LHRR Series: The Second Mile, The Shepaug Valley Railway

As runners pass the first mile mark, they begin to leave the town of Litchfield behind and enter the bucolic landscapes of ponds and forests that are characteristic of the race. It is easy to be lulled into thinking that the landscape always appeared this way. This mindset, however, will cause the runner to miss a significant piece of the town’s history.

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The entrance to the Litchfield Greenway on South Lake Street, once the route of the Shepaug Valley Railroad.

Reaching the bottom of Gallows Hill, the runner briefly turns on to South Lake Street. Here, the Shepaug Valley Railroad (later the Shepaug, Litchfield and Northern Railroad) crossed the road as it neared the end of its line at the Litchfield Station on Russell Street. A little over a mile of the railway’s path is preserved as the Litchfield greenway.

 

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A receipt for stock in the Shepaug Valley Railroad purchased in 1870 by Captain George Colvocoresses of Litchfield. Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society.

The construction of the railroad was both celebrated and feared by the residents of Litchfield. When Edwin McNeil surveyed the line in the 1860s, he was met with threats by armed farmers. Construction began in 1870, with one crew beginning work in Litchfield and another in the Hawleyville section of Newtown. By January 1872, regular rail service was running to Litchfield. What passengers most noted about the journey was how winding it was; in one stretch, 32 miles of track with between 150 and 200 curves were needed to cover what the crow could travel in 17 miles.

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On this map of Connecticut railroads, the Shepaug Valley is depicted as a thin line between Hawleyville and Litchfield, indicating its relative traffic compared to the Housatonic to the west of the Central New England to the North.

Still, the railroad did provide greater access to the outside world for Litchfield residents. A passenger train that left Litchfield at 6:25 a.m. reached Hawleyville at 8:00 a.m., where a connecting train reached New York City’s Grand Central Station at 10:33 a.m. The line also transported iron, granite, manufactured goods, and ice from the county’s ice houses. The line went bankrupt twice in its first fifteen years, merged with the New York, New Haven and Hartford in 1898 (all the state’s railroads were eventually part of this line, known as “the Consolidated”), and ceased operations in 1948.

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The Litchfield train station, on Russell Street. 

Runners will again encounter the remnants of the Shepaug Valley Railroad when they exit the Plumb Hill fields and turn right on to Whites Woods Road. Here the railroad crossed from one side of the road to the other. And when runners turn from Bissell Road on to Whitehall Road and enter the White Memorial Foundation, they will be very near the point where the SVR turned from running parallel to Route 202 and headed toward its termination at Russell Street.

For more information on the history of the Litchfield Road Race, see Lou Pellegrino’s forthcoming book A History of the Litchfield Hills Road Race: In Smallness there is Beauty. (Available May 2016)

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LHRR Series: The First Mile, The Litchfield Artillery

This is the first post in a series looking at the mile-by-mile history that took place along the course of the 7.1 mile Litchfield Hills Road Race. The 40th running of the LHRR takes place on June 12th. Look for a new post each week leading up to race day.

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Photo courtesy of panoramio.com

It is a race that begins, metaphorically and literally, with a bang.

While runners enjoy the quick start to the race provided by the downhill slope of West Street, it is the firing of a reproduction of an 1841 six-pound cannon by the First Litchfield Artillery that sends the 1,500 runners on their way.

While the First Litchfield Artillery registered itself with the Secretary of the State in 1964, they are the heirs to a long tradition of militia organizations in Litchfield. As late as 1851, all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 45 were required to serve in the militia.

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A modern reconstruction of a palisade.

The militia played an essential role in the town’s earliest days. From 1720 to 1730, five palisades – fences or walls made from wooden stakes that formed a secure enclosure –  offered defense for the town. These were located north, south, and east of the town, with a fourth in South Farms, the area of Litchfield that is now the town of Morris. The fifth palisade was at the site of the current courthouse, which runners pass immediately after the cannon fires. Legend holds that the widow Mercy Allen, one of the earliest settlers of town and the grandmother of Ethan Allen, helped build one of the palisades and manned it during threats of attack from Native Americans. Regardless of the veracity of the accounts of Mercy’s participation, members of the militia manned the palisades while townspeople worked in the fields and attended Sunday church services.

The defenses weren’t always successful. In May of 1722, Jacob Griswold was working alone in a field one mile west of the current court house when two Native Americans tackled him and carried him off to what is now North Canaan. Griswold, however, managed to steal a rifle from his captors while they slept, and made his way back to Litchfield. A mile or so north of town, he fired off the weapon, which warned the defenders in the nearby palisade of his plight. They helped ensure his safe return to town.

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Oliver Wolcott, Jr. Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society.

Fifty-five years later, the presence of the British army in Danbury set off another alarm in Litchfield. The town’s militia was called out and sent south to drive out the king’s troops. Among those who participated was Oliver Wolcott, Jr., who was home from Yale. (Runners pass his home in the seventh mile.) His mother, Laura, sent him off with a blanket, a knapsack full of food, and an admonition to “conduct like a good soldier.” The Litchfield men encountered the British in a skirmish in Wilton, and helped force them to retreat.

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The modern-day artillery company is comprised of veterans who are United States citizens. Additionally, members are expected to be knowledgeable about Connecticut history. They work to preserve the traditions of horse-drawn artillery, participate in Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Veterans Day observances, participate in ceremonies at the request of the governor or the Connecticut Historical Commission, and help the governor uphold the laws.

Despite these lofty objectives, the artillery company is probably best known for sending nearly 1,500 runners through the streets of Litchfield.

For more information on the history of the Litchfield Road Race, see Lou Pellegrino’s forthcoming book A History of the Litchfield Hills Road Race: In Smallness there is Beauty. (Available May 2016)