The Central Vermont Railway

Delivering the Goods

Crossing the Border

In 1799, the United States Congress passed an Act to ensure that freight imported into the United States, for prompt delivery outside the country (and vice versa), could be transported by unbroken passage and remain under seal from entry to exit (i.e., across borders) without payment of duties. In 1845, this provision was reaffirmed and extended to include Canada. A “non-collection” arrangement was replaced by the drawback of duty fees.
When the Champlain & St Lawrence Railway to Rouses Point was completed, the Canadian government was asked to permit the use of foreign (i.e., U.S.) rolling stock on Canadian lines, subject to certain restrictions. This policy had been approved in the 1852 Amending Act, an Act of the Parliament of the Union of Upper and Lower Canada, which functioned from 1841 to 1867. The U.S. Congress enacted similar legislation and established an international agreement—quite possibly the first of its kind at that time.
Both the Ambassador and the Washingtonian/Montrealer were international trains. In this photo from 1947, customs and immigration formalities are carried out on the train—in this case, by U.S. officials.  

Livestock was also subject to inspection by U.S. Customs officials, in this case an important bovine being shipped in a baggage car by passenger train.  

Passengers and baggage have always been subject to inspection at border crossings, for both customs and immigration control purposes. Freight inspections and customs administration are generally carried out at a classification yard near the border (for example, the CVR’s Italy Yard in St Albans, Vermont).

Passenger and Mail Services

Early passenger services on the Central Vermont Railway were designed to connect Montreal with Boston. As the CVR’s connections grew, the route was extended to include New York City, a route which would ultimately become more important. As travel to New York City increased, the route was extended to include Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
The principal daytime passenger service on the CVR was the Ambassador, which originally travelled between Montreal and Boston. Later, at White River Junction, the train divided into two sections: one bound for New York City, the other bound for Boston. By the 1960s, service to Boston had been reduced to a diesel rail car from White River Junction. Here, the southbound train leaving St Albans in 1941 is pulled by U-1a 4-8-2 601. The station and the adjacent headquarters building show the results of various architectural changes.  

CVR K-3b 4-6-2 230 hauls the southbound Ambassador across the White River, between Royalton and South Royalton Vermont, in 1936. This locomotive was built by Baldwin in 1912.  

The Washingtonian offered overnight service between Montreal and New York City, with through-sleeping cars to Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Here, in 1951, passengers are checking in at Montreal.  

The CVR’s principal daytime passenger train, the Ambassador, provided services to Boston and New York City. When bound for New York, the Ambassador headed south to White River Junction, Vermont, then followed the Boston & Maine Railroad to Springfield, Massachusetts, and ended the trip in New York, via the New Haven Railroad. The original Ambassador, built in 1926, was the first train in North America to offer a radio-equipped observation car. From 1924 until 1966, the Montrealer and the Washingtonian provided an international sleeping-car service for passengers travelling between these two destinations. These popular overnight trains used equipment from contributing railroads: the Pennsylvania, the New Haven, and the Canadian National. In the 1950s, locomotive power for the Montrealer and the Washingtonian on the CVR line was usually provided by a CNR 4-8-4 or 4-8-2. The numbers refer to a wheel arrangement of four “leading wheels,” eight “drivers,” and four or two “trailing wheels.”
The Central Vermont Railway offered local passenger services on both the Northern and Southern Divisions of the line, on connecting branch lines, and on the St Armand line to Montreal. In the 1920s and 1930s, some passenger services were offered using Brill railcars (light gasoline-powered railcars) and trailers (to carry passengers as required). The CVR also operated a local passenger service between St Albans and White River Junction, Vermont. Called the Vermonter, this service ran ahead of the Washingtonian and behind the Montrealer and included a sleeping car that was added to or removed from the through train at White River Junction to accommodate passengers from the area.
Canadians and Americans loved to vacation across the border. This shared passion became a great source of passengers for both the Montrealer and the Washingtonian. During the winter, the Washingtonian included two through-sleeping cars which ferried passengers from Quebec City to Miami and St Petersburg, Florida. In the summer months, the Montrealer provided sleeping cars for American passengers travelling to Murray Bay, Quebec. Through sleeping cars were also provided for travel between Ottawa and Washington, D.C.
Passenger services on the CVR were terminated in 1966. Six years later, however, an overnight Washington, D.C.–Montreal service (called the Montrealer in both directions) was established by Amtrak, a new U.S. passenger train corporation. By the 1980s however, a short stretch along a connecting line (owned by the Connecticut River Railway) had deteriorated, and the Montrealer’s route was shortened to finish in Springfield, Massachusetts. In 1988, Amtrak purchased the former connecting line and turned it over to the Central Vermont Railway for rehabilitation and future operations. The Montrealer resumed operations in July 1989 and provided a new service (by way of New London, Connecticut, and the Southern Division) between Washington, D.C., and Montreal.
When the CVR was sold to RailTex Corporation in 1995, the Montrealer became the Vermonter and the service was reduced to daytime travel between Washington, D.C., and St Albans, Vermont.
CN Railways Post Office Car 9694, lettered for service in the United States. This car was built in 1920 by Canadian Car and Foundry in Montreal for the Grand Trunk Railway, as No. 47. It was renumbered for CN Railways in 1924 and brought within U.S. Postal Code Regulations in October 1962. The car was retired and donated to the Canada Science and Technology Museum in January 1972 (artifact accession number 1971.0388).  

In addition to moving travellers, CVR passenger trains offered mail and express delivery services between Montreal and various U.S. destinations. Mail was delivered in cars belonging to the Central Vermont Railway, as well as the Boston & Maine Railroad, the Pennsylvania Railroad and Canadian National Railways. The CNR mail cars were unusual in that they carried mail between U.S. cities, were subject to U.S. Postal Service regulations, and bore the words “United States Mail” and “Railway Post Office” on the side. One of these original cars is in the collection of the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa.
When the United States Post Office switched to mail transport by truck in 1965, the Central Vermont Railway was obliged to terminate its local passenger service.


The Reciprocity Treaty of 1854 allowed for the free trade of lumber products between Canada and the United States, including “timber and lumber of all kinds, round, hewn and sawn, manufactured in whole or in part.” This treaty opened borders between Canada and British North America and contributed, in some part, to a revitalized economy. It also fostered a growing movement, north and south of the border, to build railways to facilitate trade and travel between the two growing nations.
Among other commodities, the United States required huge quantities of lumber to build cities for an expanding population. Much of this lumber came from Canada.
This interesting photograph (unfortunately the negative is damaged) shows CVR 0-4-0 switcher 20 beside Canada Atlantic Railway boxcar 2644. Branded the “Ottawa & Boston Lumber Line,” it carried processed lumber from J. R. Booth’s Ottawa mills to New England. No. 20 was built by the Schenectady Locomotive Works in 1891, renumbered as 49 in 1900, and later scrapped in 1924.  

It is not surprising that the primary commodity carried by the Central Vermont Railway was lumber. This lumber came in large part from the great pine forests of Ontario, stretching from Ottawa to Georgian Bay. Ottawa lumber baron J. R. Booth recognized this potential market when he built the Canada Atlantic Railway (known as the “Ottawa & Boston Lumber Line”) and the Ottawa, Arnprior & Parry Sound Railway. These two lines offered Booth access to Boston and New York City markets, by way of the Central Vermont Railway.
The Ottawa River was still full of log rafts in 1926. Here, the surface of the river below the Canadian Pacific Railway bridge is almost entirely covered with timber.  

This photograph, from 1925, shows one of the last shipments of squared white pine logs being loaded onto flatcars for J. R. Booth.  

In 1896, Booth’s sawmill at the Chaudière Falls on the Ottawa River was the largest in North America, producing 120 million board feet (230 thousand cubic metres) of lumber per year. Some of this lumber was processed at a planing mill and sorting yard in Burlington, Vermont, established by Booth in 1875.
By 1900, the great stands of white pine in the region were nearly depleted, and loggers turned instead to spruce, balsam, jack pine and hemlock. In tune with the changing market, Booth (then seventy-seven years old) began operations to produce pulp in 1904, followed by paper in 1906, and cardboard in 1908.
During the First World War, exports of lumber from Canada to the United States increased by fifty percent. By 1932, however, exports had dropped back to 1890s levels, due primarily to the Great Depression. Lumber exports have continued at varying levels since that time, and fluctuate according to demand and import restrictions in the United States.
In 1975, the automobile unloading facility at Sharon, Vermont, was converted into a lumber distribution centre. Most of the lumber came from Canadian sources.  

In the late 1900s, changes made to facilities and services along the CVR indicate that the lumber trade remained important. In 1975, an automobile and truck unloading facility at Sharon, Vermont, was converted to a lumber distribution centre. And between 1985 and 1988, a dedicated train service for lumber products operated between St Albans, Vermont, and Palmer, Massachusetts, for the Quaboag Transfer company. Most of this lumber originated from Canadian sources, and some of the lumber traffic continued after the dedicated trains were cancelled.

General Freight

This building, the “Servocentre” at St Albans, was one of several facilities built by Canadian National Railways to house staff dedicated to providing a high level of customer service to shippers. A series of photographs shows the exterior as well as offices and equipment inside.  

In the 1970s, services on the CVR were improved in an effort to maintain or increase general freight traffic. These efforts were hampered by the formation, in 1969, of the Penn Central Railroad (which included the former New Haven Railroad). This new amalgamated line diverted traffic from the CVR and moved the railway’s interchange (with the Penn Central) from New London, Connecticut, to Palmer, Massachusetts. Ultimately, this change reduced the CVR’s costs, but did not bring about new growth or increased revenues.
This facility, built in 1969, housed equipment for unloading automobiles, vans and trucks from railway cars, with special bi- and tri-level racks designed specifically for this type of freight. This is one of several photographs that depicts this facility.  

In 1969, an automobile and truck unloading facility was constructed at Sharon, Vermont, to encourage rail shipment of new vehicles to New England. This service lasted until 1975, when the facility was converted to a lumber distribution centre. In 1978, a fast-freight service, borrowing the “Rocket” name from the 1930s, was introduced to carry trailers on flatcars (TOFCs) between Montreal and Palmer, Massachusetts. Montreal truckers, however, threatened to picket Canadian National Railways and the service was reduced to a single line between St Albans, Vermont, and Palmer, Massachusetts. In the early 1980s, it was briefly extended to link Boston and New Haven, Connecticut, but was suspended in 1984 due to insufficient revenues.
By the end of the 1980s, the Central Vermont Railway’s role as a bridge line was diminishing. In 1989, the railway carried only 32 000 carloads. Sixty percent of traffic originating from Canadian National Railway lines terminated on the CVR, and only twenty percent of northbound traffic continued on to CNR lines.

Meat and Vegetables

It is difficult to imagine a time when fresh meat and produce were not readily available year-round. Before the development of the refrigerated rail car (known as a “reefer”), the diet of Americans and Canadians was restricted to food items that could be obtained in summer and preserved over winter. Farmers and merchants realized early on that railroads could transport livestock and perishable goods to distant markets. By 1842, railway owners were developing a means of refrigerating rail cars to extend these distances even further.
In 1851, the Ogdensburg & Lake Champlain Railroad experimented with a reefer (invented by Jonas Wilder) to ship butter to Boston. The venture was successful, and Wilder later went to the Rutland Railroad to produce reefers for butter, cheese and meat. He also developed cars which could be heated in the winter to transport potatoes. In general, however, railroads were reluctant to invest in reefers, and the business concept was slow to develop. Refrigerator cars cost nearly twice as much as contemporary boxcars, and carried traffic in just one direction — the cars returned empty. In general, reefers could not be used for other merchandise as they were smaller in capacity (space was consumed by ice compartments and insulation), and were often damp and musty. Also, from a business perspective, railroads had a large investment in stock cars and were shareholders in Chicago’s Union Stockyards. Both of these businesses were threatened by the development of the reefer.
Part of the Canadian Northern Railway fleet, this refrigerator car 16272 is similar to cars used to ship perishables from the midwestern and southern United States to New England and Canada. This car was fitted with interior rails to carry dressed meat on hooks.  

Initially, railroads demanded double rates for reefers (in comparison with stock cars). Merchants, however, still found it economically feasible to ship perishables this way. Eventually, this rate structure was changed by the Grand Trunk Railway and the large meatpacking companies. Firms such as Armour purchased company refrigerator cars and negotiated lower rates for their transport. The Grand Trunk Railway seized the opportunity and offered lower rates and faster service between Chicago, Boston and New York City, by way of Canadian rail lines. The introduction of reefers also fostered growth in the California fruit and vegetable industry. Fruits and vegetables that were worthless on the coast could be sold at a profit in eastern Canada and New England, even after shipment across the continent. California fruit growers also purchased their own rail cars. Using the same Grand Trunk route, they found they could use refrigerator cars as storage and redirect these cars, en route from the West Coast, as required by markets. Fresh fruit was also shipped to Canada from the southern United States.
In the late 1860s, the Vermont Central Railway, the Grand Trunk Railway, and the Michigan Central Railroad established the National Despatch Line: a fast-freight service between New England and the American Midwest. Though longer than competing routes, there was less traffic and the Grand Trunk was able to offer lower rates, faster service and improved handling. The company also gained a reputation among shippers for courtesy and a willingness to accommodate.
By 1880, the National Despatch Line had one hundred reefers (using a model invented by Joel Tiffany) in service, with another one hundred on order. By the fall of 1881, the line had three hundred “Tiffany” style cars in service to transport dressed beef between Chicago and Boston within six days. The service was later extended to include citrus fruits, and the travel time was reduced to four days. Tiffany cars had overhead, V-shaped ice tanks, and melt-water and condensation were collected at the end of the car. In comparison with other reefers, Tiffany cars used relatively small amounts of ice.
Express reefers, for premium products such as lobster, game and out-of-season fruit, were in service from about 1890. These cars were built to passenger train standards and numbered about 3 200 at the peak of service in 1930. Gradually, the use of express reefers declined and, in the 1950s, they were replaced by refrigerated trucks and, later, by air transport.
This Canadian National Railways refrigerator car 210067 was manufactured in 1947. One of a series, it was built with eight roof hatches to fill overhead ice-bunkers.  

In 1937, Canadian National Railways built two experimental reefer cars with overhead bunkers. Unlike traditional reefers, this model could be filled with ice by way of eight separate roof hatches. The cars proved successful, and the CNR built an additional one hundred between 1939 and 1940. By 1950, Canadian railways operated 3 000 of these refrigerator cars, while U.S. railroads opted for more conventional refrigerator cars with end bunkers. Like Tiffany cars, the CNR reefers offered more usable space, required less ice and cooling time, and provided a more even cooling process.
By the mid-1970s, about one quarter of the reefers in service used mechanical refrigeration and carried the majority of products requiring refrigeration. Remaining reefers were used, without ice, as ventilated boxcars.

Dairy Products

The CVR purchased fifty-four refrigerator cars from the Grand Trunk Western Railway. Built to carry milk, they were also equipped for service on passenger trains. Part of a batch built for the CVR at Port Huron, Michigan, between 1923 and 1924, these milk cars 534 and 538 were designed to carry milk in cans (most dairy-owned cars contained large tanks for bulk milk).  

Vermont is famous for cows, milk and dairy products. Delivery of these products to Boston was an important part of early traffic on the Central Vermont Railway. Most of the towns along the railway owned at least one creamery, and their dairy products were picked up daily. Milk was transported in either shipper-owned milk cars with refrigerated tanks or in the railway’s own reefers, built to carry milk in cans. The CVR cars were well built and some eventually made their way to the parent Canadian National Railways system for later use as through-baggage cars.
In the 1930s, trucks began to play a role in the delivery of milk products from Vermont to Boston. By 1939, the trucking industry’s share of the delivery market for dairy products had grown to thirty-one percent. In the 1940s, as trucking grew in importance, the CVR eventually retired its milk cars.

Air Services

This Boston & Maine Airways Stinson SM6000A Trimotor airplane was photographed at Boston Airport in 1936.  

Commercial air travel began to develop in the 1930s, and railway companies often partnered in these early ventures. The Central Vermont Railway began a passenger and mail service between Boston, Burlington and Montreal, in co-operation with the Boston & Maine Railroad and National Airways Inc. Early services were offered on board a Stinson SM-6000A Trimotor aircraft and, after 1936, the company used Lockheed 10A Electra twins.
A 1934 timetable shows one daily flight each way, leaving Montreal (St Hubert) at 08:00 hours; stopping in at Burlington, Montpelier/Barre, White River Junction, Concord and Manchester; and arriving at Boston at 11:00 hours. The return flight left Boston at 15:00 hrs and reached Montreal at 16:15 hours. The fare was $16.50 one way, and $30 for a round trip.
The association with National Airways ended in 1937, when the airline moved away from its railroad roots and, in 1941, became Northeast Airlines.


Between 1880 and 1900, the population in America grew significantly. An interest in reading newspapers grew exponentially when mechanized production made them cheaper and more accessible.
Canadian National Railways recorded all aspects of handling the valuable commodity of newsprint. Here in 1978, rolls of newsprint, produced by the QNS Paper Co. Ltd, are loaded into CVR boxcars at Baie-Comeau, Quebec.  

This expanded interest led to a greater demand for newsprint. When it came to the production of pulp for newsprint, spruce was the tree of choice, and Canada offered the largest supply. Initially, the United States imported pulpwood from Canada. However, great demand led to the removal of paper tariffs in 1913. Canadian producers built mills in Ontario and Quebec to handle the growing demand. Production of newsprint in Canada more than tripled between 1913 and 1920, and most of this supply was exported to the United States. When prices peaked in 1920, Canada was producing about 3 000 tonnes of newsprint per day.
Some photographs were evidently used for training staff, this one showing the correct way to pack and secure rolls of newsprint.  

By 1925, the United States was importing more newsprint than it produced, and by 1934, Canadian-owned capacity was sixty percent greater than production by American plants. Growth continued through the 1950s but no new mills were constructed. Instead, existing facilities were enlarged and upgraded and, by 1960, Canada was manufacturing seventy percent of the newsprint consumed in the United States. This proved to be the peak for Canadian export of newsprint. Changing technologies allowed manufacturers to produce pulp from hardwoods, and new mills were built in the southern United States to capitalize on this advancement. By 1990, the United States was able to produce fifty percent of the newsprint it consumed.
The CVR’s 70-tonne boxcar 402552 has a yellow door to indicate that it is dedicated to newsprint service. It was built by the National Steel Car Corporation in 1970.

The Canadian product, however, remained competitive — partly due to a weakness in the Canadian dollar, and partly due to a reputation for quality and care in delivery. Newsprint was typically shipped (in regular boxcars) on huge, heavy rolls that could be damaged in transit. In the 1970s, Canadian National Railways invested $140 million in new boxcars for the CVR, primarily to ship newsprint from Quebec mills to the eastern United States. Special handling techniques were developed for the transport of these loads (worth up to $28,000 per car) to minimize damage and to preserve quality.