upgraded with the latest technology using a modern steel frame bridge, said Scangas.
The new bridge was turned by a motor, located at the top of the bridge. “You had to cross the bridge, climb the ladder and get up there to start the motor,” said Scangas.
Not only did workers have to climb a metal bridge in all kinds of weather, including ice and thunderstorms, the engine itself was tricky to start.
“There is only one way to start the engine,” said Scangas. Indeed, only one type of match could be used to start the 1906 engine, and when a caretaker died without revealing where he stored the matches, there was a mad scramble to find a way to start the engine.
Scangas described the elaborate process for starting the engine, which seemed to require more than two hands. Caretakers for the bridge had to operate a pump with one hand while also holding a flywheel still. At precisely the right moment, a piston plunger with, of course, the right kind of match had to be pressed.
If it was done right, “the resulting explosion will be heard for some distance,” said Scangas, quoting a description of the lighting process.
“They made it more difficult to get to,” he said of the engine to turn the bridge, “and more difficult to start.”
Because Smith was completely unwilling to share the tracks with the Rutland, the Alburgh bridge had two sets of tracks, one for each company.
When the St. Johnsbury and Lake Champlain Railroad wanted to connect from Swanton to New York, Smith refused to allow the company use of the Vermont portion of the Alburgh-Rouses Point bridge, forcing it to build a separate connection through the lake to the New York side of the bridge. The owners of the New York side were quite willing to work with the St. Johnsbury railroad, explained Scangas.
Smith waited until all of the necessary tracks had been built, and then purchased the St. Johnsbury and Lake Champlain Railroad. He immediately had the new, never-used tracks removed. Then he sold the railroad.
The Rutland rail line was abandoned in the late 1950s or early 1960s, said Scangas, with the drawbridges simply left open. One section of the islands’ track bed has been turned into a bike trail, while the rest has either been removed or simply deteriorated over time.
The rail yard in Alburgh is gone.
At some points along the rail line, some traces of overpasses and other alterations to the landscape remain, according to Scangas, who displays of some of the remnants of the line.