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Great Railroad Stations - Canaan, CT

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Great Railroad Stations 

by John C. Dahl


Canaan, Connecticut

Billed as the oldest operating Union Station in the United States, the historic Victorian era Union Depot of Canaan, Ct. continues today as a viable operation.  This grand, wooden structure was born in the heyday of the development of railroads in New England, and miraculously has survived.  It is an outstanding example of the importance rail passenger service had as the largely agrarian economy of New England moved towards a booming industrial base in the late 19th century.

In 1872 the Housatonic Railroad and Connecticut Western Railroad constructed the building at the junction in North Canaan.  The Housatonic ran generally north - south, following itís namesake river through the beautiful hills and valleys of western Connecticut and Massachusetts.  The "Western" later became the Central New England, and eventually, both railroads fell under the dominance of the New York, New Haven and Hartford.  The "Western" ran from Hartford, west to Poughkeepsie, NY and the important high level bridge across the Hudson River.  This link created an all rail route north of New York City, and connected the coal fields of Pennsylvania to the factories of New England.  Black diamonds could flow north east, manufactured goods from the many mills and forges of New England would move west and south.

The Canaan depot is a Victorian era gem.  It was designed by the chief engineer of the railroad, but itís the wooden carpentry that makes the building exceptional.  G. H. Bundy a cabinet maker and builder of coffins, of Lakeville, CT is credited with this craftsmanship.

The building features exterior walls of board and batten siding, and two long wings are at right angles to each other at the diamond.  A distinctive three story tower (topped by a locomotive weathervane) allowed railroad telegraph operators a clear view down the right of way.  Each wing is 90 feet in length and was occupied by the respective railroad companies noted above.  Graceful rounded arch windows are used throughout, and neat wooden brackets supported the roof and trackside canopies.  Old curved back benches once occupied the platforms for patrons who were changing trains here.

On the second floor, is a large room that functioned as the station restaurant.  It still has a twenty foot long semicircular counter in place.  In the days before railroad dining cars were commonplace, the Canaan depot lunch room satisfied many a hungry rail patron.  The lunch room was famous for itís mouth watering apple, rhubarb, pumpkin, squash, and lemon meringue pies.  These stories about its pies deserves retelling.

During World War I a Canaan soldier aboard an Alabama train reputedly heard a discussion between two salesmen who where comparing notes about the delicious pies.
An acclaimed opera singer had tasted the pies while on a concert trip to Norfolk, Ct. It is claimed she "sung their praises" (not on stage, of course) while on tours to New York and Europe.
A newspaper story once reported that a local educator was visiting Paris when he overheard a conversation at a sidewalk cafť between two men who were obviously enjoying some French pastries. One man asked the other if he had ever tasted anything so delicious . His companion apparently replied that the pastries were excellent, but "you canít beat the apple pie at the station in Canaan, Connecticut."

In 1971, passenger service was discontinued.  Freight service would remain only until 1974, and the station was closed.  It was saved from demolition by a former Amtrak executive who purchased it and converted it to a flourishing retail center, which today also includes a very popular railroad theme restaurant in the Central New England wing of the building.  In 1980, the state "railbanked" the Housatonic track, and since 1983 a shortline by the same name operates on the upgraded trackage, which is seeing increasing car loadings.  Connecticutís choked highway system may get some relief from increased use of just such rail lines.  Occasional railfan excursions still operate on the historic and scenic right of way.  Many other stations still exist along the old Housatonic track, and the rolling hills and rural countryside of western Massachusetts and Connecticut make a great place for photographing this interesting and historic operation.  All aboard!

Canaan, Connecticut Union Station. October 12, 1997.

Photo by Jon Rothenmeyer.

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This page was last updated Thursday, December 06, 2001

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