Film finds forgotten railroads of region
by Mike Eldred
Sep 26, 2013 | 2745 views | 0 0 comments | 77 77 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Tim Lawrence and Aries in “Forgotten Rails,” one of the movies that will be screened at this weekend’s ITVFest.
Tim Lawrence and Aries in “Forgotten Rails,” one of the movies that will be screened at this weekend’s ITVFest.
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DEERFIELD VALLEY- One of the 58 selections that will be shown at the ITVFest over the weekend is “Forgotten Rails,” a “docu-series” by Vermont filmmaker Tim Lawrence.

In it, Lawrence, who owns IMR Films in Townshend, explores the nation’s abandoned or currently-used railroads with his dog, a Siberian husky named Aries.

Local railroad history buffs may be interested in Lawrence’s pilot episode, which is on the festival’s schedule.

In the first segment of the episode, Lawrence takes a look at the history of the West River Railroad, a 36-mile line that ran from Brattleboro to South Londonderry.

Speaking from Vermont’s Long Trail, where he was hiking with Aries earlier this week, Lawrence said he had been interested in railroads since he was a child, but it was the West River Railroad that first sparked his interest in historic railroads. “I had a grandparent who lived next to the railroad in Westminster, and every time we’d visit I’d see the train go by and we’d give them the ‘honk your horn’ signal and they’d honk. I used to go shopping with my grandmother every Thursday, and as we went over the bridge on I91 she’d point out the line where the West River Railroad used to run. As a kid, you think things have always been the same. To realize there was an entire railroad along the river that’s gone, that gets your imagination going.”

Through interviews, on-location exploration, and maps, Lawrence’s viewers learn that the railroad was built in 1896 and ran from Brattleboro along the Connecticut River before following the West River through Dummerston, Newfane, Townshend, and Jamaica before its terminus in South Londonderry.

According to one expert, the line was originally intended to continue as far as Whitehall, NY, but the funding never materialized.

Lawrence says it took almost four hours to complete the 36-mile journey, which was longer than the two hours that was originally promised, but far short of the two-day journey that it took by horse and buggy. The railroad was critical in the movement of goods to and from Brattleboro.

Along with the typical farm and lumber products sent out of the villages along the route, the railroad made possible a granite industry in Dummerston. Lawrence notes that the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan was built with Dummerston granite.

Perhaps interestingly for Deerfield Valley railroad history buffs, the West River Railroad suffered a fate very similar to that of the railroad that eventually became the Hoosac Tunnel & Wilmington Railroad, or “Hoot, Toot & Whistle” as it is still known.

Thanks to the railroad’s narrow gauge, the local topography, and its proximity to the river, there were a number of derailments and accidents.

In 1905 the railroad was greatly improved by a switch to standard-gauge tracks, which eliminated loading and unloading of cars in Brattleboro, and allowed West River Railroad cars to continue on other lines. But there were still mudslides, rockslides, floods to contend with, as well as increasing competition from motor vehicles.

In 1927, the same flood that devastated the Deerfield Valley and destroyed much of the Hoot, Toot & Whistle’s infrastructure did much the same in the West River.

As Lawrence points out, the rebuilding effort got underway at about the same time as the stock market crashed and the nation slid into the Depression.

By the time the railroad came back in 1931, many businesses had disappeared. Others had started trucking goods to market. In 1936, the railroad folded.

There are currently 16 miles of the West River Railroad that have been converted to “rail trail,” and are open to the public. Watch “Forgotten Rails” at the ITVFest to find out where they are. “Forgotten Rails” is screening at Memorial Hall at noon on Saturday, and Lawrence is holding a meet-and-greet and screening party on Friday at Blackhorse Kitchens in Dover from 1 to 2 pm.

Lawrence says he has written about five episodes, featuring railroads from the Deerfield River Railroad, a logging line that ran from Wilmington to Somerset, and the Hampton Railroad. “It was never used. The railroad was built, but never had a revenue-generating train roll over its tracks.”

For a Vermont filmmaker like Lawrence, having an event like ITVFest in southern Vermont is a rare opportunity. He’s hoping to make connections in the industry.

“My dream is to have Forgotten Rails picked up by a network for a weekly series,” he says. “And if it doesn’t get picked up at the festival, I’m hoping I can get hooked in with the people that have the connections to market it. For me, having the ITVFest here is like bringing Hollywood to Vermont.”
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