All Lined Up

All Lined Up

A ride on the railroad is typically about where you go from there. You hear your stop announced, gather your gear, get out before the doors close. The satisfaction of arrival is momentary, with yet another leg of travel to go before you’ve actually arrived. Even Grand Central Terminal, the end of the line for a Metro-North train from New Haven, is merely the resumption point for an 18-minute subway ride to Little Italy, a 10-minute walk to Times Square, a 9-minute cab ride to Museum Mile.

But if you choose your destinations carefully, it turns out the train can get you right where you’re going. “Welcome to the National Helicopter Museum,” said guide Scott Van Fleet inside the converted station house on the eastbound side of Stratford Station. Here you can climb into the cockpit of a once-working helicopter, the fuselage of which had christened the museum when it opened in 1983, and view a gallery of vintage photographs of helicopters, many of them built by Sikorsky Aircraft and the tens of thousands of Stratford residents who worked there. Also on view is an intricate diorama of choppers used by US presidents. But the highlight is that cockpit, where you can move the cyclic control stick, push the left and right pedals and yank on the overhead throttle while your imagination goes airborne. “The next project is to make this a simulator and put a curved screen in here,” Van Fleet said, pointing to the cockpit’s glassless front window, which currently looks out on the rest of the museum. The museum has also flirted with having a whole helicopter permanently parked outside.

Schemes like those in combination with the wildly experimental history of helicopter flight—and a sign contending that “This a REAL Non Profit. Everyone is a Volunteer. There are No Salaries. Any Proceeds from Donations and Sales are Used to Enhance the Museum”—give the museum an upstart aura. Van Fleet played me 1940s home movie footage of an experimental helicopter assembled by a Stratford inventor named Victor Bendix. On the museum’s TV, it’s a tiny thing with an open cockpit, a passenger sitting within grazing distance of the rotor. “His plan was to build it so cheaply and get it in everyone’s garage people ride motorcycles,” Van Fleet said. He pointed out landmarks in the footage that suggest the flight had taken place within sight of the building we were now standing in. Sure enough, a train does appear, bound for New York, and the Bendix chopper, flouting several aviation rules, starts racing it. It’s a wildly unfair competition between the most maneuverable mode of transport ever invented and another that chugs and labors on literal rails.

But the difficulty of maneuvering a train makes the technology for doing so no less interesting, as I would find out at the SONO Switch Tower Museum, just a quarter-mile up the line from the South Norwalk train station. There I was greeted by a row of over 50 levers, numbered and color-coded, in front of windows overlooking the tracks. The guide encouraged me to throw one, pushing it back along its two-foot-long arc, and it was a two-hand job, with another good shove to lock it in place. “I used to do this as a summer job when I was home from college in the early ’70s,” the guide, John Garofalo, assured me. “And if I could pull these levers, anybody could.”

It turns out track-switching existed as a job for Norwalkians of reasonable strength from 1896, when the tower was built, until 1984. The task is now performed by people seated at computers in Grand Central Terminal, but the levers in the tower are still hooked up to a light-up board that diagrams all the signals and switches on the track, making it possible to demonstrate the old choreography. I watched as Garofalo put a young couple through their paces, sending them back and forth along the line of levers to signal oncoming trains to stop, unlock the switches, throw the switches, lock the switches again, then signal the trains to go—each step requiring a different lever to be pulled or pushed back in place. “And as soon as the train went by,” Garofalo added, “you had to put 14 levers back again. That was your workout for the day,” one set of reps among many before the end of your shift.

The switch tower was designed strictly as housing for the levers and for the massive interlocking machine underneath. It’s a narrow shoebox hugging the track bed that you couldn’t convert, say, to a helicopter museum. But station houses, once abandoned, were simply lovely brick buildings with open, crowd-capacity floor plans. Their beadboard walls refinished and opal glass pendant lights cleaned, they could be re-occupied by anything.

At Westport Station, where I disembarked between museum stops to eat a donut, the eastbound station house was, conveniently, a Donut Crazy, with a counter and display cases in the middle and comfortable seating on both ends. The decommissioned ticket office window acted as a kind of decorative curio that hipster-adjacent cafes might build into their walls anyway. Donut Crazy had actually run out of donuts by the time I got there—an inventory hazard that was also a function of their train station occupancy. The donuts aren’t baked in-house, the donut wrangler behind the counter explained to me, but delivered to all the Donut Crazies from a centrally located kitchen, which puts them at the mercy of the delivery schedule.

But at Fairfield Station, where I disembarked between museums for a couple slices of pizza, The Nauti Dolphin crams the means of production—refrigerators, prep counter, ovens—into one end of the eastbound station house. The Dolphin, according to the pizzaiolo behind the counter, has occupied the house for almost 30 years. According to Fairfield Station’s submission to the National Register of Historic Places, the station house had been built in 1882 as part of a line of sturdy brick houses on the eastbound side. These structures served both west- and eastbound passengers at a time when the railroad had only two tracks.

In the 1890s, when two more tracks were added up and down the line, the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad built smaller, wooden station houses for westbound travelers. You can imagine whole families bound for New York or Boston lining up at ticket counters while porters loaded their trunks. The line’s eventual evolution into a commuter rail (with only New Haven and Stamford serving the longer reach of Amtrak’s Northeast Regional train) brought minimal baggage, minimal waits and self-service ticketing, which turned the station houses into landmarks, museums of a sort, or at least refuges from cold or rain. Even as early as 1972, according to an announcement in the Bridgeport Post, ticket windows were being closed at several stations on what was by that point called the Penn Central Railroad.

The Connecticut Department of Transportation owns the buildings to this day but leases to respective cities the responsibility for upkeep and the option for reuse. The latitude for occupants can be considerable, as was the case when the Milford Arts Council transformed their local eastbound station house into what they later dubbed the Eastbound Theatre. “It is an intimate space with excellent natural acoustics,” says Paige Miglio, executive director of the MAC. “We do have a professional sound system. We have been investing in LED theater lights… It is ADA-compliant. And we seat roughly 80 people comfortably in either cabaret or in theater rows.” The MAC enlisted a Milford architect, Ray Oliver, who specialized in transforming old buildings, and “they opened up the ceiling, they raised the floor to give headspace to the basement,” which is walled in natural granite rocks. The building as such has room for a lounge, a small kitchen, workshop and rehearsal space and a green room, in addition to the lobby and theater space.

My wife and I sat down to see a staged reading there. The play was called When Tomorrow Comes and dealt with the fears and marital tribulations of two couples with grown autistic children. The room was chapel-like but high-ceilinged, with pale walls and a proscenium stage. The muted sound of the passing trains acted as subtle punctuation, enforcing rather than disrupting the intimacy of the scenes. We had gotten dinner from Paci, an Italian restaurant that occupies Southport’s eastbound station house. Unlike my separate museum hop—which was simultaneously a train hop, involving five trains in about six hours—this felt more like dinner and a show with the logistical impediments removed. We had ordered our dessert with 15 minutes to spare before the train. Fourteen minutes later, we exited through one door, entered through another, and found our seats. When the train arrived in Milford, we exited through one door, entered through another, and found our seats.

Written by David Zukowski. Images 1-3 and 5-6 photographed by David Zukowski. Image 4 photographed by Miro Vrlik. Image 7 photographed by The Nauti Dolphin.

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