Where the Tracks End

The Abandoned Willimantic River Railway

Written by: Sean L.

Photographs By: Amanda H.

     Along the banks of a lively river in a bustling town, there lies a world hidden in plain sight. Much like another former rail yard that we investigated long ago, Cedar Hill, this is a place outside the bonds of society. It is a place that has become its own little world, where the unexplained and the unexpected walk hand in hand. This is all that remains of the once prominent Willimantic River Railway. Though it may not be as dark and depressing as the abandoned Cedar Hill rail depot in New Haven, it is just as wild and dangerous. This is a world that nature has reclaimed, and the wilderness has claimed dominion over the land. The last remnants of mankind’s kingdom slowly crumble against the weight of time. Tracks have been ripped up. Train cars have been left to rot. An old bridge still runs across the river, decaying in the sun. Although the world left this place behind a long time ago, many different forms of life have come to call it home. On our investigation, we encountered signs of birds, beasts, and even humans living amongst the underbrush.

   The official entrance to the Willimantic River can be found on Columbia Avenue. Sitting right before the Columbia/Windham town line, the area is technically a part of the Hop River State Park Trail. Commonly used for biking and hiking, the trail begins here and extends all the way to the Vernon town line. It is describes as a perfect two mile ride or walk for your average outdoorsmen, but it wasn’t always this way. In the mid 1990’s, the town of Willimantic was a hotspot for railways and train yards. One of the older and more prominent lines ran across the picturesque Willimantic River. However, a fierce rainy season during the summer of 1955 caused major flooding in the area. The flooding permanently crippled some of the bridges on the Willimantic River line, causing it to be decommissioned shortly after. Following its closure, the land was converted into a recreational area. The former railway bed was removed and covered with gravel, making the paths perfect for bikers. It is now managed by the Connecticut Department of Environmental Energy and Protection, and maintained by local volunteers and organizations. However, not everything was removed from this former railway line.

   The crown jewel of the abandoned Willimantic River Railway is the bridge. This ancient trestle runs across the Willimantic River, and can be seen from the road. At first glance, it is hard to tell whether or not the bridge is still in use. Once you get up close, it become abundantly clear. The bridge is very rusted, and the wooden support beams have become old and frail. It is about two hundred feet across the bridge, which stands over fifty feet above the running waters of the Willimantic River. Wild vines and vegetation grow all around it. The bridge is quite unsafe and very unstable. We crossed it by going one step at a time, though the entire structure seemed to creek and sway with each and every step. It is not recommended to cross this bridge. It has been nicknamed “The Bridge of Death,” after Monty Python and the Holy Grail. However, it’s much more reminiscent of the railway bridge from Stand by Me. Halfway across it, I almost expected to hear Wil Wheaton yell, “Train!” Sadly though, it has been many years since any locomotive passed across this old structure.

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    On the other side of the river, the old tracks continue for a ways. Sitting on them, is what appears to be a long abandoned set of train cars. The train cars are huge, each one standing very tall and very wide. They have all become overgrown and all but forgotten. Their wheels have become rusty and decrepit, even to the point where it is doubtful whether or not they can even move anymore. We were only able to walk along the left side of the train cars, as the right was completely overgrown with vines and thorn bushes. The old set of train cars sits right beside what must be either a dumping site a Mackey’s supply store. While scoping out the train cars, we encountered what must’ve been either a large dog or coyote which quickly took off into the woods. Though the train cars had some graffiti and there was plenty of liter around, there was no way anyone could break into these. All of the doors and hatchways were padlocked shut. It remains unclear to us whether these cars have been abandoned, or if they have merely been forgotten here.

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     Though the ancient bridge and the old train cars were very cool, the thing that stood out about this place the most were the tent cities. Throughout our walk, we came across three different abandoned encampments along the banks of the river. Each one appeared to have once held a small group of people. There were tents, cooking supplies, clothing, fire pits; everything that was essential to survival. But each encampment had been totally ransacked. Tents were torn apart. Chairs were flipped over. Clothing and sleeping bags lie strewn across the forest floor. It looked like these encampments had been cleared out overnight, like something out of The Walking Dead. We have heard rumors that the local homeless population had been granted legal permission to camp out here, but they have clearly been gone a long time. But for some reason, all of their belongings had been left behind.  There were also dozens of old car tires thrown about all over the place. Some were clustered together, others were in small stacks. It was very strange. But then, we’ve seen it before many times in the past. Places like the Willimantic River railway get left behind, and a whole new world takes over.

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This is what becomes of a place when it finally hits the end of the line. This is where the tracks end.

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