Friday, September 9, 2011

Story Revisited: The Sutton to Newport Railroad

The Railroad to Sutton and Newport - a historical review

By Manfred Rieder

Note: I wrote this two years ago and now that I once again live next to this railroad's track, I thought it would be fun to re-write it some for my friends:
Note: Some quoted text and all the pictures are courtesy of the Sutton Museum.

In November of 1871, the South Eastern Counties Junction Railway's first passenger train pulled into the Sutton station. Having left Richford, VT, 20 minutes earlier (6:10a.m), it was on its way to Montreal where it would arrive at 9:50 a.m. This train would stop in several small villages such as Sutton Junction, West Brome and Cowansville. Travelers could now travel into Montreal and catch the same train in the early afternoon and be back in Sutton in time for dinner. This flash visit to Montreal would have previously been impossible, considering that getting to Montreal would have taken anywhere from 12 to 14 hours at that time.

It had taken two years of surveys and almost a full year of construction to erect this new line that now connected this southern area of the Townships with "the rest of the world" and until the last passenger train arrived in Sutton in 1969, the railway drastically changed life in Sutton. Suddenly, jobs in Cowansville and Abercorn beckoned, jobs not accessible before, as there was only horse and buggy transportation and the distances and weather as well as road conditions made such a commute unthinkable.
It is interesting to see that Sutton was then called "Sutton Flats" and a short time after the railroad began its regular service to the region, the main station, repair shops and freight forwarding, was actually done in Sutton Junction, now a mere hamlet, but at the beginning of the 19th century, home to hundreds of people who directly or indirectly worked for or benefited from the "Junction Railway".
Another novelty of this train was daily mail delivery. A special postal wagon was attached to the train and was described by a Montreal journalist of "The Gazette" who was traveling on the inaugural trip, as being: "… well furnished with pigeon holes and with other equipment for facilitating Post Office work ". Not only did this service accelerate the delivery of mail between Montreal and the different small towns, but also between the towns themselves.
The local merchants had, for the first time, access to wares unheard off in town, farming equipment could rapidly be delivered or sent out for repairs and a whole travel industry sprang up belivering Sutton and Abercorn residents to the Winter Carnival in Montreal or special picnics and events throughout the region. On those occasions the railroad would print pamphlets and lay on a special train to accomodate the events.
The railway also allowed Sutton producers to export excess produce such as milk, vegetables, maple sirop and wood. Mr. Naaman O'Brien, for instance, sold his maple products all over Canada and beyond. In this leaflet Mr. O'Brien informs potential buyers that with the train transportation, a shipment of 90lbs of maple products going from Sutton to Winnipeg would cost an extra $2.80, which would be billed to the buyer.
A veneer mill and a huge casket factory operated in Sutton at that time and almost all of their products were shipped out via train. Another company, which benefited greatly from the train, was the "Darrah Brothers Company" of Sutton established in 1922. This company built tool shafts for American and Canadian companies and transformed the walnut needed by the Australian Company called Slazenger, which made tennis raquets. Later, around 1950, the "Darrah Brothers Company" provided South-African companies with several shafts. All of these products were shipped by train either to their final destination or toward ports for goods going overseas.

And then came the tourists!

In the early part of the 19th century Sutton began to declare itself as a tourist town and actively advertised itself as such and, slowly at first, but steadily growing, a whole new industry sprang up. Hotels were built, at one time (especially during the Prohibition) the neighboring hamlet of Abercorn, had five large hotels, resplendant with big dance halls, bars and restaurants, which could accomodate thousands. And in Sutton visitors had the opportunity to shop in well stocked shops, dine in good restaurants and get horse and buggy and later of course, bus rides up the mountain.
Last year marked the 52nd anniversary of the Belanger family's "Sutton Mountain Ski Center". Lifts were operating and special trains brought the skiers by the carloads and suddenly Sutton had become a real winter destination for thousands. Livery stables were built near the Sutton depot,later bus transport arrived and the rest is history. The ski area was constantly enlarged, walking and hiking trails were groomed everywhere and now there are approximately 300 kilometers of them available in the Sutton area alone.

Skiers arrive in Sutton in 1940

Before Real Boulanger created the current ski mountain, there already existed a simple form of ski center, operated by CP-rail and the town of Sutton. The mode of transport was by a simple rope lift and while there was a steady skiing industry, it was not a great success as it was not substantially improved until the Belangers took the mountain in hand. But at least, they had many years of experience to fall back on and did not have to start an industry from scratch. Also, CP started to lure people to skiing destinations in the Laurentians and it is pretty funny to see Montrealers come to Sutton to ski and Suttonites travel to the Laurentians to do so...
From the day of the inaugural trip in 1871 to the demolition of the station in 1969, the railway changed the lived of the people living in Sutton. Every time the train rolled into town the entire place was buzzing. As Mrs. Drouin, wife of the last station master, put it : "When the railway decided to tear down the station it was as if death itself had come through town".
This stately building in the center of town still stands in its original glory and now houses "La Rumeur Affamee", a long established specialty food store. The building is one of the few old structures which survived the great fire of 1898.Interestingly enough, some of the old-timers in town still call it the "Safford Block".

Today, the railroad continues to run through Sutton twice every night, to the anguish of the population who has to listen to the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic locomotive's screeching horns every night, but the railroad states that the aural warning signals are the law and by operating its freight trains after midnight, they actually assist in staying out of motorists way during the busy daytime hours, where long stops at every road-rail intersection would probably inconvenience more people than the noise created at night. In any case, they own the track, pay the local; taxes on it, it is the law, and both sides of the argument will continue until there is no more trains going through town. For now however, this still is a tread to the past, a reminder what the railroad did for Sutton and, as a railroad enthusiast who lived for 18 years approximately 200 meters from the track, I personally didn't mind the rumble and the slight shaking of the house. Its still out there, as vibrant as it was in 1871 and, for me at least, a joy to see and hear now that I live on the "other end of the line" in Newport, where I can see the train every day again as it crosses the South Bay bridge visible from my porch. I don't seem to be able to escape this railway and even know the numbers of all their engines still operating.

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