This photo, courtesy of the Torrington Historical Society, shows two trolleys carrying boys who worked for the Winsted Citizen. Greenwoods Road is to the right, the building with the cupola (behind a pole) is Burr's Grist Mill.

The History of the Torrington Trolley

 

The 12 acre Oneglia tract lies east the Sue Grossman Bike Path, between Harris Drive and Machuga Road. Here were plots of the American Land Company's Lidia Park, a 1920's development that tried to fit 1,724 building lots between Burrville and Torringford West Street. The property also has a portion of the old trolley line, what follows is a short study of that entity.

 

The trolley was a symbol of its' time, as both Winsted and Torrington were booming in the 1890s. Winchester's population rose from 6,183 in 1890 to 7,763 by 1900 and Torrington's population doubled, from 6,048 in 1890 to 12,453 by 1900.(footnote# I.) The area was on the rise.

In November 1896 efforts were made in both towns to create an electric railway connecting the two communities. In Winsted a meeting resulted in much enthusiasm, all the more notable after earlier attempts at financing a horse-drawn railway had failed. Civil War veteran Col. S. B. Horne, perhaps over optimistically, even declared that "such a trolley would bring the trade of the surrounding towns to Winsted and that there were no records to show that such a road had ever been anything but a financial success." A committee led by Henry Gay was appointed to petition the Legislature for a charter.(II.)

A similar meeting was called in Torrington by O. R. Fyler. Support was also shown for the line and a committee led by Fyler was appointed to co-ordinate with Winsted on the "procuring of a charter."(III.) It is not known if Torrington ever contemplated a horse-drawn trolley.

Before a charter could be granted, the question arose of the necessity of another rail line so close to the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad, an issue that had to be determined in court. A Winsted Judge, A. H. Fenn, decided in favor of the electric railway and in March 1897 the Torrington and Winchester Electric Railway Company was incorporated, with a capital of $200,000. The directors were E. H. Hotchkiss of Torrington (president); S. A. Herman of Winsted (secretary); and Charles. A. Richardson of Worcester (treasurer.)(IV.) O. R. Fyler and Henry Gay each owned $25,000 in stock of the new company. The remaining $150,000 was owned by Richardson, W. B. Ferguson and Nelson Sumner Myrick, who were officers in several electric railways in Massachusetts.(V.) It perhaps was no surprise then, that The Worcester Construction Company was awarded the contract to build the line.(VI.)

A power plant and car barn was built about halfway between the two communities on land donated by John Burr, just north of Greenwoods Road. The power plant had two 250 hp engines which supplied DC to the overhead wires on the line.(VII.)

 

According to Torrington Land Records, Burr also sold a two rod wide (64') right of way to the trolley company, to be in effect only as long as the land was used for the trolley. Of course, this was but a short portion of the track, which ran from the Turner & Seymour plant on Plymouth Street to Division Street in Winsted. There was also a 1¼ mile long spur to Highland Lake's third bay.

Work began in April 1897 with two hundred Italian laborers who were brought to Burrville. From there the line was built towards both towns simultaneously and "so rapidly was the work pushed, that only three months elapsed between the moving of the first shovelful of earth and the running of the first car on the road."(IV.) The line was located on the Main Streets of both towns and in-between ran parallel to where Route 8 is today.

 

That the work was finished so quickly is all the more remarkable when one considers that three bridges had to be built: a 72' span (East Winsted,) a 35' span (Roberts Brook) and a 230' long span (over three abutting obstacles: the Still River, a public highway and the N.Y. N.H. & H. RR.)(VII.)

 

The successful work was noted in an article in the Street Railway Journal of March 1898: "Among the most recent and best equipped lines in New England is that connecting Torrington and Winsted, a single line 13½ miles in length." The rolling stock consisted of five closed cars, two open cars and two plow cars.(VII.)The line opened on July 1st, a Thursday, which probably was not that busy a day. However, the cars would soon become quite busy- the following Sunday, which fell on the Fourth of July, 5,500 fares were collected!(IV.)

 

The fare from town to town was 15 cents, which may seem more than reasonable today, but that is a matter of perspective. For example, "Antonio Gioia, an immigrant of the early 1900's, working for 75 cents a day in Collinsville, found it impossible to pay 15 cents each way for transportation on the trolley."(VIII.)

 

The rail spur to third bay ended at Electric Park, a recreational get-away with a theater, pavilion, lake rides and such. In that day travel around Highland Lake was difficult, the trolley provided easy access to a day of relaxation. Electric Park attracted 553 fares the first Sunday it was open in early August 1897(IV.),which is exactly what it was supposed to do- create ridership during the weekend.

 

In 1899, two years after the opening of the railway, the Massachusetts investors sold their shares to Torrington parties and improvements were made to eliminate curves. During the summer cars ran between the two towns every thirty minutes, decreasing to hourly trips during winter.(IV.)

 

The improvements made must have made the line an attractive investment again, for in 1906 the N.Y. N.H. & H. R.R. bought out the Torrington and Winchester Street Railway Company. This created some optimism about the future: "It was confidently expected that the line would now be extended to Thomaston, thus connecting Winsted with Waterbury...enthusiasts predicted that Highland Lake would soon become a "Little Coney Island."(IX.)

 

It didn't work out that way. Instead, with auto ownership on the rise, ridership on the rails began to decline and costs had to be cut. By 1920 the power plant was shut down, replaced by power purchased from the Winsted Gas Company. When in 1922 all of the two-man cars were eliminated in favor of one-man cars, the writing could be seen on the wall. In 1927 rumors began spreading that the line would soon shut down, and in December 1928 a petition was filed with the State Utilities Commission to suspend operation. The only complaints came from people on Torringford Street and the request was granted. "On Saturday night, January 5, 1929, the last trolley car to operate on Main Street left Winsted for Burrville at eleven o'clock. Its' passage through the city made the occasion quite a celebration; torpedoes were exploded on the tracks, and a number of people rode to Burrville just for the novelty of having the last ride. The party was met at the car barns by another crowd which had arrived from Torrington and a flash light souvenir photograph of the group was made. Thus ended a mode of conveyance which had served Torrington and Winsted since June 1897."(X.)

 

The trolley couldn't even blame the Depression for its' demise. Bus service began the next day. In a shorter period than would have seemed likely in 1897, the trolley went from being a symbol of the rise of its communities to a nuisance- slowing down traffic, making for an uneven pavement and wrecking havoc with radio reception. But today, with nostalgia, we can think of trolleys as quaint, and it is another part of our local Heritage.

 

Footnotes:

I. Connecticut State Register and Manual of 1904.

II. Winsted and the Town of Winchester, by Frank H. DeMars and Elliot P. Bronson, page 123. DeMars/Bronson is relied on heavily for this study.

III. The Torrington Register- Souvenir Edition (1897) page 5.

IV. DeMars, page 124.

V. American Street Railway Investments 1897, page 153 and Annual Report of the Board of Railroad Commissioners, Nov. 17, 1897. Among the railways one or more of this Massachusetts troika ran were The Milford, Holliston and Framingham Street Railway Company, the Worcester and Blackstone Valley Street Railroad Company, the Warren, Brookfield and Spencer Street Railway Company, and the Athol & Orange Street Railway Company.

VI.The Torrington Register- Souvenir Edition (1897) page 5.

VII. Street Railway Journal, March 1898, page 151.

VIII. The Growth Years Torrington- 1852 to 1923 by Bess and Merrill Bailey, page 87.

IX.  DeMars, page 143.

X. DeMars, page 195.

Editor's notes: There is information on Horne in Images of America- Winsted and Winchester by Virginia Shulz-Charette and Verna Gilson, pg. 102. In the Civil War, the book says, "Col. Horne fought in 25 battles and was seriously wounded three times, including having his horse shot out from under him. He was presented with the Medal of Honor in 1897 for bravery on the field." The book also carries information on both the trolley and Electric Park.  

Another relevant book is Waterbury Trolleys, compiled by The Connecticut Motor Coach Museum, there is a chapter on the Torrington/Winchester line with many pictures.

The Burrville power plant, at least at the beginning, apparently provided DC electricity to the lines. The power losses must have been enormous.

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