Perhaps no other major railroad served the public like the New Haven. The system sprawled its way across the heart of New England, derived a considerable percentage of its annual revenue through the movement of passengers, and was the only direct service between New York and Boston. Many thousands of commuters depended on the New Haven everyday. The company's complete name was the New York, New Haven & Hartford (or NYNH&H) with its history a dizzying array of subsidiaries and predecessors. At its peak it operated a dense network of nearly 2,000 routes miles concentrated in just four states. In the end, poor management and sagging traffic would cost the company, forcing it into bankruptcy during the early 1960s.
In an interesting twist as a condition of the ill-fated Penn Central union the destitute New Haven was included in the merger per a ruling by the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). Alas, PC failed within a few years and later disappeared into government-sponsored Conrail. Today, large segments of the New Haven's light density branch lines have been abandoned although its key New York-Boston main line remains an integral part of Amtrak's Northeast Corridor.
The history of the storied New Haven system is a long list of predecessors which trace back to the 1830s. As Mike Schafer notes in his book, "More Classic American Railroads," in total more than 200 small railroads came together to form the modern-day New York, New Haven & Hartford. These many mergers and takeovers helped create the only high-speed route from Boston to New York although in several ways it was all about power and monopolistic control. By the end of the 19th century the New Haven dominated the transportation market across southern New England and its only true competitor was the New York Central's Boston & Albany. It also attempted to corner the market in northern New England although this scheme ultimately failed. A study of the New Haven's predecessors in great detail would probably cause many readers' eyes to glaze over and only a brief synopsis of its heritage will be provided here.
The New Haven Railroad’s immediate predecessors were the Hartford & New Haven (H&NH) and the New York & New Haven (NY&NH). The H&NH was the very earliest component, chartered in 1833 to connect its namesake cities. The system began construction in 1836 and was completed in 1839. According to John Weller's book, "The New Haven Railroad: Its Rise And Fall," the grandfather of John Pierpont "J.P." Morgan, noted American banker and industrialist, was an investor in the H&NH. J.P. would eventually hold considerable control of the New Haven while also maintaining interests in several other large railroads. The nearby NY&NH was built to connect its two namesake cities, chartered on June 20, 1844. It began construction in 1848 and, according to the book, "New Haven Passenger Trains," by Peter Lynch, opened from Woodlawn in the Bronx (New York City) to New Haven, Connecticut during January of 1849. Through a 12-mile trackage rights agreement with the New York & Harlem (later New York Central) the road provided service into downtown Manhattan.
The two became natural merger partners and formally joined on July 24, 1872 to create the historic New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad. By this date it already controlled what would become a key component of its Boston-New York corridor, the Shore Line Railway, when it was leased by the NY&NH on November 1, 1870. This important predecessor carried a history dating back to the New Haven & New London of 1848, which became the Shore Line Railway in 1864 through a series of takeovers and leases. It hugged the north shore of Long Island Sound from New Haven to New London and under the NYNH&H became part of its "Shore Line Division." By 1872 the railroad maintained a network stretching from New York to New London with a branch to Hartford via New Haven. From this point it would continue to expand by acquiring other smaller lines, eventually stretching out across most of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and southern Massachusetts.
Its first major acquisition involved the purchase of the so-called "Air Line" in 1882. This company carried a long history, originally known as the New York & Boston Railroad chartered in 1846, to provide the shortest rail route, or "air line," between those two cities. The city of Middletown, Connecticut notes in an essay of their town's heritage that the system was reorganized as the New Haven, Middletown & Willimantic Railroad in 1867. It ran from a connection at New Haven to Willimantic, opening for service on April 25, 1873, according to an essay by Philip Blakeslee entitled, "A Brief History Of Lines West: The New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad Company." The well-engineered NHM&W was expensive to build although it offered a 25-mile shorter route to Boston than the Shore Line's. It ultimately failed and was reorganized as the Boston & New York Air-Line Railroad. The B&NYA-L went on to join the much larger New York & New England, a future New Haven property.
The NY&NE is another road whose history could fill a book. The New Haven gained full control in 1898, providing it with a significant reach across New England; the NY&NE stretched from Beacon, New York to Hartford, Connecticut; Providence, Rhode Island; and Boston via Willimantic and Franklin. Prior to this event the New Haven had already added other important portfolios: in 1887 it acquired the New Haven & Northampton which utilized the former tow path of the Farmington Canal between New Haven and Northampton, Massachusetts via Farmington and Westfield (it also opened branches to North Hartford and Holyoke); also in 1887 the Naugatuck Railroad was acquired running from Devon along the Shore Line to Winstead via Waterbury; in 1892 the Housatonic Railroad joined the system as its western-most northerly branch, running from South Norwalk, Connecticut to Pittsfield, Massachusetts; another addition that same year was the New York, Providence & Boston, better known as the "Stonington Line," opening access to Providence, Rhode Island; finally, on March 1, 1893 the New Haven leased the very large Old Colony Railroad.
The Old Colony comprised the entirety of its eastern network running across southern and eastern Massachusetts from Providence, Rhode Island to Boston, Fitchburg, Lowell, Newport, New Bedford, and Plymouth. It also snaked out across Cape Cod reaching Buzzards Bay, Brewster, Chatham, and Provincetown. The New Haven added a few additional systems (including leasing the Providence & Worcester, which spun-off as an independent decades later in 1973) but by the turn of the 20th century was largely in place. Its final major acquisition was the 1904 addition of the Central New England Railway. The CNE had a rugged profile but proved a key route, connecting Springfield and Hartford with Campbell Hall, Poughkeepsie, and Rhinecliff, New York. With the opening of the Poughkeepsie Bridge in early 1889 the line blossomed as a western gateway for handling freight moving to and from the Midwest. At Campbell Hall/Maybrook, New York there were important interchanges established with the Lehigh & New England; Erie; Lehigh & Hudson River; New York, Ontario & Western; and to a lesser extent the New York Central
The bridge was vital for these smaller roads (except the NYC) as a means to compete against the Central, Pennsylvania, and Baltimore & Ohio in moving traffic from the Midwest to the Northeast/New England. While freight was important, the New Haven thrived on transporting passengers in an increasingly-populated region. The company was never more powerful than directly at the start of the 20th century. It moved all types of passengers ranging from those traveling long-distance to local commuters. It also handled a rather robust seasonal business by working with other roads to offer trains like the East Wind (Washington - Bangor, Maine) and Bar Harbor Express (Washington - Ellsworth, Maine) for vacationers. Early on, the New Haven worked with the New York Central to gain entry into Manhattan and then later reached PRR's new Pennsylvania Station when Hell Gate Bridge (via the New York Connecting Railroad) opened on March 9, 1917.
In its quest to dominate New England it would eventually control the Boston & Maine, Ontario & Western, Maine Central, and Rutland according to Mr. Schafer's book. Unfortunately, the monopolistic nature of this crusade eventually forced the government's hand and the New Haven was required to divest these holdings due to antitrust lawsuits. At around the same it was embarking upon electrification, opening 21 miles between Woodlawn, New York and Stamford, Connecticut utilizing an 11,000-volt, AC system. By World War I it had energized its main line as far east as New Haven, its New Canaan Branch, and along the line to Pittsfield, Massachusetts as far north as Danbury, Connecticut. The results of these projects and its numerous light density branch lines forced the road into bankruptcy in 1935, also brought about by the Great Depression's economic downturn.
Through World War II the NYNH&H did well under the guidance of Howard Palmer, who abolished many unprofitable ventures (such as its steamship and bus services), streamlined operations, and quickly replaced remaining steam power with new diesels and electrics. In an ironic turn of events, it emerged from receivership in 1948 only to be taken over that same year by Frederic Dumaine and Patrick McGinnis. These two individuals, particularly the latter, helped expedite the company's fate over the next decade. Under their "pencil pusher" leadership the duo slashed costs wherever possible (taking this to extremes whereby it did more harm than good), cut down the work force by laying off even the most veteran workers, and began deferring maintenance to save money. Such tactics typically only work for a short time and it was not long before these endeavors affected the railroad in a negative way. Dumaine's son acquired his father's stakes following the elder's passing in 1951 but he quickly ran afoul of McGinnis who was able to acquire direct control in 1954. In 1956 the railroad's directors had had enough and replaced the latter with George Alpert.
Unfortunately, the failed ideas of the previous leadership, a dying freight and passenger market, too many light density branch lines, and a Northeast rail network too heavily saturated, Alpert had little success in turning around the railroad's fortune. All of these factors resulted in a destitute company and it declared bankruptcy in 1961. With a bleak future the railroad felt merger was the only option and pushed for inclusion into the new Penn Central Transportation Company. The Interstate Commerce Commission sided with this idea despite protests from the New York Central and Pennsylvania's management during merger proceedings. When such unions are being planned, few companies ever want straddled with a money-losing operation but unfortunately the PC had no choice On merger day pandemonium ensued and the new railroad fell apart right from the start. As the crisis worsened, PC was burning through nearly $1 million a day and trains were lost throughout the system. Ironically, amid the chaos New Haven joined the Penn Central on January 1, 1969. After only two years and with financial assistance completely gone, an impoverished Penn Central officially declared bankruptcy on June 21, 1970. It became so bad that the railroad was facing total shutdown if financial assistance, any means of help at all, were not located.
Realizing the severity of the situation the federal government stepped and setup the Consolidated Rail Corporation, which comprised the skeletons of several bankrupt Northeastern carriers. It officially launched on April 1, 1976. With federal backing Conrail began to slowly pull out of the red ink and by the late 1980s was a profitable railroad after thousands of miles of access trackage was abandoned and/or upgraded. The New Haven's secondary lines comprised a portion of these abandonments, as large sections were let go and considered superfluous for a railroad trying to recover. However, the New York - Boston main line continues to be an important link for both freight and passengers, especially Amtrak where the line is part of the carrier’s Northeast Corridor. In addition, other key routes remain in use for commuter and freight operations. On an even brighter note the old “McGinnis” livery has reemerged under the Connecticut Department of Transportation for its local commuter services.