History of the former railroad that passed through Florence
Original Owner: New Haven & Northampton Railroad Most commonly known owner: New Haven Railroad (Williamsburg Branch of the New Haven RR) Built: 1867-1868 Last Passenger Train: 1922. Abandoned: Williamsburg to Florence, 1962; Florence to Easthampton, 1969.
First proposed to convert to a bike path: 1976
Ribbon cutting as the City of Northampton's Ryan Bikeway: 1984
Until the 1930s, there were two parallel railroads that ran through Northampton to the north. The Boston & Maine's (B&M) Connecticut River Division, which runs to this day on the east side of Route 5, and the New Haven, which basically ran on the west side of Route 5--north of today's Stop & Shop.
The New Haven Railroad's Canal Branch came up out of Connecticut, entering Massachusetts at Southwick. As it came into Northampton, it joined with the B&M at the beautiful Richardson-designed station, which today is the Depot Restaurant. Both roads then headed north for a short distance and then the NH branched away where the Northampton Honda dealer is currently located.
Remains of the footings for the overpass over Route 5 are still visible where the line once headed toward what is now Super Stop & Shop. This commercial development, and the others just north of here, sit atop what was once the New Haven's classification yard and engine service facilities, complete with turntable and coaling tower. A branch from this yard led to Williamsburg.
In 1962, during the last bankruptcy of the New Haven Railroad, a 5-mile segment of the branch was abandoned from the terminus at Williamsburg into Florence. Florence still had viable customers, one of which was a coal-fired power plant at the Veterans Hospital, which still received inbound shipments of coal.
In 1969, the conversion of the plant to oil--and the conversion of the Smith College and the State Hospital power plants to oil as well--caused the successor railroad, the infamous Penn-Central, to abandon service all the way back to downtown Easthampton. In 1971, the entire branch was sold to Massachusetts Electric Company.
In the mid 1970s, the City of Northampton decided to run a sewer line down the right of way and at the same time create a bikeway on the bed of the old railroad. After many meetings and dealing with comments of concern from the neighbors, the bikeway opened in 1984, making this rail trail the oldest municipally operated rail trail in the region. Today it is known as the City of Northampton Bikeway or, in some cases, it is known as the Ryan Bikeway.
Florence Station circa 1965
Here's a few interesting views of the neighoborhood in Florence. On the left is the old Florence Passenger Station. Torn down in 1965, this view shows the bleak situation in both the right-of-way and the station. The old Norwood Engineering Company is in the background. Today the station is obviously gone, but it is the location of Florence Paint and Decorating Center. The Norwood Complex is fully restored and is the home of many small businesses, including Ross Bros. Antiques.
The lower photos show the railroad corridor in Florence in both the 1930s (left) and the 1950s (right). Norwood can be seen in both photos, as well as the old coal tipple and Florence Casket Company. Florence Casket is still in business and is one of only a handful of family-owned independent casket manufacturers still in operation in the region.
If you are interested to learn more about this subject, I have in the house MANY archival photos of this railroad corridor and the related industries along the way. Let me know if you are interested when you come.
Courtesy of Florence Casket Co.
Courtesy of Florence Casket Co.
1915 ValMap of the neighborhood
YESTERDAY’S MAPS ARE USEFUL FOR TODAY
During World War I, the U.S. railroads became gridlocked with war related traffic to such a degree that they literally ground to a halt.The federal government then stepped in and "nationalized" or took over the entire system for the duration of the war.
Among the things they did was inventory everything that the railroads owned.This included inventorying every rail car, every wrench, every nut, every bolt, and an inventory of all the land and how it was obtained.This land inventory became known as the valuation maps—or "val maps"—for short.Not only did the val maps lay out the route of the railroad through a community, the maps also gave locations of every structure near the railroad tracks, number of tracks, location and length of sidings, bridges, culverts, etc.
Copies of val maps are kept at a number locations:
The current owning railroad’s real estate department has complete sets.
County Hall of Records usually have those in their district.
Railroad historical societies usually have most if not all of them.
Dealers in "railroadania" or railroad paper documents.
They are still useful today for a number of reasons:
How the railroad was built in terms of deeds.
Location of possible areas of contamination or "brownfields."
The Florence val map shows the location of 3 coal sheds and2 railroad sidings--or spur track--going into the property of Norwood Engineering Company (Norwood is now the location of Ross Bros. Antiques and other small, locally-owned businesses). It also shows a scale for weighing horse-drawn wagons, a yard complex that was 4 tracks wide, and both a freight house and a passenger station.
This is a copy of one of the valuation maps (and other railroadania) that are on display in the Inn along with a large selection of text books about the general history of the neigbhorhood.
Sugar Maple Trailside Inn, 62 Chestnut St. Florence (Northampton), MA 01062 For info call: 413-575-2277