Totally Into This Railroad Tunnel
Peter Marteka | Nature's Path February 15, 2008
I'm a trainiac.
I've loved everything about trains since I was a boy running up Main Street from my grandparents' house in Dunkirk, Ind., with my brother and sister. As soon as we heard that lonely horn at some distant crossing, we would race up to the tracks and watch a 100-car-long train slowly pass before a quick wave to the man in the caboose.
At my childhood home, my miniature train set and town once took up half the attic.
The last time I visited a train tunnel and wrote about it in this column wasn't exactly a success. The 300-foot-long Taft Tunnel in Lisbon is considered the "oldest existing train tunnel in America." It is also "home of the first railroad tunnel in America." It is also a still-active railroad and trespassing is not only dangerous, but also carries a stiff fine.
There's no such problem when you visit what is known as the Shepaug Tunnel in
Washington, a picturesque, stuck-in-time town in the Litchfield hills. This tunnel is nearly an exact replica of the one in Lisbon. But visitors don't have to watch for train headlamps or listen for distant horns. The tracks and trains that once ran along the 32-mile-long Shepaug Valley Railroad are gone. The railroad bed is now a hiking trail within the 750-acre Steep Rock Reservation nature preserve.
And it's one beautiful journey to get to the tunnel, even on a winter morning when temperatures hover around 10 degrees. My journey began at the junction of Spring Hill Road and Tunnel Road. During the winter, Tunnel Road is closed to vehicular traffic. The journey to the tunnel is more than a mile, so be prepared to walk, or run, depending on your excitement level at finding the tunnel.
Tunnel Road parallels the Shepaug River, a serpentine waterway that twists through on its way from the Mohawk State Forest and the Shepaug Reservoirs to the Housatonic River. With the water and ice flowing over large boulders, it's easy to see how the Shepaug — which means "rocky river" when translated from the Native American language — got its name.
About a half-mile down, visitors can hop on the old Shepaug line, a narrow, gravel path that once took passengers from Washington Depot or The Hollow to places like Litchfield,Roxbury or Hawleyville. With the line wandering for 32 miles to cover a route 18 miles long as the crow flies and with approximately 200 curves in the line, it was known as "the crookedest railroad east of California."
"No stretch of imagination could call its route direct," wrote George J. Flynn in an article about the line found in the archives of the Gunn Memorial Library's Connecticut history room, "or its gait a run. It meanders through the green fields here and there with a luxurious indefiniteness. Now and then it stops for the conductor to discuss the crops or the weather with the rustics.
"As it climbs the high hills, it pants ominously," he wrote. "After a while it give unquestionable indications of weakening. Finally in much labor and travail, it ends, through sheer exhaustion not far from the main street of the village."