Last revised: January 1, 2024
By: Adam Burns
Christmas in New England draws visitors by the thousands every year with its old world charm in the way of beautifully restored Victorian homes, parades, holiday decorations, Christmas lights, and, of course, snow.
There are some towns that even go the extra mile and have a fireworks display! In Connecticut, a handful of the state's railroad museums celebrate the season by offering Christmas-themed train rides.
These organizations currently include the Danbury Railway Museum, Essex Steam Train, Naugatuck Railroad, and Shore Line Trolley Museum. Their holiday events typically sell out fast to please be sure to book in advance.
Connecticut's history with trains dates to 1839 when the Hartford & New Haven (initially chartered in 1833) opened its first 36.5 miles between its namesake cities. This system would go on to form the New York, New Haven & Hartford, which provided nearly all first-class services throughout Connecticut.
The railroad is also one of the nation's best-remembered with a partially electrified main line and assortment of branch, and secondary lines that served the heart of New England. Few other systems defined railroading in this region like the New Haven and its importance remains widely recognized today.
(Danbury): This organization got its start in 1994 when it acquired the town's former New York, New Haven & Hartford brick station (built in 1903) from Metro-North Railroad.
After securing a $1.5 million grant the building was restored and rededicated on October 29, 1995. Since then, they have acquired an impressive collection of equipment including diesel locomotives, rail diesel cars (RDC's), maintenance-of-way rolling stock, passenger and freight cars, and Boston & Maine 2-6-0 #1455, a steam locomotive built by American Locomotive in 1907.
All of this equipment is housed in small yard directly adjacent to the station, and includes a nearby turntable which was restored in 1998.
The museum is unique in that it sits along two active and very busy rail lines, offering visitors the chance to watch trains right from the property. The yard has enabled the group to offer the public limited rides and a spin on the turntable.
During the holidays, they host the Santa Railyard/Santa Express during select dates in December where folks take a short trip to Santa's Toyland.
(Essex): Without question the Essex Steam Train, operated by the Valley Railroad, is one of New England's most popular rail attractions.
Folks from far and wide come to ride this stretch of the former New York, New Haven & Hartford's 'Old Saybrook Line' spanning 22 miles from Essex to a point near Higganum.
For much of the way the route is breathtakingly scenic as it hugs the Connecticut River's western shore. Throughout the year the group offers a multitude of different adventures from regular excursions to special holiday events and even riverboat rides.
You can enjoy dinner on-board, see Thomas The Train on select dates, packages that include both the train and riverboat, and even book private events.
Folks are also drawn in thanks to two operational steam locomotives; "New Haven 2-8-2 #3025" (actually built by China's Tangshan Locomotive & Rolling Stock Works in 1989) and Aberdeen & Rockfish 2-8-2 #40 (built by American Locomotive's Brooks Works in 1920).
Their Santa Special offers Christmas train rides pulled by these steam locomotives. The trips are scheduled from late-November through late-December featuring a one-hour journey where the kids can meet Santa and Mrs. Claus as well as receive a souvenir gift.
They also now host the North Pole Express throughout most of November and December.
(Thomaston): Operated by the Railroad Museum of New England, the "Naugatuck Railroad," pays homage to the same corporate entity which originally built the corridor in 1849.
The system later wound up as part of the much larger New York, New Haven & Hartford which dominated rail service across southern New England. Under the New Haven it was little more than a long, stub-end branch running from Waterbury to Winsted via Torrington and Thomaston.
It survived into the Penn Central which began on January 1, 1969. At that time the trackage was known as the "Torrington Secondary" which saw declining use into the 1970's.
In 1982 the state of Connecticut acquired the line as far north as Torrington from the then-Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail) to preserve service and subsequently leased to the Boston & Maine.
The B&M opted out in 1995 which led to the Railroad Museum of New England entering the picture a year later. It launched in September and continues to host public excursions and whatever freight is available between Waterbury and Torrington (19.6 miles).
The museum maintains a nice collection of equipment and features numerous special trips. Their Santa Express allows kids to visit with Santa during the 1.5-hour train ride.
Additionally, the railroad offers the Northern Lights Limited. Both productions run during select dates in late November and December. Visit their website to learn more.
(East Haven): If you enjoy the interesting but often unknown history of interurbans and streetcars the Shore Line Trolley Museum is the place for you; the group focuses on preserving this unique aspect of transportation once found throughout New England.
This region can claim some of the earliest streetcar systems ever put into operation; during the 19th century most used horses or mules and some didn't even have tracks!
When Frank Sprague successfully developed an electric motorcar in 1886, electric traction took off and was viewed as the future in rapid transit operation. Large interurbans, linking cities/towns and their smaller streetcar counterparts, sprang up everywhere.
As George Hilton and John Due point out in their book, "The Electric Interurban Railways In America," New England's systems were so numerous it's difficult to trace them all. The Shore Line Trolley Museum began as the the Branford Electric Railway Association (BERA) formed in August, 1945.
It later acquired a 1.5-mile section of the Connecticut Company (ConnCo) between East Haven and Short Beach, which it still uses today to host passengers within restored streetcars.
One of their special events is Santa's Trolley Winter Wonderland held from late November through mid-December.