Original engine X1 -- still operating in revenue service 108 years later

The PV&T started with a sawmill & logging company on the north shore of Squam Lake. The sawmill was started in 1815, and by the 1850s the cut area was getting large enough so it was a real timewaster dragging logs (via mule-team) down to the mill.

So in 1859 the logging company (“Parsons Vale Lumber”) decided to try building a railroad to get to the further reaches of the Sandwich range. But it wasn’t enough to run the railroad just to Squam Lake, oh no; if it was built down the west shore they could directly interchange with the Northern in Ashland, and maybe pick up inbound traffic to the soon to be a major metropolis™ of Parsons Vale (the village of Parsons Vale has never had more than 300 residents) that had built up around the sawmill. This railroad was named the ‘Parsons Vale & Termite’ for the two sawmills – the original sawmill & the one up the line in Wonalancet – and carried a brand new charter to carry passengers & freight to one and all.

(This original line was abandoned north of Parsons Vale in 1875 because the timberlands had become exhausted and there wasn’t really any traffic on it other than lumber from the Termite mill.)

This was a wise choice, because there was enough incoming traffic to make the line hold its own on top of the sawmill traffic going down the line towards Boston (and, when a eastward branch was built to connect to the Portsmouth, Great Falls & Conway in Ossipee, towards Portland.

And then railroad fever kicked in. In 1867, the line to Ossipee was built down to Hollis, Maine, for a connection with the Portland & Rochester, which was taken over almost immediately thereafter. In 1868, the Concord & Portland Railway (Concord to Rochester) was merged, and the PV&T built south to Manchester & the New London Northern Railroad, which was also merged (at the cost of having to issue stock for the first time; the NLN stockholders got 30% of the stock.)

In 1870, a connection to Montréal, Québec became too tempting to ignore, so the railroad built almost directly west (across Mount Cube and up the mountain east of Thetford, VT (both of which involved grades that even the relaxed construction standards of this originally logging railroad couldn’t work with simple adhesion, so rope haulage & a Fell rack were used to climb out of Thetford & Holderness) then across to Montpelier, where the bankrupt Vermont Northern was acquired to extend the line up to the Canadian border at Phillipsburg, Québec, and then a new line was constructed from Phillipsburg to Iberville to connect with the LT&L.

Further south, branches were built off the ex-NLN in Manchester (in 1875, down the Merrimack to Boston with a branchline from Lowell to Lawrence) and Brattleboro (in 1877 across to Hoosic over the Green Mountains, but this time it was engineered to be all adhesion with a ruling grade of no more than 2% (this involved boring three ~5000 ft tunnels under three otherwise-impassible passes) and building a great loop around Jacksonville, VT.)

The fever started to subside in the 1880s, but not before the Portland mainline was extended up to Auburn, then across to the Kennebec and up to Augusta (where a junction with the LT&L’s B&Q was made) and from Pownal across the mountains to Albany & Schenectady, NY.

(Back in Québec the LT&L and the PV&T had both platted out almost exactly the same route for a connection into Montréal, then had spent the following 8 years arguing about it until they decided to operate a jointly owned subsidiary (the TdM) instead of ruining each other trying to fight it out.)

The next 20 years were fairly quiet (in the terms of the chaotic New England railroad scene of the late 1800s) with nothing more exciting happening than fending off a few proposed mergers with the NYNH&H and B&M, but in the early 1900s the PV&T joined the crowd of other railroads electrifying problematic segments of their lines by electrifying, first from Manchester to Brattleboro (1912), then across the Green mountains & into Albany (1920), followed by a slow march of the wires down to Portland, ME & Boston, MA, up to Montréal, concluding in a almost completely electrified 800 mile railroad in 1946, just as the rest of the United States was going all starry eyed over diesels.

A few mergers and takeovers happened during these years; in 1931, the PV&T purchased controlling interest in the 1200VDC third rail Albany-Hudson Fast Line, bought the Lincoln, Wonalancet, and Conway at a bankruptcy auction in 1937, and took over the Southern Vermont Traction Company in 1939, and, more terrifyingly, the New Haven & Boston & Maine joined together in 1925 for an attempt to take over the railroad, which was thwarted only by a quick (and ruinously expensive!) stock buyback.

In 1927, as a result of the attempted takeover, the majority stockholder (a descendant of the original Parsons Vale sawmill owners) reorganized the railroad as a trust, with 55% of the stock owned by the trust and some proto poison pills in the trust’s charter, like setting a maximum return of 4%, setting executive salaries at a maximum of 40 times the salary of the lowest paid employee, and writing a minimum of three union seats on the 10-person crew. (Despite being in a deeply conservative region, the stretch from Parsons Vale across to Burlington, VT was thick with socialists, anarchists, and liberals of various sorts, including the majority stockholder’s family, which had many years of watching how union crushing and greedy financiers (regretfully including, at times, themselves) had left too many railroads in such a fragile state that they could be snatched up by the giants or just stripped for assets and left to die) and tipped pink as a result.) This changed the corporate culture substatially; after shortcutting the major ways unscrupulous operators could asset-strip and railroad, then converted a slightly profitable railroad into an almost ridiculously profitable railroad, with most of the profits being ploughed right back into the railroad)

During the second world war the PV&T requested access to the B&M’s Plymouth to Wells River line, which the B&M reluctantly agreed to, and in the early 1950s, when the B&M was starting to shed unneeded lines, purchased the line outright. The PV&T electrified the line, arranged traffic rights (including stringing wire) across the Montpelier & Wells River Railroad, and promptly abandoned their old line directly across Mount Cube.

This set the stage for 1962, when the PV&T, TdM, and LT&L merged and became one big railroad. Most of the LT&L’s management stuck with the new PV&T system, because they’d seen what had happened to the PV&T since 1927 and wanted in; The TdM & LT&L unions had seen what happened and also wanted in to the (partially) union-controlled railroad (5 union members on the 10-person board in 1962!) and this shortish new england railroad became a largish multinational corporation, with enough money coming in from the Canadian segments to offset the steady erosion of new england’s industrial base.

By 1980, the PV&T had enough money to join the merger frenzy that had been going on in the United States, but ended up sitting on it until 1983, when the Delaware & Hudson suddenly was in play and the rumor mill was saying that Guilford was making a lowball bid and the now-mortibund D&H was thinking of taking it.

This would have been bad for the PV&T, because some of the bridge line traffic it carried was through-routed on the D&H, and much of that would evaporate if Guilford and their (spit!) union busting got control. So Guilford’s attempted lowball bid fell apart in a spirited, but short, bidding war which ended up with the PV&T taking the D&H for $40 million dollars instead of the $500,000 that was originally offered.

It could have been a stupid decision (the D&H was a wreck and only was kept afloat by generous government subsidies) but the PV&T had the money to fix some of the messes, electrify some of the others, and finish spinning off some of the branch lines NE of Albany. It took a few years, but it ended up paying dividends; in 1989, the PV&T bought the Bangor & Aroostook, which was in pretty dire straits but salvageable, then aimed the sales agents (who had done their time in the trenches coaxing traffic onto the D&H) at the ex-shippers in the Aroostook Valley (still hurting from the Penn Central abandoning the ‘69 potato crop in Selkirk Yard) and by offering outrageous shipping bargains – including buying a potato crop and getting it to the distributors who had been processing them 20 years ago – to get about 75% of the potato harvest back onto the railroad.

And then the acquisitions came on hot and fast;

The Parsons Vale Lines (the trust had renamed itself after the D&H joined the system) had become a class 1 in 1999, falling out in 2001, then back to a class 1 in 2004. At ~8900 miles it competes with the Kansas City Southern for the title of the smallest class 1, but is likely to win the lanterne rouge because KCS is in merger talks with the Canadian Pacific.

A fun fact about the PV&T, et al, is that half of the route is under wire, from 25KVAC on the C&PD and NE corridor, down through the old 3000VDC in New England, and then all the way down to the 600 volt trolley overhead on the newly re-electrified Lakeshore Branch of the ex-NStC&T. This allows end-to-end electric haulage on the most heavily trafficked routes, as well as profit-margin-saving haulage on the older lightly trafficked branches, and between the per-mile savings from electric motors and not having to change engines anywhere but Owego (until the CTRC international tunnel project started the railroad was constricted by the insanely tight clearances and trackage rights agreement of the Michigan Central tunnel between Windsor, ON, and Detroit, MI)

But it doesn’t hurt that the PV&T doesn’t have to chase after operating margins. A good margin doesn’t hurt, but it’s not coming at the expense of safety and reliability, so the PV&T ends up with both of those and a good margin thanks to its (well paid and humanely treated; the PV&T’s interpretation of “Precision Scheduled Railroading” does not involve hideously long trains, 24/7 on-call crews, or stock buybacks) employees and generous MOW budget.

There is even enough money in the budget to maintain a small heritage fleet, support a handful of railroad, trolley museums and marginally successful short lines, and allow the TdM shops their obsessive behavior about MLW & Alco diesels

  • Copyright © 2024 by Jessica L. Parsons (orc@pell.portland.or.us) unless otherwise noted
    Sat Nov 12 19:50:58 PST 2022