Enter the Iron Horse (February 14, 1840)
Welcome back, Monroe history lovers. I’m certain that some of you railroad buffs out there are aware that the first train on the Housatonic Railroad rolled through our town on February 14, 1840. It was surely a grand day when the iron horse rolled into what was then known as Leavenworth’s Mills; the area so named for Captain Andrew Leavenworth, a native of Blanket Meadow on upper Hattertown Road. Captain Leavenworth’s store at the sharp bend on Maple Drive was the first official station, one of three built in the immediate area that would later be formally renamed to Stepney Depot.
Today, the former railroad bed is repurposed as a recreational Rail-Trail, just one of the many great amenities in Monroe that our residents enjoy year-round. Have you ever wondered what the assembled crowds witnessed on that cold February day? The reality of the scene may differ greatly from your imagination. We all have a sense of what a train looks like, but very few are aware of just how archaic the first locomotives really were. The first supporting image to this week’s post is a factory rendering that closely resembles the first two locomotives to come up the rails, aptly named Housatonic and Pequonnock for the two rivers that flow in part through Monroe.
It wasn’t just the early trains that were archaic, so were the tracks they ran upon. The first-generation rails were known as Strap Rails. They were made of wood with lengths of iron strap spiked down onto the top surface of the wooden rail. The iron straps were intended to extend the life of the wooden rails but there were unexpected and potentially deadly consequences to this design. Over time, the wheels of the train would wear down the heads of the spikes to the point where they would fail to secure the iron straps. Once the spikes failed, the weight of the train would curl the unsecured end of the iron strap upward to the point where it was higher than the wheel of the next passing coach.
The upward curled strap could then ride along the top of the next coach wheel, driving the strap up through the floor of the coach, injuring or even killing unsuspecting passengers. As you can imagine, news of the unexpected impaling of passengers quickly spread, generating a broad fear of rail travel. This was certainly not good for business and this most unfortunate occurrence was soon ominously referred to as a Snakehead. Like a snake, you never knew when it would rise up and strike. There are numerous examples of Snakeheads in early American railroad history, and these disastrous events and the fear they generated quickly led to the design of the modern steel rails we know today.
I hope you enjoy this week’s spotlight on the earliest days of the Housatonic Railroad. For your entertainment, I have included a link to a 1923 silent movie named, Our Hospitality. Although a comedy, it will give you a visual sense of what those who gathered witnessed on that February day when the first iron horse rolled into our town - a far cry from the modern high-speed rail travel we enjoy today. Please share this post with your family and friends to keep them up to date on Monroe’s rich history, especially as we’re now at the end of our Bicentennial year. Thank you for your continued interest. Until next time.
Historian, Monroe Historical Society
Our Past is Always Present