What if – Easton had a Railroad?

Part Three of the Historical Society of Easton’s Series on transportation in Easton. Our Easton in the service Series will continue in July.

By 1900 there were only four towns in Fairfield County that weren’t served by a railroad – Sherman, New Fairfield, Weston and our own Easton. Redding had rail service along its western border with Ridgefield, but the eastern side of town, most notably, the Aspetuck Valley, was isolated from the convenience and speed provided by the locomotives that spewed heavy smoke and forest-fire causing sparks into the pristine air of Connecticut.

What few of today’s local residents realize is just how close we came to having a railroad that would have altered our landscape and changed the demographics of the Aspetuck Valley forever.

Instead of the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company taking most of the lands in the valley and then demolishing more than a dozen small mills and factories that once provided a livelihood to as many as a hundred or more families along the river as it flowed from Newtown, through Redding, Easton, and Weston before converging with the Saugatuck, the Aspetuck Valley might have grown and prospered.

Just imagine how that valley might be described in 2021 if things had gone as once planned. The New Easton Courier may have been writing something along these lines:

The Easton Planning and Zoning Commission is reviewing plans to add 22 housing units to the Shops at Jennings’ Mill on Staples Road. Plans include 12 two-bedroom townhouses, along with 7 one-bedroom apartments to be added above the original mill that currently houses Starbucks, Sherwood’s Emporium, and the Samuel Staples Savings Bank. In addition, 3 affordable income two-bedroom apartments will be built on the second level of the old Jenning’s Hydro-electric plant that has recently been restored and will soon house the Easton Glass Factory where craftsmen will produce handblown glass to be sold in their retail store on the first level. Plans call for the developers to widen Staples Road and install a northbound turning lane into the complex to ease the traffic flow.

The old general store at the corner of Valley Road and Staples is getting a new owner after being run by members of the Bradley family since 1862. The store will now be called “Valley Provisions” and will be expanded to include a deli that will offer freshly made sandwiches for breakfast and lunch.

Across the way on Valley Road, the old Easton Mineral Springs building on the western shore of the Aspetuck has recently been sold to a Stamford development company that has plans to renovate the structure into a center for the creative arts where local artists and potters can both create and sell their works.

The Historical Society of Easton has recently moved into the old railroad depot near the northwest corner of Valley Road and Rock House. The society has spent nearly five years and over $500,000 renovating the building to bring it back to its original 1893 glory. In addition to housing the HSE office, the depot will serve as a museum for showcasing the history of the Aspetuck Valley community.

The Ice House Restaurant & Tavern on Rock House Road across from the intersection with Turney Road will begin offering live performances on Friday and Saturday nights now that restrictions have been lifted as the recent Covid-19 pandemic continues to wane. A larger outside deck has been added that overlooks the manmade pond where ice was harvested during the early years of the 20th century.

Just across the Redding line, the Gleneyrie Farm on Valley Road has recently celebrated its 120th anniversary of six generations of operations by the Sanford family.  Once supplying fresh beef to the community, the farm now produces fine cheeses from the milk of its prized cows.

The Foundry at the Aspetuck on nearby Stepney Road has recently undergone a complete renovation and is now a brew pub that offers a wide variety of craft beers. The original structure once housed James Sanford’s steel plow & iron fence manufacturing businesses. Additional parking has been added and the new pub now seats sixty.

The Button Factory Tavern at the falls on Poverty Hollow Road just below Meeker Hill has hired a new chef. Chef Irene Tottle previously worked at The Fairfield Manor House at the foot of Church Hill Road. The new menu will include farm fresh ingredients from Gleneyrie in Redding, as well as from the Sport Hill Farm, Sherwood’s, and Gilbertie’s in Easton. The Fairfield Manor House has recently been sold and will now become part of the exclusive Auberge Resorts Collection that also runs the Mayflower Inn & Spa in Washington, Connecticut.

Gleneyrie Farm on Valley Road once provided freshly butchered meats to area residents that were delivered by horse and wagon by the Sanford family who owned the operation. c.1910 photo

Does all that sound far-fetched? It really shouldn’t, since with the lone exception of the old railroad depot, businesses all existed in either the structures or locations mentioned above shortly before end of the 19th century. Had either of the two planned railroads been built through the valley, many of those businesses would have continued operations and many of the buildings that housed them might have survived and been repurposed to resemble something along the lines of what has been fictionalized above. And what is described above doesn’t include the additional businesses and homes that would have likely popped up along the rail line had it come to fruition.

Prior to 1850, inland transportation of all goods and passengers in Fairfield County was only accomplished by using horse or ox drawn wagons. Wagons laden with heavy objects were difficult to pull over many of the primitive roads that would easily become clogged with mud during the late winter and early spring months. Crossing smaller streams and rivers without the benefit of a bridge was another issue. High water during rainstorms made such crossings treacherous, whether on foot, horseback, or in a wagon. Probably the largest single factor in April of 1777 that had General Tryon’s British troops using the Black Rock Turnpike to traverse the land between Compo Beach in what was then the town of Fairfield and the Continental Army’s storehouses in Danbury was the fact that there was but one substantial river crossing in the parish of North Fairfield (Easton today). The bridge that crossed the Aspetuck in the Gilbertown section was the only place Tryon had to worry about colonial opposition impeding his progress on his journey northward.

Traveling inland from the Sound often required ascending rather steep sections of terrain. Following some of the river valleys often meant climbing fewer hills and usually resulted much longer stretches of low gradient roadways. One of the preferred routes from Norwalk or Westport on Long Island Sound ran northward through today’s Easton and followed the Aspetuck River through Redding and into Newtown. Some of these early roads were granted “Toll Road” or “Turnpike” status in the early 19th century.

Prior to discussions of building a railroad, the old “Great Road” (today’s Black Rock Turnpike) was known as the Fairfield, Weston and Redding Turnpike and Valley Road became the southern end of the Fairfield County Turnpike beginning in 1833. Together, the two toll roads generated enough income to properly maintain the right-of-ways and keep the bridges at the river crossings strong enough to support the weight of wagons transporting goods to and from ports in Fairfield and Westport to points as far north as Danbury and New Milford. 

The Moses Sherwood House was the toll station on Poverty Hollow Road in Redding on the Fairfield County Turnpike in the middle of the 19th century. This building was located at the base of Church Hill Road where it intersects with Poverty Hollow Road. Photo from the Brooks – Stetson Collection at the Mark Twain Library

Beginning in 1868, plans were developed to build a railroad through Easton. Along with other investors, locals such as Jesse Wakeman of Easton, joined with Aaron and Daniel Sanford of Redding to incorporate under the name of the Saugatuck Valley Railroad Company. The Connecticut State Legislature granted the company the right to construct a railroad from Westport to Newtown that would pass through Easton in the Aspetuck River basin, essentially following the path of the river as far north as Newtown. The most difficult incline would have been just south of Meeker Hill where the elevation changed by nearly 100 feet in less than a quarter mile. The incorporators were given a deadline of July 1876 to complete the project, but for still unknown reasons, the rail line never materialized. Nationwide economic declines in 1869 and 1873 may have torpedoed the plan. The idea, however, remained in play during the next two decades.

In the 1880s, local newspaper articles speculated on plans to lay a different rail line through the Aspetuck Valley. A survey to find the best route along the river began sometime in 1884. Articles written in The Bee in 1889 discussed the newly incorporated Shepaug Railroad Company’s intention to run the line from the Hawleyville junction in Newtown, through Redding, Easton and Weston all the way to Westport. Financial backers of this new railroad argued along with area businessmen that the docking fees at the harbor in Bridgeport were too expensive, and that freight would be far less costly coming and going through the harbor at Westport (The Bee, Friday, April 19, 1889). That same article identified Redding businessman Stephen Sanford as sitting on one of the committees that was examining the rights of way of the proposed venture. Sanford and his brothers owned and operated several button factories along the Aspetuck and would have certainly befitted from any proposed railroad that practically passed by their doorsteps.

The 1880 Industrial Census listed the three sons of James Sanford – Stephen, Turney and Charles – as owning three button shops along the river between Meeker Hill and Stepney Roads. Combined, those three factories employed a total of 48 workers, 18 of whom were women. Although the Sanford Iron Foundry owned by the brothers’ father James was still in operation, no information about the number of employees of that venture was listed in 1880.

The plan to construct the railroad through the valley was likely abandoned during the financial downtown of 1893. Beginning with the failure of many railroad stocks, that economic crisis soon worsened into a four-year national recession.

Mallett Seeley and his son Bennett lived on a farm on Valley Road in the mid-1800’s. The Aspetuck River flowed through Mallett’s property and was a more than an adequate source of power to run a grist mill. Bennett became the miller in a building that sat at the edge of a 14-foot stone dam that had been constructed on Staples Road just to the south of the Valley Road bridge crossing. By the early 1860’s, the grist mill operated by Bennett had been transformed into a mill that produced straw board.

It was in 1867 when brothers Augustus and Isaac Jennings of Fairfield came along and purchased Bennett Seeley’s mill. While they continued to manufacture straw boards well into the 1870’s, the brothers’ 1867 patent for producing a seamless papier mâché pail led to the production of an entire range of new products at the mill. Through a process known as Japanning, the paper products were coated with layers of lacquer that made them stronger, waterproof, and even quite attractive as the final coats of paint added color and decorative designs. From foot baths to spittoons, church collection plates to water pails, pitchers to fruit dishes, the Jennings Brothers’ mill made them all.

Catalogue of Jennings Brothers’ Japanware made in Easton

By 1880 the largest single revenue producer in Easton was undoubtedly the Jennings Brothers’ mill on Staples Road. The gross sales that year exceeded $10,000.

In 1880 the mill employed 4 men, 3 women, and 3 children. Lacking copies of the 1890 United States Census we may never know if there were additional employees by the beginning of the final decade of the century, but we do know that by 1893, the two founding brothers of the Jennings’ business had retired and turned the operation over to Issac’s son, Charles. Whether it was the 1893 economic downturn, the abandoning of the Shepaug Railroad Company’s plan to build a rail line between Hawleyville and Westport, or both, Charles decided to move the operation closer to his home in Fairfield where the rail lines that could ship the finished product to New York and beyond for far less than he was paying to have them hauled by wagon from Easton to Bridgeport. The final products produced in Easton were made in 1893 when the mill there ceased operations there for good. The company remained in business in Fairfield until 1904 when it ceased operations altogether.

Remains of the race that fed water to the Jennings Brothers’ mill on Staples Road. The mill closed in 1893 and was demolished by the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company when it tore down the mill pond damn in the early 1900’s. Stuart Reeve Photo.

By the turn of the century, wealthy and successful writers and artists such as Jeannette Gilders, Noble Foster Hoggson, Samuel Clemens, and Ida Tarbell began to purchase old farms before turning them into country estates. Hoggson’s Fairfield Manor that sat alongside the Aspetuck on Poverty Hollow Road in Redding was a spectacular example of just how far one could go with an old farmhouse.

Had one of the planned railroads been built through that valley, one has to wonder how many more of those wealthy folks from New York would have bought or built country estates in the Valley?

Noble Hoggson’s Fairfield Manor Estate c.1915. Hoggson lobbied to change the name of the area from Poverty Hollow to Pleasant Valley. Photo from the Brooks – Stetson Collection, Mark Twain Library

There is much we can learn by studying an area’s history, but some things we will never know when we simply pose the question – “What if…?”

Information for this article was obtained from various Easton Town Reports; the 2009 Historical and Archeological Assessment of Easton written by Stuart Reeve, Kathleen von Jena and David Silverglade; the Read Family Papers assembled by Stuart Reeve in 2000; various records of town meetings from the Towns of Fairfield and Weston between 1681 and 1850; The Bee; and the History and Archeology of Poverty Hollow by Kathleen Von Jena and Stuart Reeve in 2002.