The Central Vermont Railway

Historical Background

The Early Years of the Central Vermont Railway (1850s - 1898)

Built in the 1850s, early rail lines in Vermont established a link between New England ports and industries, farms in the American Midwest, and the Great Lakes travel route. In order to navigate around Vermont’s Green Mountains and Lake Champlain, planners chose a route further north, close to the Canadian border. When this line was connected to nearby Montreal, a new travel corridor was established between Montreal, Boston and New York City.


These photographs, taken from the company’s headquarters office building in St Albans, Vermont, in the 1800s, show freight cars from a variety of railroads. Many are also lettered for the National Despatch Line and similar through-freight arrangements.  

From the late 1860s on, the Vermont Central Railroad, the Grand Trunk Railway and the Michigan Central Railroad shared costs to operate the " National Despatch Line " (NDL), a fast‑freight service between Boston and Chicago. To the east, the NDL ferried meats, fruits and vegetables; to the west, it shipped mostly manufactured goods.
In 1872, the Vermont Central Railroad encountered financial difficulties and was reorganized as the central Vermont Railroad Company. To compensate for its share of operating costs in the NDL, the CVR was forced to pledge company bonds to the partnering Grand Trunk Railway. Eventually, in 1896, the Central Vermont Railroad went into receivership. The Grand Trunk Railway, already a majority owner of the company, re‑established the Central Vermont Railway on 15 November 1898. When the Grand Trunk Railway was later absorbed into Canadian National Railways, the CVR became a part of Canada’s national rail system.

Grand Trunk Railway Years (1898 - 1922)

Many New England railroads amalgamated in the late nineteenth century. The lines connecting the Central Vermont Railway to the city of Boston were merged with the neighbouring Boston & Maine Railroad. In 1900, the Central Vermont and the Boston & Maine entered into a joint trackage agreement between the towns of East Northfield, Massachusetts, and White River Junction, Vermont.
Portrait of Charles Melville Hays  

Newly responsible for the Central Vermont Railway, Grand Trunk President Charles M. Hays considered this joint trackage agreement a temporary arrangement, and planned for the construction of a replacement line between Windsor and Brattleboro, Vermont. Hays also sought a better port (closer to the Atlantic coast and better suited to ocean vessels) than New London, Connecticut, for freight export on Grand Trunk and Central Vermont rail lines. To this end, he planned a new route, the Southern New England Railway, to link up Palmer, Massachusetts, and Providence, Rhode Island. Both projects were ultimately cancelled, however, following Hays’s untimely death in the 1912 sinking of the RMS Titanic.
John Rudolphus Booth inspects one of the last shipments of big timber from his holdings, with his sons C. Jackson and J. Fred Booth.  

In 1904, the Grand Trunk Railway acquired the Canada Atlantic Railway. Formed in 1879 by Ottawa lumber baron John Rudolphus Booth, and partners William Perley (Ottawa) and G. C. Noble (St Albans, Vermont), the Canada Atlantic Railway was built to export lumber from Booth’s mills at the Chaudière Falls on the Ottawa River, by way of the Central Vermont Railway.
The Canada Atlantic Railway extended from Ottawa to Coteau, Quebec. From there, it linked up with the Grand Trunk Railway, continued along the Vermont & Province Line Railroad to Alburgh, Vermont, and ultimately joined the Central Vermont Railway. Booth did business readily in Vermont, having established many earlier connections while working as a carpenter (from 1850 to 1853) for the Vermont Central Railway.
The Canada Atlantic Railway was atypical, in that it was built entirely with Booth’s personal means and credit. No bonds or shares were sold, and the railway was not supported by a government subsidy. The line was constructed between 1880 and 1888, and passenger services between Ottawa and Coteau began in 1882.
Booth recognized the potential of a combined rail and water route between the American Midwest and New England and, between 1892 and 1896, he constructed the Ottawa, Arnprior & Parry Sound Railway. The route extended from Ottawa to Depot Harbour, Ontario: a fine natural harbour on Georgian Bay. The Ottawa, Arnprior & Parry Sound Railway was organized as a separate company to take advantage of government subsidies offered for building along this new route.
Passengers board a train at the Highland Inn in Algonquin Park, ca 1930.  

Booth also organized a steamship company, the Canada Atlantic Transit Co., to transport grain and merchandise from Great Lakes ports to New England, by way of the Canada Atlantic Railway and the Central Vermont Railway. The route was 1 300 kilometres (807 miles) shorter than the alternative all‑water route. The line also provided transport for timber from Booth’s extensive holdings to his mills in Ottawa. As an added business opportunity, the line opened the Algonquin Park area to visiting tourists.
In 1899, Booth merged the Ottawa, Arnprior & Parry Sound Railway with the Canada Atlantic Railway, and in 1904, sold the Canada Atlantic to the Grand Trunk. Through traffic continued over the route for years to come and, although the Grand Trunk preferred its line through southern Ontario, Canadian National Railways continued to operate steamers from Depot Harbour to Chicago and Milwaukee until the late 1930s.

Canadian National Railways: The Early Years (1922 - 1927)

Following the First World War, many of Canada’s railways experienced financial difficulties. To serve the country’s war effort, they had been called upon to move troops and equipment, often at a financial loss. In 1919, the Canadian government stepped in and created the Canadian National Railways (CNR) Company Limited. By 1923, this Crown Corporation had assumed ownership of the Canadian Northern, the National Transcontinental, the Intercolonial, the Grand Trunk Pacific, and the Grand Trunk Railway companies. In an interesting twist, the Central Vermont Railway, part of the Grand Trunk line since 1898, became part of the Canadian National Railways system.
Under CNR ownership, the Central Vermont Railway brought in a wider range of products from Canada, particularly from Quebec. The list grew to include automobile parts, newsprint, cement, lumber and general merchandise. Deliveries from south of the border also increased, and included fruits and vegetables from the eastern United States and Florida.
CVR T-3a 2-10-4 steam locomotives were built by the American Locomotive Company (Alco) in 1928. Designed for heavy freight service, they were the largest locomotives used in New England at that time. They operated, until March 1957, along a route that linked Brattleboro, Vermont, to Belleville, Ontario, and Montreal, Quebec.  

To serve a growing demand, Canadian National Railways purchased a fleet that comprised four types of steam locomotives from the American Locomotive Company (Alco). Most were locomotives for general freight work and local passenger services, primarily for travel on the CVR’s Southern Division lines. To complement this fleet, locomotives for heavy freight work (through‑trains), express passenger services and switching duty were used on the CVR’s Northern Division. The heavy freight locomotives were the largest to operate in New England at that time.
For many years, the principal through-freights between Chicago, Illinois, and New London, Connecticut, were trains 490 (eastbound) and 491 (westbound). Operated jointly by the Grand Trunk Western, Canadian National and Central Vermont railways, they provided the quickest rail service available between Chicago and New York City. Here, John Gilpin passes a message to the engineer of 490 at London, Ontario. The locomotive is the CNR’s U-3a 4-8-4 6308.  

In addition to steam locomotives, the CVR also purchased a number of Brill railcars (gasoline‑powered railcars) for lighter passenger services. The Central Vermont Railway was now part of a network of rail lines that offered day and overnight passenger and mail services between Montreal and Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington. The company also provided a link for through‑freight services between Chicago, New York City and Boston, and from Montreal to the same U.S. destinations.

Canadian National Railways: Destruction and Rebuilding (1927 - 1939)

Canadian National Railways clearly valued the addition of the Central Vermont Railway to its national railway system. Lines and equipment were typically maintained to Class 1 standards (the maintenance standard for trunk lines, as opposed to short lines or branch lines). And in times of difficulty, the CNR chose to invest in the CVR rather than lose this valuable link.
The destruction of Bridge 24 at Bethel, Vermont, was typical of the damage caused by flooding in November 1927. The bridge, one of twenty-one either damaged or destroyed, was completely replaced before the line reopened three months later.  

In November 1927, a disastrous flood in Vermont killed fifty-five people and 15 000 cattle, and destroyed much of the northern section of the CVR. Bridges and embankments were washed away and stations were flooded. At Roxbury, the highest point on the line, water rose to a depth of thirty centimetres in the depot building. The Central Vermont Railway went into receivership and appeared to have a doubtful future. Canadian National Railways, however, decided to rebuild the line. Reconstruction was completed in ninety-two days, and cost the CNR $3 million. In 1929, Canadian National Railways ended the CVR’s receivership by forming a new company called the Central Vermont Railway Inc.
The CVR used its cabooses to advertise its “Rocket” fast-freight service in the early 1930s and again in the 1970s. Caboose 4008 is typical of the Canadian National Railway family of wooden “vans” and was built according to a Grand Trunk Western design. It was retrofitted with a steel underframe in 1929 and sold to the Central Vermont Railway in 1971.  

From time to time in the 1930s, the CVR operated “special-purpose” freight trains to generate new business. This short train of refrigerator cars carried maple syrup products from Burlington, Vermont, to Springfield, Massachusetts. Built by Alco in 1916, locomotive
M-3a 2-8-0 451 was fitted with a Coffin feedwater heater.  

After rebuilding in 1929, the CVR was faced with an unprecedented drop in cross‑border freight due to the Great Depression. Between 1929 and 1933, traffic across the Canada - U.S. border fell by twenty-six percent southbound, and by forty-eight percent northbound. The CVR attempted to offset the loss by running new services, including a “Rocket” fast‑freight service and various specialty trains (for example, seasonal refrigerator cars for maple syrup). Despite these efforts, many branch lines were closed down and abandoned and, in 1932, E. C. Smith resigned as President of the CVR, ending a period of continuous family management which had begun in 1847.
Taken after a hurricane in 1938, this photograph shows damage to the docks and the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad station in New London, Connecticut.  

In 1938, natural disaster struck again. A hurricane, followed by a tidal surge, damaged CVR lines at New London, Connecticut, and facilities belonging to the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad. Once again, Canadian National Railways was quick to repair damage and restore lines to working order.

The Second World War Years (1939 - 1945)

During the Second World War, traffic on the CVR increased again. Railway lines in general played a key in the transport of war supplies, munitions and troops. The Central Vermont Railways moved one-hunded-car trains of Canadian hay to military posts in New England, carried German prisoners of war to camps in Canada, and supported various U.S. troop movements. At the end of the war special sections of the Washingtonian (overnight passenger service between Montreal and Washington, D.C.) carried families of British Royal Air Force personnel from their postings in Canada to New York City, to board a ship home to the United Kingdom.
After the war, wives and children of Royal Air Force personnel, who had been stationed in Canada, were returned to Britain by ship. Many were carried to New York City on board special sections of the CVR Washingtonian. Here, families are waiting in Montreal to board the train for New York.  

The 30 000-litre (8,000-gallon) oil tank car GATX 3176, undergoing repairs in the open air. During the Second World War, railway operators were under pressure to keep cars in service. For this reason, repairs were often carried out on a convenient siding, as opposed to in a workshop.  

During the war years, the CVR used its existing fleet to maximum capacity and, when required, the company carried out urgent repairs on essential freight cars to maintain delivery of war materials.
Driven by wartime requirements, new technologies began to emerge that would influence rail development significantly. In 1941, the CVR purchased its first diesel locomotives (a pair of Alco‑GE S2 switchers). Switchers were used to sort cars in the train yard, and were required to operate for long periods without maintenance. For many rail lines, the transition to diesel marked the beginning of the end for steam. To compete with the trucking and air travel industries, operators needed an efficient locomotive that could offer greater speed and reduced labour costs. Diesel offered all this and more. In less than twenty years, the diesel locomotive would all but replace the steam engine on North American railways.

The Postwar Years (1945 - 1950s)

Following the war, most traffic to and from Montreal was dispatched along the Canadian National Railways line, via East Alburgh, Vermont, and Cantic, Quebec. By 1954, most of the St Armand line (the CVR’s own link to Montreal) was abandoned. The main line of the CVR continued to be well maintained and carried much the same freight as before the war. Many branch lines, however, were abandoned or sold. In 1962, the line from East Alburgh to Rouses Point, New York, was abandoned, along with the trestle bridge over Lake Champlain. CVR services to Rouses Point were continued by way of Cantic, Quebec, and the Canadian National Railways line.
The first Canadian National Railways diesel locomotives used to haul through-freights over the CVR were the CFA-16-4 “C-Liners” 8700 and 8701. They were built by the Canadian Locomotive Company in 1952, according to the Fairbanks - Morse design. Although steam locomotives were used on CVR through-freights until 1957, the diesels enabled the same locomotives to be used along the entire route between Belleville, Montreal and New London, Connecticut.  

The CVR’s first road diesels were RS-3 road switchers, built by the company’s traditional supplier, Alco, in 1954. Locomotive 3901 (formerly 1860) is shown here. When the CVR later standardized their fleet with the General Motors GP-9, the RS-3s were sent (in 1958) to Canadian National Railways. The GP-9 4927 was built in 1957, and was one of five Class GRG17k locomotives equipped with steam-generating boilers for passenger service. The diesels are pictured here next to the soon-to-be demolished St Albans coaling tower.  

The Modern Era (1960 - 1994)

This is one of a series of photographs taken in 1952 that shows the re-laying of one section of a CVR main line track in the Green Mountains. Here, the crew is using ballast tamper 272 to consolidate the ballast.  

The 1960s and 1970s were difficult years for the Central Vermont Railway. Construction of the Interstate Highway allowed truckers to compete with the railway for the delivery of freight. Freight volume decreased and revenues suffered. The railway industry responded to the competition by decreasing travel times and offering more dedicated services (a route with little or no switching). Canadian National Railways continued to maintain the line to high standards throughout this period and, after small losses in 1975 and 1976, was rewarded with profits of $1.2 to $1.8 million in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Increased revenues were due in part to the transport of heavy bulk loads (such as newsprint and lumber) that could not be delivered by truck. In 1981, revenue reached an all‑time high of $24.5 million, and the company transported 60 000 carloads of freight.

Canadian Ownership Ends (1994)

A New England Central Railroad train at Essex Junction, Vermont,
1 August 2000, behind GP-38 3851
(photo by author, necrej01)  

Due to a steady decrease in freight traffic, the Central Vermont Railway was no longer profitable and, in 1994, was sold to American‑owned RailTex Corporation. Since that time, it has continued to operate as a short line called the New England Central Railroad. Most of the line remains intact (though underused) and daily through‑freight services still connect with Canadian National Railways. An Amtrak passenger service operates between New York City and St Albans, Vermont, with a bus connection to Montreal.