The End of Steam in the CT Valley

One of the first things you need to consider when modeling a prototype is what era you intend to model.  There's been much written about this topic by folks much more knowledgeable than I, but the consensus is that the narrower you define your era, the more plausible your efforts will be.  You don't want your steam locomotives pulling Penn Central boxcars, or modern automobiles set in a Victorian scene.

Defining your era can also be one of the most enjoyable research projects for your model railroad, especially if you're really into history.  Why else would it even occur to you what the proper colors of stop signs and mailboxes were in, say, 1947?  The answers to what "normal" folks would probably consider pretty esoteric questions are the puzzle pieces that make up the mosaic of time and place.  And the more questions you ask, and the more answers you get, the more effective you'll be at conveying that sense of time and place and the more convincing your "time machine" will be.

The "era puzzle" includes many pieces, one of the most important of which - on a model railroad at least - is what type of locomotives you include.  There's a reason why the so-called "Transition Era" between steam & diesel power is so popular - you (think you) can have your cake and eat it too and include both types.  But the limits of that era can vary pretty widely depending on your prototype.  And even when you've picked a prototype that includes what you want locomotive-wise, it may be hard to nail down exactly when those locomotives were last used.  That bit of information is essential to defining the outside limit of your era.

I definitely wanted to include steam engines on my representation of the New Haven Railroad's CT Valley line, so determining when steam power was last used is an essential piece of the puzzle for me.  The Valley line was only a lowly branch of a much larger system, so there'd be no fanfare or documentation of "Steam's Final Run" on the line.  I'd have to figure it out myself.  Here's the process I went (and am still going) through.  Hopefully my experience will inspire you to figure out that part of the puzzle for your own project. . .

With the delivery of Alco FAs and RS-2 roadswitchers, the Steam Era on the New Haven Railroad started to close rapidly and by the spring of 1949 diesels had taken over the Valley and Airline locals.  However, it's unclear when precisely the steam era ended in the Connecticut river valley.  Thankfully, railroads generally kept close track of their locomotive use, but the earliest NHRR Engine Assignment book I have is from April 24, 1949.  It shows the following:

(PDX-2 was the local freight between New London & Cedar Hill and at the time serviced the south end of the Valley line from Old Saybrook to East Haddam)

So we know steam had to end before 4/24/49.  What else can we deduce?  Well, based on photo evidence and the recollections of John Wallace (who "wrote the book" on the Valley Line - well, the articles at least, in the NHRHTA's Shoreliner magazine), we know that the most common engines used were K-1 class moguls on the Valley line and J-1 class mikados on the Airline.

According to John, K-1 #466 was the last mogul in use on the Valley line, supplanted by J-1s before the line was dieselized.  He should know - that's him holding down the fireman's box on the 466 below in March of 1948.

Valley Local southbound crossing the Little River from Cromwell to Middletown

Kent Cochrane photo from the Shoreliner Vol. 22 #4, p. 35

That narrows our "End of Steam in the Valley" to between March, 1948 and April, 1949.  But a year is still a pretty large window.  Now, here's an interesting image:

John Wallace collection.

This shows NHRR J-1 mikado #3011 on the Valley Local derailed at Belamose Avenue in Rocky Hill (Dividend), CT.  According to John Wallace, who recalls this derailment, it occurred sometime in 1948, but he wasn't sure when.  He's also pretty sure that this derailment spelled the end of steam engine service on the line, or was pretty close to it.  The snow on the ground says it's winter, but it is unlikely to be winter 1948 since we know K-1 moguls were still being used in March, 1948.  It could be as late as winter 1949, but no later since we know diesels were on-line by April '49.

You'd think the photographer - especially a photographer as meticulous as John - would know precisely when the photograph was taken.  But I just recently found out, even though it's in his collection, John's not the photographer(!).  Turns out, he got the photo from the Hartford Courant after he saw it printed in the paper.

Well now.

Every Thursday night, a bunch of us get together to catalog the NHRHTA's Photo Library for Shoreliner authors and other Association publications.  One of the guys that comes to help out is a professional researcher - Bob Belletzkie (of Tyler City Station fame.).  If the Courant printed the photo in the paper, there would be a date.  Using his research skills and digging through the archives, Bob found the article (actually only a photo and caption) and got the date for us: December 21, 1948.

So the end of steam on the Valley occurred sometime between December 21, 1948 and April 24, 1949.  I may never know the precise date of the last run of steam, but since I plan on modeling Autumn, I now know I can go as late as Autumn 1948.  Since I want to use moguls on the Valley local, the latest I can go is Autumn 1947.  And that's where I ended up.

But I'm still curious to know when the last steam ran, so if anybody has any additional information that could narrow that window of time further - most especially an Engine Assignment Book from before 4/24/49 - please let me know.

So that's the Valley line (so far...) - what about the Airline?  Looks like steam lasted there just a little longer.  Here's another Kent Cochrane photo, this one of the Airline local westbound at Middlefield, CT in April, 1948:

From the Shoreliner Vol. 22 #4 p. 31

And check out this photo John Wallace shot of the same local in the winter of 1949:

New Haven J-1 #3022 on the Airline Local eastbound at Rockfall, CT

And here's the same locomotive in Canaan, CT also in the "winter of 1949," according to Leroy Beaujon (who kindly loaned the photo):

New Haven J-1 #3022 at Canaan, CT.  Leroy Beaujon photo.

Did the 3022 leave the Airline temporarily and get put on a Canaan-area local before going back?  According to Tom Curtin, that's exactly what happened.

"Lee Beaujon’s photo of 3022 on the Berkshire was taken about the same time, perhaps even the same day, as the derailment of 3011 on the Valley. The story is there was a bad storm on or about 12/20/48 (That’s the snow visible in the 3011 derailment photo) which caused some bad flooding along the Housatonic [River], and water on the tracks. The Berkshire [Line, which goes through Canaan] had been fully dieselized since early January 1948 (almost all RS-2s but an RS-1 did show up). The RS-2s couldn’t run with “wet feet” so to keep some kind of freight going there the RR sent 3022 over for a couple of weeks. That’s when Lee got his photo. Casey Cavanaugh who lived in Cornwall Bridge and was a high school student at the time has recollections of this event too."

So, taking the Wallace & Beaujon images together, and knowing diesel #0606 would be assigned to the Air Line local by April, it looks most likely that John's photo is of one of the last (if not, in fact, the last) runs of steam on the Airline - January-March, 1949.  In any event, my chosen era of Autumn 1947 is well within the period of time the 3022 was used on the Airline local.

If you've read this far, then you likely appreciate the work fun involved in answering the myriad of questions that present themselves when choosing an era and enjoy seeing how all the puzzle pieces fit - once you actually have the pieces in hand, of course.  But as fun as the process can be, the better and more efficient we become, the more authentic our efforts will be.  So if you have any tips or suggestions of methods you think work better, or what's worked well for you, let us know in the comments below!