Courtesy: Shoreline Trolley Museum

If you’re looking for family fun this summer, consider visiting one of Connecticut’s many living museums celebrating our state’s rail heritage.

The Shore Line Trolley Museum in East Haven was founded in 1945 and now boasts more than one hundred trolley cars in its collection. It’s on the National Registry of Historic Places and is the oldest continuously operating trolley line in the US, still running excursion trolleys for a three-mile run on tracks once used by The Connecticut Company for its “F Line” from New Haven to Branford. You can walk through the car barns and watch volunteers painstakingly restoring the old cars.  There’s also a small museum exhibit and gift shop.

The Connecticut Trolley Museum in East Windsor began in 1940, making it the oldest trolley museum in the US.  It too was started on an existing right-of-way, the Rockville branch of the Hartford & Springfield Street Railway Company. You can ride a couple of different trolleys a few miles into the woods and back, perhaps disembarking to tour their collection of streetcars, elevated and inter-urbans in the museum’s sheds and barns.

If you’re looking for a day-trip, especially for kids, I can highly recommend either trolley museum. But if you’re looking for real trains, you’re also in luck.

The Danbury Railroad Museum is walking distance from the Metro-North station in the “Hat City,” making this potentially a full-day, all-rail adventure. They are open on weekends, when they offer train rides. For a premium, you can even ride in the caboose or the engine. They have a great collection of old rail cars and a well-stocked gift shop.

For nostalgia fans, the Essex Steam Train offers not only daily rides on a classic steam train, but connecting riverboat rides up to the vicinity of Gillette Castle and back. In addition to coach seating you can ride on an open-air car or in a plush First Class coach. There’s also a great dinner train, “The Essex Clipper” which offers a 2½ hour, four-course meal and a cash bar.

Courtesy: Sono Switch Tower Museum

In downtown South Norwalk you can visit what once was a busy railroad switch tower, now the SoNo Switch Tower Museum. Admission is free (donations welcome) weekends noon to 4 pm.

Also open only on weekends is the Connecticut Eastern Railroad Museum in Willimantic. In addition to guided tours, visitors can operate a replica 1850’s-style pump car along a section of rail that once was part of the New Haven Railroad’s “Air Line.”

The Railroad Museum of New England in Thomaston offers rail trips on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays along the scenic Naugatuck River. Their large collection of restored engines and passenger cars includes a last-of-its-kind 1929 New Haven RR first class “smoker,” complete with leather bucket seats.

All of these museums are run by volunteers who will appreciate your patronage and support. They love working to preserve our state’s great railroad heritage and will tell you why if you express even the slightest interest in their passion. 

Bring your kids and let them see railroading history come alive.

Jim Cameron is founder of the Commuter Action Group and advocates for Connecticut rail riders. He writes a weekly column called "Talking Transportation" for CT Mirror and other publications in the state. Read past Talking Transportation columns here. Contact Jim at the Commuter Action Group.