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Whistle While You Work

Just recently, we received an inquiry from a Monroe resident regarding an artifact he’d seen on Monroe’s Rails to Trails. He was on the trail between Cutler’s Farm Road and Great Hollow Lake and noticed an old wooden post, painted white with the letter W at the top (see photo). Also on the post was a contemporary sign reminding passing residents to clean up after their pets. He wondered what the significance of this post was or if we knew what it represents. He thought the W might possibly represent the location of a former water tower. That’s certainly a reasonable theory.

This resident has submitted a great historic question. As Monroe history lovers, we’re so often drawn in and fixated on the history of our early establishment families and their homes, and we lose sight of the many smaller historic clues that surround us every day. Think about it for a moment. Since the trails officially opened, how many thousands of people have passed right by this very post and thought nothing of it, let alone make a formal inquiry as to its history. We say it all the time here at the society. Our past is always present.

So, is anyone out there ready for some Housatonic Railroad history? We can sense you are. Well then, all aboard! The W on the white post stands for Whistle, and this relic beside the former railbed is known simply as a Whistle Post. From an historic perspective, it is in no way associated with cleaning up after your pets, other than a convenient place to hang the sign. These Whistle Posts were typically set about a quarter mile before the train reached a crossing point at a highway, which in Monroe's case is a fancy railroad term for a town road.

The engineer was required to sound the train's whistle immediately when passing this signpost and stay on it until at least the train's engine passed through the crossing, or crossings, if they were back-to-back. This gave an ample audible warning to anyone up ahead, at or near the crossing, to clear the way for the passing train. This is still standard practice today on railroads around the globe.

Monroe once had 4 such crossings from south to north, all in less than three miles, so you can imagine the sound of the train whistle blowing its warning was a very common sound throughout all of Stepney, greater Monroe and even parts of Easton all the way up to the 1960s.

Purdy Crossing, at Purdy Hill Road, leading from the Stepney Depot station into Great Hollow Lake

Seeley Crossing, at Cutlers Farm Road near where it intersects Pepper Street

Pepper Crossing, just a few feet north of Seeley Crossing, where the rails first crossed Pepper Street

Upper Pepper Crossing, north of Jockey Hollow Road, where the tracks crossed back over northern Pepper Street from west to east, into Newtown, and onward toward Botsford Station

Don’t you wish you could still hear that train whistle blowing today? We do. So, if you’re riding the trails on your bike, make it a point to ring your bell when you pass by the signpost. A clever homage to our rich railway history. And if you happen to have a steam whistle handy, all the better. Either way, remember to clean up after your pets! It’s one thing to trip over history. It’s another thing altogether to step in it.

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