Middlebury to host railroad fans
MIDDLEBURY — Train enthusiasts from throughout New England will chug into Middlebury this weekend to celebrate the rich history of one of Vermont’s most prominent railroad systems.
The draw is the 25th annual convention of the Rutland Railroad Historical Society (RRHS), which takes place this Saturday and Sunday at the Middlebury Inn.
The convention — expected to attract more than 80 people — will feature lectures, photo exhibits and displays of model trains and related archives evoking the heyday and gradual demise of the Rutland Railroad, which ran through parts of Addison County.
“It is about the history and the economics of the state,” Dave Saums, a longtime RRHS member and co-organizer of the convention.
The Rutland Railroad was established in the 1840s. It was first known as the “Rutland & Burlington Railroad,” and served those two communities with some stops along the way. When a number of other railroads were formed in the region, it became known as simply the “Rutland Railroad.”
At its peak, the Rutland Railroad included roughly 400 miles of track and resembled an upside-down “L” spanning from Chatham, N.Y., to Alburg, Vt., according to historical reference material provided by Saums.
The Rutland Railroad served as an important transportation option for Vermont dairy products.
But the use of rail began to decline during the 20th century, particularly as a means of moving passengers, Saums noted.
“You had private companies owning one form of transportation (railroads), forced to compete with taxpayer-funded roads and interstate highways, many of them built parallel to the railroad line,” said Saums, who now lives in Massachusetts. “By the 1950s, it was clear that passenger rail was a thing of the past.”
The Rutland Railroad entered receivership for the first time in 1938, but was able to continue by doing some creative cost cutting. But the railroad hit another financial jam during the 1950s and in 1961, after a series of strikes, applied to the Interstate Commerce Commission for complete abandonment. The railroad closed on May 20, 1963.
The state of Vermont bought much of the railroad right of way. A few years later, Jay Wulfson of New Jersey negotiated for the rights to operate a train service on the rail line. Vermont Rail System continues to operate trains to this day; the company is now operated by his son, David Wulfson.
Rutland Railroad still has a great many fans, many of whom fondly recall taking the train, watching it roll through their community and being in awe of the seemingly endless string of colorful cars toted by powerful locomotives.
Saums, 55, caught the railroad bug as a youth. Every weekday, his mom took the train into Grand Central Station in New York. He and his brother had the obligatory electric train set as kids. He grew up a collector of train memorabilia — including some from the Rutland Railroad — and went to college and graduate school with the intent of entering a career in the rail industry.
He ultimately chose a job in the electronics industry, only because the rail job wouldn’t have allowed him to pay his school debt and feed himself.
But he kept his passion for all things railroad, which he has been collecting since he was around 14. Through eBay, estate auctions, private collectors and other sources, he has amassed a variety of train itineraries, history books, model trains, dioramas, photos and other memorabilia.
“Some date back to the 1850s,” he said of his prized collection. “There are a lot of people like me who are focused on railroads.”
Many of those people will be in Middlebury this weekend, taking in the sights. Some of them will be history buffs; others will be passionate about model trains. Saums noted that some enthusiasts painstakingly measure train cars to make sure they are fabricated exactly according to scale.
Saums has already donated some of his train memorabilia to a special Rutland Railroad archive maintained at Middlebury College’s Davis Family Library. The variety of items there includes old season passes, locomotive plans, and many photo albums.
Hans Raum, curator of the college’s Vermont Collection, dutifully oversees the collection. He became a member of the RRHS soon after the college agreed to host the Rutland Railroad archive around a decade ago.
Raum coincidentally happens to be a big fan of railroad material.
“It seemed to rekindle a childhood interest,” Raum said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]