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Day trip ideas: Ride Connecticut rail history

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

The Shore Line Trolley Museum in East Haven (shorelinetrolley.com) was founded in 1945 and now boasts more than 100 trolley cars in its collection. It still runs excursion trolleys for a short 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 (ceraonline.org) began in 1940, making it the oldest trolley museum in the U.S. 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.

Both museums also offer you the chance to “drive a streetcar” under supervision and after a little training. Passengers are not allowed, but your friends can join you if they are brave.

If you’re looking for a day-trip, especially for kids, I can highly recommend either museum.

If you’re looking for trains, you’re also in luck.

The Danbury Railroad Museum (danbury.org/drm) is walking distance from the Metro-North station, making this a potential full-day, all-rail adventure. On weekends they offer train rides and, 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 (essexsteamtrain.com) offers not only daily rides on a classic steam train, but connecting riverboat rides up to the vicinity of Gillette Castle and back.

The first Saturday of each month there’s even a free shuttle train from Old Saybrook rail station, which is served by Amtrak and Shore Line East. 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 2.5-hour, four-course meal and a cash bar.

In downtown South Norwalk, you can visit what once was a busy switch tower, now the SoNo Switch Tower Museum (westctnrhs.org/towerinfo.htm). Admission is free (donations welcome) weekends, noon to 5.

Also open only on weekends is the Connecticut Eastern Railroad Museum in Willimantic (cteastrrmuseum.org). 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 (rmne.org) offers rail trips on Sundays and Tuesdays along the scenic Naugatuck River, in addition to a large collection of restored engines and passenger cars including 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 on the railroad and will tell you why if you express even the slightest interest in their passion. Try ‘em.

Jim Cameron has been a commuter for 21 years. He is chairman of the Connecticut Metro-North/Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of Coastal Corridor TIA. CTRailCommuterCouncil@gmail.com; trainweb.org/ct.

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