SOUTHINGTON — For the first time in over 50 years, a red light shines out from the train order signal above the Milldale Train Depot, now encouraging runners along the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail to stop and take a look rather than directing trains to halt.
“It makes it look like the railroad is operational again,” said Assistant Stationmaster Robert Belletzkie.
Aside from some fine-tuning, volunteers working on Monday have completed the restoration of the station’s train order signal, a mast topped by a light and system of blades which instruct trains on if they can pass by the station or if they must stop. The mechanical parts, including the blade system, were completed in July, leaving just the installation of the electric lamp, which sits behind green and red filters that allow it to act like a traffic light.
The lamp is on a timer to be lit between 4 and 8 p.m. during the winter months and Belletzkie hopes its positioning alongside the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail will allow it to act as a beacon to inspire further interest in the trail’s history as a railroad and shipping canal.
While work was ongoing on Monday, scores of people enjoying a walk on the trail stopped to ask about the signal, which was often mistaken for a flag pole before the restoration began taking shape.
“We already had people stopping ... saying, ‘It’s lit up!’” Belletzkie said.
The setup is the same that controlled the flow of trains from 1917 — when the signal mast was erected — through the 1960s when the rail segment through Southington ceased operations. The depot itself was built in 1892 and converted into a museum in 2013.
Though other similar signals exist in Connecticut, Belletzkie said it’s unique in the New England region in that museum visitors can pull the levers in the former railroad agent’s office to operate the controls themselves.
“What's unique about this more so is it's now all hooked up and patrons, visitors who come in, can actually play with the levers,” he said.
Southington Town Historian Philip Wooding, who curates the depot, said the completion of the project is the culmination of years of work of volunteers and donations of parts. The renovation work began around two-and-a-half years ago and required replacing portions of the mast which were sawn off when the station was shuttered.
Many younger residents and transplants to the area are unaware of the trail's history as a transportation hub that allowed industries in Southington, Plainville and Farmington to compete with factories lining the Connecticut River. Goods could be shipped north as far as Northampton or south to the ports of New Haven.
“I hope it brings a sense of history and perspective to people who are going by,” Wooding said. “ ... we can show the history all the way back to the canal basin and the progression of transportation and how it benefited the whole valley from New Haven up through Northampton, greatly enhancing trade and moving manufactured goods. It was a very active area at the time from a manufacturing standpoint.”
At the station’s peak in the 1920s there were four passenger trains scheduled every day, in addition to freight trains, and commuters disembarking at Milldale could hop onto trolleys that traversed the town.
Though the museum has been closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s set to reopen between Memorial Day and Labor Day next year on Saturdays and Sundays.