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A Century Along the Branford Electric Railway, Part 1

On July 31st 1900, amidst no particular fanfare or ceremony, the museum's historic line opened. Indeed, although it is presumed that the first car left Short Beach at 6:24 that Tuesday morning, no record survives of which specific car made this inaugural trip, or the names of those aboard.

Of those who were aboard that first car, who among them might have dreamed that a century later the line would still be operating? Who could have foreseen that the electric streetcar, then the most modern of technology, would so quickly vanish from the streets of America, that rivers of asphalt and concrete would flow across the country, that people would one day fly above the birds, walk on the moon, endure two World Wars, split the atom, transmit moving and talking pictures across the globe in fractions of a second, and that the electric streetcar would return with a new name of ``Light Rail?´´ As the passengers on this first car traversed the East Haven River on a spindly trestle, across whose mind would have crossed the thought that one day a museum would exist there to preserve streetcars and tell the story of that day, that trip?

This is the first in a series of articles examining a century of history along the Branford Electric Railway. Let us begin with an overview of the circumstances which led up to the July 31st opening of the line.

The 19th Century

The Town of Branford was first settled in 1644. Up to the about the middle of the nineteenth century, agriculture and shipping were the primary industries of the town. With the coming of the Industrial Revolution, the character of Branford began to change. The Malleable Iron Fittings Company and the Branford Lock Works were major industrial employers that came into being after the Civil War.

The Town of East Haven was also settled in 1644, at the time still part of the New Haven Colony. It was incorporated as a separate town in 1785. The original boundaries of East Haven extended west to the Quinnipiac River. Ferry service across the river to New Haven was replaced by a series of bridges. The first, at Grand Avenue, was built in 1790 and was known as the Grand Street Bridge. In 1797, Tomlinson's toll bridge was opened at Forbes Avenue. It remained a toll crossing until 1889. In 1855, the Grand Street bridge had fallen into disrepair and was replaced by a new bridge at the same location which opened in 1860. In 1876, a third bridge was constructed at Ferry Street (the location of one of the old ferries). At about the same time, the wooden bridge which carried Main Street across the Farm River just west of Lake Saltonstall was replaced with a stone arch bridge (which stands today). The debts incurred in constructing these bridges nearly bankrupted East Haven, and caused the town to cede its westerly portion to New Haven in 1881. This area became known as ``The Annex´´.
Public Transportation in the 1800s: The Stage Coach

With New Haven rising as a major center of commerce and industry, and East Haven and Branford expanding as residential towns, the need was increasingly being felt for an affordable, quick and convenient means of local transportation. It was beyond the means of working families to stable a horse. The earliest form of public transportation, dating to the colonial days, was the stagecoach line that ran between New York and Boston via the Boston Post Road, a route which remains largely intact today as U.S. Route 1. The stage made a stop at Hemingway Tavern on Main Street and Thompson Avenue (today the location of a bank).

In 1851, the railroad came to East Haven and by 1852 had reached Branford. This provided a fast means of long-distance travel, but service was too infrequent and expensive to be viable as a local daily transit option.

In the days of unpaved roads, laying rail in the streets greatly improved horse-drawn transportation. New Haven's first horsecar line ran east-west across the center of the city, between Fair Haven and Westville, opening in 1861.

This was long before the days when marketing firms could be paid substantial sums to design nifty corporate names, so the line was simply known as the Fair Haven and Westville Rail Road Company (FH&W). Later horsecar lines included Whitney Avenue / Centerville, State Street, Sylvan Avenue and Dixwell Avenue. Many of these original horsecar routes can be retraced today on a Connecticut Transit bus.

Electrification of the New Haven system began in 1892, with the New Haven & West Haven running from the center of town at Church & Chapel streets to the amusement park at Savin Rock. This company merged in 1893 with the Winchester Avenue Railroad, a newly-established trolley line.

The New Haven Street Railway Company was formed in 1893, merging three horsecar lines with the new New Haven & Morris Cove trolley which ran via the Tomlinson bridge, Forbes and Woodward Avenues to Morris Cove and Lighthouse Point. Later in 1893, the New Haven St. Ry. constructed a line from State & James streets, via the Ferry St. bridge, along Farren Avenue and private right-of-way to Grannis Corners, where it connected to the Lighthouse Point line.

The Fair Haven and Westville, the most profitable of the horse railways, electrified its five horsecar routes in 1894 and constructed two new electric lines. The FH&W would acquire another electrified horsecar line, the New Haven and Centerville, in 1897, and the New Haven St. Ry. in 1898. The Winchester Ave. R.R. remained independent until 1901 when the FH&W gained control.

A Trolley to East Haven

During the 1800s, Lake Saltonstall was a public resort. Bathing, boating, picnic grounds and various amusements brought crowds from all over. In 1894 the New Haven St. Ry. built a new East Haven branch, from Grannis Corners along Forbes Avenue, Townsend Avenue and Main Street to the East Haven green at Hemingway Avenue. Shortly thereafter, the line was extended on Main Street past the north side of the Green and turned north, running via a private right of way to the lake. The latter portion was constructed by the Lake Saltonstall R.R. Co. in April 1894 and sold to the New Haven St. Ry. in June. The fare from East Haven to New Haven was 10¢.

Two views of New Haven Street Railway trolleys at Lake Saltonstall in 1894

Alas, trolley service to Lake Saltonstall was short-lived. After the 1896 season, the lake became a watershed property. Bathing and boating activities were therefore prohibited, and Saltonstall ceased to be a summertime attraction. In 1897, the New Haven St. Ry. accordingly changed their routing in East Haven. Rather than running along the north side of the Green on Main Street, cars now turned south at the Green and ran down Hemingway Avenue. A new line to the shore resort of Momauguin was constructed on Hemingway in 1896 by the East Haven River Railway Co. The New Haven St. Ry. ran its cars down this route and purchased it outright in 1898. The branch to Lake Saltonstall was abandoned.

The Branford Electric Railway

On May 12, 1897, the Branford Electric Railway Company was chartered by means of a resolution of the Connecticut General Assembly. The text of the charter reads (abridged with notes in italics):
Senate Joint Resolution No. 181


Resolved by this assembly:

SECTION 1: That A.E. Hammer, T.F. Hammer, L.J. Nichols, John Spencer, Edmund Zacher, Richard Bradley, A.M. Young, A.O. Shepardson, A.J. Purinton, G.G. Blakeslee, William Foote, William E. Bailey, and Charles Wilford ... are constituted a body politic and corporate, by the name of the Branford Electric Railway Copany, which shall be located in the town of Branford.
  Said company is hereby authorized and empowered to locate, construct and finally complete a street railway upon the route or routes hereinafter set forth, with not more than two tracks, together with such turnouts, switches and connections as may be necessary and convenient for full use of same, that is to say: Commencing at a point on Main Street in the borough of Branford, near the power station of the Branford Electric Co., thence running westerly through and along Main Street to a point on said Main Street where Kirkham street intersects the same; thence through and along Kirkham street to Maple street; thence through and along Maple street to Harbor street; thence through and along Harbor street to the Four Corners, so called near the Branford Point Hotel (present-day intersection of Harbor, Stannard and Goodsell Point Road); thence westerly through and along the highway (Stannard Avenue) to a point near the residence of Jerome Baldwin (opposite the east end of Old Smugglers Road); thence across private land, passing near to the Double Beach Hotel, to the Short Beach Road (now Route 142/Shore Drive); thence in and along said highway, or over private land, to Short Beach; thence partly in highway and partly on private land {the museum's right-of-way} to the foot of Lake Saltonstall at the Branford town line; and is hereby authorized and empowered to construct, maintain and operate a line of railway upon any private land of right of way which it has or may acquire near to any of the routes mentioned herein; or to connect any such routes, or between the termini of any said routes, or to deviate from any such route and again re-enter same; together with the right of connecting with the New Haven Street Railway Company by any traffic arrangement that may be entered into between said companies.
SECTION 4. Said company is hereby authorized and empowered to use electricity, or any other lawful power except steam, as a motive power upon said railway, and may erect, maintain and use all necessary, proper and lawful appliances for the purpose of operating said railway, and for the proper distribution and application of the power used by it for that purpose; and said company may purchase and hold such real estate as may be necessary to fully carry out the objects of this act, and may make any lawful contract with any other company or persons with reference to the business of said company, and may collect and receive such reasonable toll or fare from each passenger transported over said road as the board of directors may from time to time determine.

The primary backer of and spokesperson for the new road was Alden M. Young, a resident of Waterbury who made his summer home in the Pine Orchard section of Branford. Mr. Young was active in developing summer shore resort properties; this may have contributed somewhat to his interest in the project.

The Branford Electric Railway was a local enterprise, relying on the finances and enthusiasm of Branford residents to develop the new line. Indeed, the New Haven Street Railway Co. felt that it could not afford to build the line itself. Some objections were raised to the serpentine routing of the line through Double Beach and Short Beach as opposed to the more direct route via the Post Road (now U.S. 1). It must be remembered that the purpose of the streetcar routes was not necessarily to provide the fastest and most direct route, but to cover as much area as possible so as to maximize farebox revenue. In this case, service was provided to the developing summer resorts along the Branford shoreline. In addition, while the shore route was longer, it avoided the rolling hills which might have presented difficulty to the early electric cars.

Corporate Maneuvers

Prior to the formation of the Branford Electric Railway Company, the Branford Electric Company had been chartered in 1895 as an electric and water utility company. Their power station at Main Street and the Branford River is referred to in the charter of the B.E.Ry.Co. On June 1, 1899, the two companies merged as the Branford Lighting and Water Co. (BL&W). It was under this name that the Branford Electric Railway line would be constructed in 1900.

Between the time that the Branford line was chartered and its construction, the route changed somewhat. The eastern terminus of the line was cut back. Instead of running out to the power station, the line terminated nearly 2 miles sooner at the Branford Green. When word of the company's plans to cut the line short got out, it caused much unfavorable comment. The line's promoter, Mr. Young, explained that the additional two miles would add to the round-trip time and make it impossible to run on the desired schedule. It was felt that in the future, when the line would be double-tracked, the extension could be made to the power house. In fact, this did not occur until a successor company extended the line to Stony Creek in 1907.

A more significant change was at the western end. The charter called for the line to connect with the New Haven St. Ry. at Lake Saltonstall. As described above, this line was abandoned before construction of the Branford line had begun. Furthermore, the New Haven St. Ry. Company itself had ceased to exist; Fair Haven and Westville absorbed it on October 31, 1898.

Having through service to New Haven was felt to be vital to the Branford line's success. Given the changes in circumstances, the new plan was to make a connection to the FH&W at the East Haven Green. The FH&W entered into an operating agreement with BL&W in May 1900 and petitioned the town of East Haven to make the connection at the southwest corner of the Green, at Hemingway Avenue and New Lane (present-day River Street). In exchange for the right to do so, East Haven pressured the FH&W into reducing the East Haven / New Haven fare from 10¢ to 5¢.

The FH&W would now operate the new Branford Electric Railway and provide cars, crews and power. The BL&W Co. was responsible for construction and upkeep of the line itself. FH&W crews collected fares and both companies shared the net profits. Although BL&W had its own power plant in Branford, the D.C. traction power was not supplied by them. It was tapped from the existing East Haven / Momauguin line, ultimately originating at the FH&W substation ``B´´ in New Haven.
A 1902 map of the New Haven trolley system shows the Branford Electric Railway running between East Haven and Branford. The portion which is preserved and operated by the Shore Line Trolley Museum is shaded

The Construction

Construction of the line began in April of 1900. A. William Sperry was the surveyor and engineer, and Chas. Wingate was the Superintendent of Construction. Mr. Sperry rented a cottage in Brockett's Point for the summer from which to supervise the project. The promoter of the line, A.M. Young, promised it would open about May 20th (he was off by a few months).

New England Engineering Co. was the major contractor, with a substantial subcontract to Charles W. Blakeslee and Sons of New Haven. The latter company was also employed nearly fifty years later to rip out much of the trolley trackage in New Haven, and a successor company is still in business today. M.P. Rice contracted to fill in the low-lying marsh areas and to lay out the railroad ties along the line. Frank Beach and Robert Ford had the contract for setting the line poles. Trolley wire was hung starting on July 5, using a line car powered by the very wire it was stringing.

The construction of the line was fairly uneventful although many minor unforeseen delays were encountered. Blasting was required at some points on the Branford end and a bridge was required to cross the tracks of the New Haven R.R at Maple Street. The portion of the route which is now the museum's railway was easier to construct and was substantially complete by Sunday July 8th, when an inspection trip was made between East Haven and Short Beach.

The Opening

The date of July 31st which now has such significance was but a stepping stone towards the opening of the complete line. On this date, trolleys first began regular scheduled passenger operation between East Haven and Short Beach. The New Haven Journal-Courier reported:

Trolley Cars Will Run Every Twenty-four Minutes to That Popular Resort.

The Branford Electric Railway company (sic) will open the new schedule between East Haven and Short Beach this morning, the first car leaving Short Beach at 6:24.
Until completion of road cars will run between Short Beach and East Haven every twenty-four minutes, connecting at East Haven with the through cars of the Fair Haven and Westville railroad running between Yale Field and Momauguin.
These cars leave the corner of State and Chapel streets commencing at 6:06 a. m. and will run every twenty-four minutes until 10:30 p. m.
*5:48 a. m. (barn), *6:06, *6:30, 6:54, 7:18, 7:42, 8:06, 8:30, 8:54, 9:18, 9:42, 10:06, 10:30, 10:54, 11:18, 11:42, 12:06 p. m., 12:30, 12:54, 1:18, 1:42, 2:06, 2:30, 2:54, 3:18, 3:42, 4:06, 4:30, 4:54, 5:18, 5:42, 6:06, 6:30, 6:54, 7:18, 7:42, 8:06, 8:30, 8:54, 9:18, 9:42, 10:06, 10:30. *Except Sunday
The cars leave Short Beach for New Haven as follows:
6 a. m. (Monday only), *6:24, *6:48, *7:12, 7:36, 8, 8:24, 8:48, 9:12, 9:36, 10, 10:24, 10:48, 11:12, 11:36, 12 m.; 12:24 p.m., 12:48, 1:12, 1:36, 2, 2:24, 2:48, 3:12, 3:36, 4, 4:24, 4:48, 5:12, 5:36, 6, 6:24, 6:48, 7:12, 7:36, 8, 8:24, 8:48, 9:12, 9:36, 10, 10:24, 10:48, 11:12. *Except Sunday.
The fare will be fifteen cents between this city (New Haven) and Short Beach and twenty cents will be the fare to Branford on completion of the road.
The road will be equipped with six new cars in the fall for winter use and each will be forty feet in length. They will be finished in mahogany and will be of the latest patent and finish. The windows will be of plate glass.

With Short Beach service open, work was proceeding rapidly to finish up the remaining 2.8 miles to Branford. As of August 17, cars ran nightly as far as the railroad bridge at Maple Street; during the day the work crews owned the road. Finally, on August 25th service was opened to the end of the line.

At this time, there was no through service to New Haven. Passengers had to transfer at the East Haven Green to a New Haven car. Double-tracking of the East Haven / Momauguin line was underway, and there was no reason to install the switchwork to connect with the Branford branch only to tear it up again. Service to Branford was made with six FH&W single-truck cars which were brought in via a temporary track connection at the East Haven Green. The permanent double-track turnout was completed and open for New Haven / Branford through traffic near Labor Day 1900 (newspaper accounts differ on the exact date).
Single-truck open trolleys similar to Fair Haven and Westville no. 138 provided service when the Branford Electric Railway opened on July 31 1900

In our next installment: Boom times on the Branford Electric Railway!, the first new cars arrive, the wreck of 1902, double-tracking and the coming of Consolidated.

Much gratitude is owed to James West who shared the notes that he and the late Dick Fletcher collected in researching their book, Along Branford Shore. The book, a more comprehensive look at the heyday of the Branford line, is available through the museum book store. Additional thanks to Prof. George Baehr for his accounting of the New Haven street railway system.

The Shore Line Trolley Museum
17 River Street
East Haven, CT 06512
(203) 467-6927

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Last Updated: /articles/ modified at Thu Mar 10 23:22:00 2005