The Day - Sound & Country - - FRONT PAGE - By KA­T­RINA T. GATHERS


Typ­i­cally, trains and boats are used as a means to an end; com­mut­ing to the of­fice, trav­el­ing to see an old friend.

But tucked away in the lower Connecticut River Val­ley, the two modes of trans­porta­tion have en­abled vis­i­tors to ex­pe­ri­ence both the his­tory and na­ture of the re­gion by rail and wa­ter for four decades.

The Es­sex Steam Train & River­boat is mark­ing its 40th an­niver­sary in July, a year marked by sev­eral new pro­grams and spe­cial events, and the re­turn of some fa­vorite pas­times.

The orig­i­nal 2½-hour train and boat ride be­gins at the 1892 Es­sex Sta­tion and takes a 12-mile trip through Deep River and Ch­ester. Pas­sen­gers then dis­em­bark at Deep River Land­ing and con­tinue on to a 75-minute cruise along the Connecticut River, which of­fers clear views of coves, marshes, wildlife and the shore­line.

“The Connecticut River Val­ley is so un­spoiled,” says Su­san Dee, mar­ket­ing man­ager. “Fam­i­lies re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate it.”

Op­er­ated by The Val­ley Rail­road Com­pany, the train and boat ride hails from hum­ble be­gin­nings. In July 1871, the first cer­e­mo­nial train ran from Say­brook Point to Hart­ford. Sev­eral years later, af­ter fall­ing on hard times, the com­pany was taken over.

With the 1930s came the au­to­mo­bile, and 30 years later, bank­ruptcy of the par­ent com­pany. Around that time, a group of his­to­ri­ans and preser­va­tion­ists dreamed of build­ing a rail­road mu­seum. Joseph Gill, the state’s re­sources com­mis­sioner, saw the idea as a great way to pair the group’s mis­sion with the state’s pur­chase of un­de­vel­oped land along the river­bank.

In 1969, The Val­ley Rail­road Com­pany was char­tered and granted op­er­at­ing rights by the state. Two years later, the 100th an­niver­sary of the first train route, marked the in­au­gu­ral run of Es­sex Steam Train from Es­sex to Deep River.

To­day, it holds brag­ging rights as the only steam train and river­boat con­nec­tion in the U.S. But the com­pany re­fused to play it safe, in­stead opt­ing to take full ad­van­tage of its vintage coaches.

On Fri­days in July and Au­gust, pas­sen­gers can ride in a din­ing car and par­tic­i­pate in the Mur­der Mys­tery pro­gram or re­serve the Ralph Gib­son ca­boose for a chil­dren’s birth­day party. Hal­loween en­thu­si­asts can ride the Fright Train and watch as a love story un­folds around the theme of a 1925 train wreck.

Dee is hop­ing that the newly cre­ated Val­ley Rail­road Cir­cus Train & Big Top Show be­comes an in­stant hit with pas­sen­gers. A ring­mas­ter wel­comes rid­ers aboard a gen­uine cir­cus train ride that trav­els from off-site park­ing to the event grounds at Es­sex Steam Train.

Clowns, a pet­ting zoo, amuse­ment rides, acro­bats and pup­pet show round out the ex­pe­ri­ence.

“It’s very unique. That’s why we’re launch­ing it,” Dee ex­plains. “Our big-

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