Manchester grew up from small villages into a coherent town, despite rivalries and power struggles between businessmen
and property owners. For example, Manchester Green had the first post office, an honor that recognized its commercial
importance. We can bet that residents of Buckland and Union Village harbored some resentment.
In 1849, the North End hosted the main line of the railroad, important and prestigious in business. Mills and establishments in other parts of town lost out on the convenience of nearby interstate transport for industrial materials and products. At the time there were no trolleys and trucks, and even Jules Verne (1828-1905), father of science fiction, hadn’t started writing about airplanes.
Connections between villages were mostly on foot, as most people couldn’t afford horses and buggies. Townspeople walked everywhere, but tended to stick with and identify with their own village, rather than with the town, even though it was incorporated in 1823. Villages included Parker Village, Highland Park, Hilliardville, Meekville, and Taylorville.
This began to change as the Cheney silk industry grew from a small business in a wooden mill in 1838 to a nationally recognized manufacturer in the 1870s.
In its need for skilled employees, Cheneys attracted workers from throughout New England and the British Isles. But Northern Irish immigrants, many of whom lived right in the North End, stayed in the North End because that was the location of the only Catholic church – St. Bridget’s. Catholics who lived in South Manchester traveled to St. Bridget’s in the North End until 1874, when Cheney Brothers donated an acre of land for St. James Church. The cornerstone was laid in 1875. Now Cheneys could attract more North End residents to work in Cheneyville in the south end of town.
As the Cheney business increased, there was an increasing problem with transporting goods and finished products. As in its building of reservoirs, firehouses, and schools, the Cheneys took the bold step of funding a railroad to connect to the main line.
The 2.25-mile South Manchester Railroad was built in 1869, the shortest freight-and-passenger railroad and also the longest private railroad in the United States at the time. It was funded by members of the Cheney family.
The manual labor of digging out the rail-bed must have been a sight to see! Earth was removed from under Park Street to create a railroad yard, a wooden bridge was built to carry Park Street traffic, and tons of dirt were transported across Center Street to build an embankment – still visible behind today’s Shaw’s grocery store.
In 1869, it cost $29,777 per mile, with several upgrades and improvements over the years, including more railroad siding, which eventually measured over three miles, accommodating storage sheds, a roundhouse, coalhouse, office, and freight station.
Originally the railroad crossed right over Center Street and Hilliard Street. Later, trestles were built to ease residents’ concerns about safety. The crossing over Woodland Street, however, never had a trestle, and crossed at the bottom of a small hill right at grade level.
Ed. Note: Click the icon at left to see an Income/Expenses report for the SMRR from 1888.
The railroad made connections for freight and for passengers, and not just for Cheney freight and Cheney workers. For example, it delivered coal to paper mills in the south end of town, farm produce and supplies from south to north, and transported students from the South End along their way to Hartford Public High School before the construction of Manchester High School in 1904. It transported theatergoers to Cheney Hall, and businessmen to the silk shows there.
Passengers, up to 3500 a day on special occasions, paid ten cents a trip, and cheap though that seems to us today, there were plenty who walked along the tracks to save the money.
Ben Balon (1911-1996) said that he and his pals would walk along the tracks from the North End to the Cheney bath-house, thus saving the ten cents, but by the time they walked back home to the North End, they were sweaty and dirty all over again. The bath-house is still there, on Pleasant Street, today the location of Silk City Roofing.
Agnes Fuller Hayes, born in 1888, who lived on Oakland Street in the North End said in an interview in the Old Manchester Storytellers that she worked as a billing clerk at Cheney mills. “We used to go on the old ‘Goat’ [Cheney railroad]. I walked down from Oakland Street and then took the train every morning at 7 o’clock. Then when I worked in the office and got into the Campfire Girls, I used to walk every morning down to the office in the South End and then home at night. I walked five miles a day and loved it. That was quite a trip, but it didn’t seem far in those days.”
Trolleys began operating in Manchester between 1885 and 1895, and the trolley system expanded over the years, with tracks running right along the unpaved main roads. Maro Chapman, R.O. Cheney, and Horace Wickham were principals of the Hartford, Manchester and Rockville Tramway Company, which also built Laurel Park to provide townspeople with fresh air and entertainment. This popular park, with its carousel, boats, and bandstand, flourished for decades until its demise in the early 1920s.
By the 1920s and 1930s, cars became common, even for families of modest means, giving residents more choices in where and when they would travel. Trolleys and trains lost passenger business, and the trolleys stopped in 1938.
The last passenger trip of the South Manchester Railroad was in 1933, although freight continued to rumble along the tracks into the 1970s. Remnants of the rail-path still connect south and north, right through the center of town. In 2005, the Manchester Land Conservation Trust purchased a five-acre parcel – about one mile of the old railroad – and collaborated with the Manchester Historical Society on a well-attended history hike there in September 2006.
Although individual villages have connected into a town, the stories and artifacts of older times and older ways continue to lend a charm to traveling around town. Join the Manchester Historical Society on one of its walking tours of historic neighborhoods.
Ed. Note: For more information on the South Manchester Railroad, and its location within the Cheney Brothers National Historical Landmark District, please click here. To take a self-guided walk on the railroad, click Cheney Rail Trail Map.