Bridging The Gaps Along The Air Line, Hop River Rail Trails

by Peter Marteka, Hartford Courant

Those who have climbed aboard the Air Line or Hop River linear rail trails know there are no happy endings at the border with Willimantic..

Whether taking the abandoned railroad right-of-ways from Vernon along the old Hartford, Providence and Fishkill line or the former New York, New Haven and Hartford line from East Hampton, trail-users reach a dead end at the Willimantic River before reaching the city limits. Visitors have to walk busy roads to reconnect with the trail in downtown Willimantic.

At the end of each trail, looming before travelers, are two abandoned bridges built by the Berlin Iron Bridge Company at the turn of the 20th century. The pair of hulking rusting spans haven’t seen passengers since the 1950s except for the occasional daredevil or spray paint artist.

That’s about to change as the state Department of Transportation and the town of Windham are moving forward on a $1 million to $2 million plan to place a wooden deck along the top of bridge No. 9308R — connecting Lebanon and Windham along the Air Line for the first time since trains stopped running in the 1950s.

Once across the river, a new trail will be constructed and continue 4,700 feet east, skirting the edge of the Connecticut Eastern Railroad Museum to a parking area west of Bridge Street. From here, hikers will walk along Main Street down to the Frog Bridge and the start of the northern branch of the Air Line trail that runs through Willimantic and Windham into Pomfret. The section between Bridge Street and the Frog Bridge will be the lone remaining section that doesn’t run along the old railroad.

Mark Granville, president of the museum, said he will welcome more visitors to the museum, which includes locomotives, rolling stock and vintage and reconstructed buildings from roundhouses to train stations. Granville said the group worked closely with trail designers Fuss and O’Neill. The museum’s perimeter is secured by a fence around the entire property. Granville said they have dealt with vandalism since the museum’s creation.

“It will be nice to see more public traffic passing through,” he said.

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