March 21, 2010

Ye Olde Commute

When the big storm hit last week, like many in my town, I was left in the cold and dark for several days. The Darien Library became my second home, affording me a chance finally to read historian Kenneth Reiss’s “The Story of Darien Connecticut”, an excellent new book.

What I found was that the story of this “bedroom” community’s growth was intimately linked to transportation.

As early as 1699 roads had been laid out on routes still used today. But where today those roads are lined with trees (whose felling by the storm left us without power or passage!), by the mid-1700’s most of southern Fairfield county had been cleared of all trees to allow for farming. Those mighty oaks taken out by the storm were not as old as we’d thought.

In the 1770’s the maintenance of Country Road (now known as Old Kings Highway) was the responsibility of the locals. Every able bodied man and beast could be enlisted for two days each year to keep the roads in good shape. But traffic then consisted mostly of farm carts, horses and pedestrians.

By 1785 there was only one privately owned “pleasure” vehicle in all of Stamford, a two-wheeled chaise owned by the affluent John Davenport.

At the end of the 18th century it was clear that we needed more roads and the state authorized more than a hundred privately-funded toll roads to be built. The deal was that, after building the road and charging tolls, once investors had recouped their costs plus 12% annual interest, the roads were revert to state control. Of the 121 toll-road franchises authorized by the legislature, not one met that goal.

One of the first such roads was the original Connecticut Turnpike, now Route 1, the Boston Post Road. Another was the Norwalk to Danbury ‘pike, now Route 7.

Four toll gates were erected: Greenwich, Stamford, the Saugatuck River Bridge and Fairfield. No tolls were collected for those going to church, militia muster or farmers going to the mills. Everyone else paid 15 cents at each toll barrier.
The locals quickly found roads to bypass the tolls which were nicknamed “shun-pikes”.

Regular horse-drawn coaches carried passengers from Boston to NY. And three days a week there was a coach from Darien to Stamford, connecting to a steamboat to New York.

The last tolls were collected in 1854, shortly after the New York & New Haven Railroad started service. An 1850 timetable showed three trains a day from Darien to NYC, each averaging two hours and ten minutes. Today Metro-North makes the run in just under an hour.

The one way fare was 70 cents vs today’s $12.25 at rush hour.

By the 1870’s Darien was seeing what we today call “transit oriented development”, as full page ads lured city dwellers to newly built homes near the Noroton station which opened in the 1870’s.

In the 1890’s the one-track railroad was replaced with four tracks, above grade and eliminating street crossings.

In the 1890’s the trolleys arrived. The Stamford Street Railroad ran up the Post Road connecting in downtown Darien with the Norwalk Tramway (rattling along Railroad Ave., now known as Tokeneke Rd.); the latter also offered open-air excursion cars to the Roton Point amusement park in the summer.

Riders could catch a trolley every 40 minutes for a nickel a ride. There were so many trolley lines in the state that it was said you could go all the way from New York to Boston, connecting from line to line, for just five cents a ride.
The trolleys were replaced by buses in 1933.

Fast forward to the present where we are again debating tolls on our roads, possible trolley service in Stamford and T.O.D. (“transit oriented development”) is all the rage. Have things really changed that much over two hundred years?

1 comment:

Scott Roberson said...

After yesterday's long, slow ride home to New Haven from my job in Stamford, I realized I really need to start taking the train more. The problem is that the parking deck in New Haven has a 7+ year waiting list. An alternative is to ride a bicycle. I'd sure like to ride my bike to the train, take it on the train, and then bike to my office in Stamford. But Metro-North has this anti-bicyclist policy that says that if you want to take your bike on the train, then I'd have to wait to get on the 9pm train home. WTF?!? Surely there's a better way.

I understand that if it's a super-crowded train then accommodating a bicycle is not feasible. It's rude to the other passengers. But if the train is not full.... And what if it's the front car heading out of NYC. All of those rear cars fill up before the front ones do. Why can't they have a policy that only the front cars can carry bicycles. Or why can't they just have a cargo car, like they have in England. They have those bar cars. Those would be perfect for bike storage.

And the biggest slap in the face for all of this is that the MTA's own policies say that you can take your bicycle on the MTA subways at anytime. WTF?! They just suggest you not do that during rush hour, but there's not a rule against it? What gives MTA? Why you hatin' on us bikers outside of NYC?


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