So…would you believe I’ve been time traveling?
No, I figured as much, but thought maybe that’d give me a pass for all the time that’s passed since last I properly blogged here at the Midnight Garden. Well, sure, the dead give-away that I wasn’t time traveling is that I didn’t just go back in time and make a blog post on the day after my last real post way back in early June and you’d be no wiser. After all, what’s the point of time traveling if you can’t use it for your benefit?
Of course, if I’d done this, then this whole paragraph here would/will (have) become even more confusing and only partly because I wouldn’t know what tense I will have used to tell you about the day I’m going to have back then. You see? You get all kinds of fun side-effects like that with time travel, as I understand it.
I’ve always thought it would be fun, seeing different people and days long past (or maybe not yet come to pass) but I fully expect I’d make a great mess of the whole Space-Time continuum if They gave me entry, so you can stop squinting at the pictures for any glimpse of a silver Delorean.
[It’s funny, I think the movie stands the test of Time – no pun intended – but its trailer most certainly does not.]
But in a way, I did travel back in Time…and if you’ll indulge me, I’ll take you back in time (about a month, anyways) and show you.
Picture if you will a lovely summer weekend. That part’s certainly easy enough; we’ve been having lovely summer days – it seems – since around mid-April. But you must also imagine a weekend without a concert to sing and/or heavy duty gardening, in which I was free to pack up myself and some sunflower seedlings for a drive to Connecticut, to visit with Mom and Dad for Father’s Day.
Our plan was to do a little traveling ourselves on Saturday to Essex, CT about an hour away, where we’d made reservations for an early afternoon steam train and riverboat excursion. There isn’t any train action at my end of Cape Cod, but that doesn’t make me any less a fan of railroads and that’s got everything to do with all the time Dad and I spent watching trains or setting up model train lay-outs while I was growing up. The trip sounded like a great day and a terrific way to celebrate Dad and spend a little time on the tracks.
We arrived at the Essex Terminal (leave yourself extra time like we did – internet directions can be so non-specific) with just a little time to spare to freshen up and get our tickets and looking around the train yard and station a bit before the morning train returned.
There was a caboose hooked to the morning consist packed with balloons and merriment. It had been chartered for a birthday party, and after the locomotive had switched that onto a siding and come back around to the head end of our train, we were ready to depart.
What a thrilling sound that whistle is, throaty and shrill at the same time, echoing across the landscape. We started off being impressed as anything to discover that we were underway without even the slightest jerk or jolt to let us know we were beginning. Clearly that’s a reflection on the experience the train crew have with this old locomotive. (And yes, I was reprimanded for leaning out of the car for this shot – it’s true, I totally could have lost my arm or my head – and for the rest of the trip I was more cautious.)
I wish I’d taken better notes about #40. I know she’s an American locomotive, manufactured circa 1910-20, if I recall correctly and spent much of her first life hauling freight.
We gave away our Garden State roots with a little cheer when we learned that the coach we were riding aboard had actually seen most of its service on the Delaware and Lackawanna railroad in NJ, carrying travelers to Hoboken to make connections into Manhattan.
I daresay our accomodations were as posh and roomy as they ever were (or moreso), having been restored and maintained as lovingly as Engine #40 herself. Just to add to the excitement, a whiff of something sulphur-ish drifted in the open window, tickling my nose.
This reminded me that the other concern the conductor had mentioned about not leaning out the windows was the possibility of being burned by cinders. #40 is, indeed, still a coal-burning steam-producing locomotive, not some greasy converted-to-oil or pushed-by-a-diesel poseur relic, but an honest-to-goodness fine running example of the high speed technology of its day.
“A clickety-clak, a-echoin’ back…”
The train runs at about 20 mph and shortly after leaving the station at Essex is winding through woodland and wetland areas for 12 miles along the shore of the Connecticut River.
Although my camera wasn’t ready as it ought to have been, we saw plenty of ducks and a few swans out the windows as we rolled along. The tracks run along the back of a number of beautiful homes with great green lawns and overflowing gardens. In one yard beside a grade crossing, a tethered beagle merrily bayed his response to each blast of #40’s steam whistle.
One of the conductor/docents offers a great narration for the ride, of the points of interest along the tracks, history of the motive power, rolling stock and the railroad itself and its importance in the development of the regional landscape.
At the northern-most point on the rail line, the train pauses before running backwards to the Deep River Station, where the train makes the connection with the riverboat, Becky Thatcher. Some passengers remained aboard for the trip back to Essex, but many (including we three) debarked here for a boat ride, while the crew runs #40 around the train on a siding to lead the way back to Essex and the next waiting trainload of adventurers.
You can see it was a beautiful sunny day and hot, to be sure. We’ve had plenty of summer heat all over New England this year, and I suppose that’s the balance of how rainy June was a year ago. We were lucky for the trip, though. It was a hot day, but not especially humid and sometimes that makes all the difference.
Still, it was a treat to board the riverboat and enjoy the shade of the lower decks and the breezes off the water as the tour set off in a new direction.
[FYI, there’s a snackbar on the lower level of the boat, but you may (and perhaps should) bring a picnic lunch.]
Right away, I realized I’d never given the Connecticut River more than a moment’s thought before. I’ve never been a resident of the Nutmeg State, so I’ve never had much reason to consider it, except as some mostly-unseen waterway the highway I was driving along was passing over.
So did you know it was that it was over four hundred miles long, running from the Connecticut Lakes in northern New Hampshire, along the Vermont border, through western Massachusetts and then central Connecticut before emptying into Long Island Sound? Or that the name “Connecticut” comes from a variety of Algonquin dialects as meaning “the place of long river” or “by the long tidal stream”? I didn’t. Never gave it a thought.
It turns out that it’s exactly because its such a big and powerful river that we don’t hear so much about it. We learned on the trip that all of the beautiful riverbank homes we were admiring on the shore aren’t inhabitable year-round, because of the great flooding the Connecticut experiences each spring, as it carries snowmelt and silt from as far north as Quebec.
All that silt builds up a sandbar at the mouth of the river, a major obstacle to navigation. And so the river is one of only a few large rivers in the area not to host a major city on its banks. Not a human city, anyway: the Connecticut estuary and tidal wetlands have been designated as a wetland of international importance for the teeming birdlife it supports. We saw bald eagles who watched us with disgust and ospreys, swans and maybe even a heron along the shores, all fishing for their meals.
On a hot summer day, the river teems with human life, as well. A ferry slides from shore to shore and back again, the riverboat passes by pleasure craft of all shapes, types and sizes, from canoes and jetskis and sailboats to extreme powerboats and waterskiiers. There’s even a floating hot dog stand you can tie up to for all your at-sea chili dog needs.
In comparing the two lifestyles, it would seem that the birds are more graceful and lovely and perhaps more deserving of the environment, but appearances are sometimes deceiving. We learned that the swans, which are not native to the region, are the cause of a growing erosion problem on the riverbanks, as they are not content to nibble the grasses they favor, but instead prefer to yank them from the riverbed, roots and all.
There’s plenty of points of interest along the river ride, but if I tell you everything I learned, you won’t want to make the trip yourself, and you really should. It was a great day and I’d hate to deny you the experience. Of course, if I don’t tell you, and you don’t get to go, then you’ll never hear about Gillette Castle, built by actor William Gillette for his bride, who sadly took ill and died on their honeymoon trip to the castle overlooking the river.
Or you might not hear about the Goodspeed Opera House, birthplace of the musical Annie, or which original cast member was a hometown pup. Oops. Arf. But don’t count on me to tell you everything, just go.
Like all the best trips, it was over rather quickly (or at least it seemed so) and we were back on the train, enjoying easy breezes through the open coach windows as we learned more about the Essex Steam Train, like for instance how they have a really cool program where you can sign up to be a guest engineer and learn how to run a steam locomotive, as well as dinner trains and murder mystery trips and such.
One of the conductors was kind enough to get a photo of us as a reminder of such a fun day. We explored the gift shop and also an old freight station that hosted a nice model train layout and a diesel locomotive simulator. There were tours of the steam shop that afternoon, but those were private for a tour group. There was a nice array of assorted rolling stock – boxcars and tanks and such – on display in the yard area and there’s plenty to see for history buffs as well as railfans.
I know at least part of the reason I enjoyed the trip was the way it did sort of take me back in time, made me think about the pace of life back when railroads, or even only waterways, were our thoroughfares, our main ways of transportation, not concrete roads that let us zip through a landscape without knowing much about it.
If you’re in the area or have plans to travel thus, you should give Essex Steam Train your consideration – I bet the trip is terrific during autumn foliage season, too.
“RAILROAD, n. The chief of many mechanical devices enabling us to get away from where we are
to where we are no better off. For this purpose the railroad is held in highest favor
by the Optimist, for it permits him to make the transit with great expedition.” — Ambrose Bierce
The rest of our weekend was pretty terrific, too, since we got to poke around gardens and spend some quality with my sister and her husband.
We all got together for pizza, beer and some laughs later that evening and then regrouped for a wonderful brunch the next day to cap off our time together. T’was too short, as always, but no less sweet.
Today – as then and always – Happy Father’s Day, Dad.