Alert “06880” John Kelley found this map of the New York & New Haven railroad.
It’s even older than it sounds. The date was 1845.
The railroad was not completed until 1848. This was a projected route.
It was originally single tracked. A 2nd track was added soon.
The Westport station was on the east side of the Saugatuck River. The rail line merged with the New Haven & Hartford RR in 1874.
In the 1890s a major construction project created a 4-track grade separated railroad, with no rail crossings. At that point the Westport station — located on the east side of the Saugatuck River — was moved to its present location.
Starting in 1913, the rail line was electrified.
Those are all interesting facts. If you are reading them on a train — moving s-l-o-w-l-y between New York and Westport — we hope you arrive safely, and soon.
This Thursday (April 11, 7 p.m., Town Hall), the Planning & Zoning Commission holds another hearing on the long-running, often-amended, quite-controversial proposal to build a 5-building, 187-unit housing complex on Hiawatha Lane. The application is made as an 8-30g, meaning some of the units will be “affordable,” as defined by state regulations.
But the road — wedged between I-95 Exit 17 and the railroad tracks — has long been where owners and renters find some of Westport’s least expensive prices.
Homes on Hiawatha Lane.
Hiawatha Lane has a very intriguing history. Here’s a look at how the neighborhood developed — and a little-known fact about its deeds.
In the late 1800s, train tracks for the New York, New Haven & Hartford Rail Road tracks sliced through what today would be considered prime property.
Laying those tracks was a back-breaking effort. The physical power was provided by thousands of men, who immigrated to America from all parts of Italy.
When their work was done, some of those laborers settled close to the tracks in Saugatuck. They built a tight-knit community — as well as churches, stores, a vital small business economy, and their own homes. Some still remain.
Families with names like Vento, Stroffolino, Cribari, Nistico, Anastasia, Luciano, Sarno, Caruso, Fabbraio, Pascarella, Penna, Giunta, Valiante — and many more — settled in Saugatuck, and helped it grow.
They built all of Westport, as barbers, stone masons, restaurateurs, store owners, carpenters, police officers, firefighters, town employees, lawyers, teachers, and in many other professions.
In the 1920s — when Italian immigrants made Saugatuck a thriving community — Esposito’s gas station stood on Charles Street. Today it’s Tarry Lodge.
Three and four generations later, many of their namesakes still live in Saugatuck, or elsewhere in town.
In the mid-1950s, another transportation revolution plowed through town: I-95 (known then as the Connecticut Turnpike).
Many of the same families who had forged the railway built the new highway system. It was a source of national pride — but also a massive disruption to the lives of those living in its path.
Churches, stores, meeting places, roads and many homes were demolished. Westport’s Italian community was bisected. Roads like Indian Hill and Hiawatha Lane were cut in half by the highway. Longtime neighbors were suddenly displaced.
I-95 under construction. The photo — looking east — shows the toll booth near Exit 17, with Hiawatha Lane on the right. The Saugatuck River bridge is in the distance.
But some Westport philanthropists saw what was happening. The area between the rail tracks and I-95 — today known as Hiawatha Lane and Extension, Davenport Avenue and Indian Hill Road — was subdivided into parcels. They were then deeded to many of the displaced Saugatuck families, for as little as $1.
Julia Bradley deeded most of those properties, which still stand today. The Bradley family put a specific restriction on each deed. It stated that each house should remain in perpetuity, as one single-family house on each plot.
Ever since, the neighborhood has remained a unique place, providing affordable, low-cost home ownership.
Of the 187 units proposed by Summit Saugatuck LLC, only 30 percent are deemed “affordable” by state Department of Housing standards. They will be small 1- and 2-bedroom rentals — replacing the homes that are there today.
Sixty years after the turnpike came through, many longtime families and close neighbors who have lived next to it may again be displaced.
I’m never sure when it will happen. But certain “06880” posts elicit dozens of comments. Naturally, some of them wander far from the original topic.
A recent post on commuter train etiquette is a great example. One reader cited a 1975 New York Times story about a private railroad car “serving about 65 top NY business executives on daily trips from Southport, Conn, to Grand Central.” The price was quite a bit higher than the regular commuter fare.
In 1949, Life magazine showed Westport commuters enjoying a card game, in an elite railroad club car.
That brought a reaction from another reader. He said:
The New Haven/Penn Central provided several club cars for private membership-only groups who leased them. They featured more spacious seating and had a private attendant serving food and drinks. The cars were discontinued when the state took over in the early 70’s and bought new equipment that was incompatible with the existing club cars and declined to configure new equipment for new club cars, though the Southport Club members offered to pay “any price” for a new car.
And that brought an email from Bonnie Bradley. The Westport native and longtime resident now lives upstate. But she recalls the Southport Car well.
Many Westporters rode it — including her grandfather, James P. Bradley.
He started as a clerk at the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. Fifty years later, he retired as secretary of the entire firm. Bonnie writes:
“Every workday from the early 1930s through the early ’50s he rode the Southport Club Car (which stopped in Westport). He and his cronies, including Fred Bedford, played poker every day in the Southport Club Car.
Bonnie sends 2 photos. Here, her grandfather is the handsome man in the center:
Here are the cards he held on December 3, 1956, when he won a hand with a once-in-a-lifetime event. His poker mates took the cards, signed their names, and had them framed for him.
Does anyone play cards on the train anymore?
Does anyone talk to anyone else, in fact — beyond someone Very Important on the other end of a cell phone?
Why should they? We’ve got podcasts, Spotify, laptops and tablets. There’s work to be done, or so many ways to entertain ourselves.
Last Sunday — for no reason other than macabre fascination — “06880” featured astonishing footage of a long-forgotten 1912 Westport train wreck.
Seven people died, and 50 were injured, in what remains one of the worst disasters in local history.
Turns out that was not the only rail tragedy on our tracks.
On November 16, 1912 — barely a month after the Saugatuck crash — another New York, New Haven & Hartford train went off the rails. This one was 2000 feet from the Green’s Farms station.
It was not as bad as the earlier accident. The engine and baggage car of the Merchants Limited Express safely passed a crossover switch. But 4 steel cars were not as fortunate. The New York Times account 2 days later does not mention any deaths or injuries.
Alert “06880” reader Seth Schachter provides these images, from a collection he’s amassed over the years.
A long view of the Green’s Farms train wreck.
Another angle — this one with onlookers.
A close-up of one of the shattered cars.
Two decades later — in the early morning hours of September 27, 1935 — 2 freight trains collided. Engineer John Sheehan burned to death, as his cab hung precariously over the Saugatuck River.
Seth Schachter also provides these photos, from his collection.
Westporters gather on the banks of the Saugatuck River, following the 1935 crash.
The engineer’s cab dangles over the Saugatuck River.
“Train wrecks of yore” will not be a recurring “06880” feature.
However, as Americans debate the state of our crumbling infrastructure — and what it means for our transportation future — it’s not a bad idea to look back at the not-always-so-good old days.
Most Fridays starting at age 7, Dave Elgart took a taxi — by himself — to Grand Central. He’d buy a ticket, and board a train. His father — divorced from Dave’s mother — would meet him in Westport. They’d spend the weekend here; then Dave would return — alone — to New York.
The routine continued from 1955 to 1962. That year Dave’s dad moved away. Soon, Dave’s mother moved to West Virginia.
Dave joined the Navy, earned a master’s, became a partner his 1st year at Bear Stearns, and moved way up the financial services ladder.
But — more than 50 years later — the pull of Westport is strong. A couple of weekends ago, Dave found himself at an industry conference in Greenwich.
David and Barbara Elgart.
He lives in Atlanta now. Except for a trip to a Turtles concert at the Westport Country Playhouse, he had not returned. His wife Barbara had never even been to New England.
So they drove up the Merritt, to revisit the town of his youth.
One of the first places Dave wanted to see was a store his father had once co-owned. Called the House of Buys, it sat next to a gas station he remembered was owned by Joe DeMattia.
The House of Buys lasted only a few years. The spot is now occupied by Torno Hardware. DeMattia’s service station was in business much longer — until just a year or so ago. It’s now being renovated into a Wheels store, next to Target Training.
As a teenager, Dave bought his first suit at a new men’s shop called Ed Mitchell’s. That tiny spot — now a People’s bank near Planet Pizza — has grown into the the luxury Mitchells of Westport store. Dave found Jack, Ed’s son.
The original Ed Mitchell’s, on the corner of the Post Road (State Street) and North Compo Road.
They talked for a long time. “He was a font of history,” Dave says. “And the store is amazing. They fawn over you, even if you don’t buy anything.”
Dave’s visit here was filled with similar propitious encounters. “The people could not have been nicer,” he says. “Everywhere we turned, they were so wonderful and kind. Southern hospitality definitely exists in Westport.”
Some places remain the same. The railroad station — where he spent so much time — looks no different (though the pot-bellied stove is gone).
Other places have changed. The state police barracks near the Sherwood Island Connector is now a Walgreens. There was no sign of a doctor he remembered, named Eldridge.
But the new Westport is as welcoming as Dave remembered the old. They ate dinner at Arezzo, where the owner “couldn’t have been nicer.”
Even Westport’s infamous drivers are “no crazier than in Atlanta,” Dave says.
“The roads aren’t great” here, he notes. But they’re “charming.” In fact, he calls the entire town “bucolic.”
Despite new construction, Westport looked “bucolic” to Dave Elgart.
Westport was “gorgeous,” Dave adds. “It’s even more beautiful than I remember it. It’s so much fun.”
Dave’s visit was so great, he and his wife will return this spring — with friends. They’ll tour the area, and take the train to New York to see a show.
It will be a reverse route than the one Dave was so used to taking, more than half a century ago. Of course, Metro-North has replaced the New York, New Haven & Hartford.
Click here to help support “06880” via credit card or PayPal. Any amount is welcome — and appreciated! Reader contributions keep this blog going. (Alternate methods: Please send a check to: Dan Woog, 301 Post Road East, Westport, CT 06880. Or use Venmo: @DanWoog06880. Thanks!)