Ruth Gowitzke Staff Writer
The Connecticut Eastern Railroad Museum, located off of Bridge Street here in downtown Willimantic, celebrated Railroad Appreciation Day Saturday, Sept 1. From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., volunteers shared the history of how the museum was founded and how it has evolved. The volunteers included Adrien Atkins, who has been volunteering for 16 years, and Jeff Laverty, who has been the treasurer for 20 years.
Atkins said the beginning of the museum started out with a group of people who were interested in railroads and knew the railroad history of Willimantic. “They [set] out to preserve this so future generations can realize what happened in the past, because that was what made America.” This resurrection of the railroads began in 1991.
Atkins also discussed how the volunteers leased the land and used equipment that they had available in the area. At the time, the facility was not being used and the land had become overgrown. Atkins explained that there were “10-inch diameter trees, growing all in here in the pits and the things, so the fellas started bit by bit, shovelful by shovelful, cleaning things out – and we got a grant with the fence around the area and it just keeps going.”
The community is also a big part of the success that the volunteers had in restoring this historic area. A six-stall roundhouse for the trains, bulldozed in the 1930’s, was reconstructed in August 2000 utilizing the original blueprints. They were also able to get a $400,000 grant from the community that allowed them to start their project. “Money is always hard to come by,” said Atkins, “but as we get a little money, we do something to improve the place.”
According to the museum’s website, “future plans include extending track from the museum site to the Bridge Street entrance, reconstructing structures such as water towers on their original foundations, and erecting a Railroad Station/Visitor Center.”
Railroad Appreciation Day was officially started in 2011, according to Laverty. Railroad Appreciation Day has brought at most 1,000 people to visit the museum and learn about the historic trains. The museum offers many activities for this day, which includes music, food, train-themed word-searches, face painting and train rides. Children are also given goody bags with ducks, whistles and stickers. They are also allowed to go inside some of the trains that are restored to get an inside look at how a train operates.
Fortunately, for both the volunteers and the patrons, it was not too hot outside that day. A mother of three noted that in the past when they had come here, it was raining, so she was fortunate that it was nice outside for that day.
Corina Yanes, one of the student volunteers and a freshman at Eastern, said that she volunteered for this event because she is an Opportunity Scholar. An Opportunity Scholar is “an undocumented student who wants a degree and will get the opportunity through Eastern to develop a partnership with other students and mentors. “Part of the scholarship requires me to do ten hours of volunteer work a semester,” said Yanes.
Students interested in railroads should visit the museum and sign up to volunteer for upcoming events.