History

Better known as the oldest operating Union Station in the United States, the historic Victorian era Union Depot of Canaan, Ct. continues to be known as the heart of the town.  This grand, wooden structure was born in the heyday of the development of railroads in New England, and miraculously has survived until Fire caused it to almost be completely    destroyed on October 13, 2001. 

In 1872 the Housatonic Railroad and Connecticut Western Railroad constructed the building at the junction in North Canaan.  The Housatonic ran generally north  to south, following it’s namesake river through the hills and valleys of  western Connecticut and Massachusetts.  The “Western” later became the Central New England, and eventually, both railroads fell under the dominance of the New York, New Haven and Hartford.  The “Western” ran from Hartford, west to Poughkeepsie, NY and the important high level bridge across the Hudson River.  This link created an all rail route north of New York City, and connected the coal fields of Pennsylvania to the factories of New England.  Black diamonds could flow  north east, manufactured goods from the many mills and forges of New England would move west and south.

The Canaan depot is a Victorian era gem.  It was designed by the chief engineer of the railroad, but it’s the wooden carpentry that makes the building exceptional.  G. H. Bundy a cabinet maker and builder of coffins, of Lakeville, CT is credited with this craftsmanship.

The building featured exterior walls of board and batten siding, and two long wings are at right angles to each other at the diamond.  A distinctive three story tower (topped by a locomotive weathervane) allowed railroad telegraph operators a clear view down the right of way.  Each wing was 90 feet in length and was occupied by the respective railroad companies noted above.  Graceful rounded arch windows were used throughout, and neat wooden brackets supported the roof and track side canopies.  Old curved back benches once occupied the platforms for patrons who were changing trains here.

On the second floor, is a large room that functioned as the station restaurant.  It had a twenty foot long semicircular counter in place.  In the days before railroad dining cars were commonplace, the Canaan depot lunch room satisfied many a hungry rail patron. 

In 1971, passenger service was discontinued.  Freight service would remain only until 1974, and the station was closed.  It was saved from demolition by a former Amtrak executive who purchased it and converted it to a flourishing retail center, which until recently also includes a very popular railroad theme restaurant in the Central New England wing of the building.  In 1980, the state “rail banked” the Housatonic track, and since 1983 a short line by the same name operates on the upgraded track age, which is seeing increasing car loadings.  Occasional rail fan excursions still operate on the historic and scenic right of way.  Many other stations still exist along the old Housatonic track, and countryside of western Massachusetts and Connecticut.

The Connecticut Historical  Railroad Association, INC. recently purchased the station after a huge fire nearly destroyed this historical landmark. This not for profit charitable organization is  in the works of reconstructing the station back to its original state. The estimated project cost is close to 2.2 million dollars in work and labor. Donations are needed. Please help on reconstructing this historical site that was so much a part of peoples lives and the heart of this small town.

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  1. The New York Times
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    November 25, 2001
    The View From/North Canaan; Fire Burns Old Station And Hits a Town’s Heart

    By JEFFREY B. COHEN
    THERE is a blaze-burned hole in the center of North Canaan. No one was hurt in the fire, but many have been hurt by it, from business owners to employees to residents who no longer see what used to be.

    Then there are the thousands who used to make the drive every year just to be near the Union Depot, to have lunch at the building that rests like an L where two rail lines meet. But after the early morning fire of Oct. 13 that destroyed much of the 130-year-old train station, passersby can only stop with their cameras and their memories, squint at the damage and mourn.

    ”I’m sick to see this,” said Ralph Harris, president of the Railroad Museum of New England, eyes on the ground. ”When anybody I know thought of Canaan, the depot is what came to mind.”

    What first comes to mind is the building, a rare two-winged Victorian train station and tower that once served two different rail lines, a wooden reminder of what rail travel once was. Men went off to war from here, families drove to dine here, children climbed on cabooses here. Train fans came from all over just to see the building.

    But there is also the sense among residents that this building, in its newer 21st century commercial function, was the town’s heart. The seven businesses inside, including an accounting firm, restaurant and gift shop, drew people and drove the town.

    Bill Jeske made the drive from Andover to pay his respects. ”I used to come here just to be with this building,” Mr. Jeske said, camera in hand. ”I was 18 years old, I used to live in East Granby and I’d drive out here and watch the trains go by. This is where I fell in love with trains, right here. I’ve got pictures from this building since 1968.”

    ”You’ve got pictures of this thing?” asked Paul Ramunni, the depot’s co-owner whose second floor accounting firm was destroyed. ”All my records, all my photographs, blueprints, everything was in that building,” he said.

    Mr. Jeske offered to send him the pictures for free, and Mr. Ramunni offered to kiss him on Main Street if he did.

    ”Because if we ever rebuild it, we’re going to need that detail,” Mr. Ramunni said.

    The condemnation order came in early November to begin demolishing all parts of the depot damaged by the fire, now confirmed as arson, by Dec. 1. The insurance money will just barely cover the mortgage and the $40,000 to $50,000 demolition, Mr. Ramunni said, so the roughly $2 million needed to accurately rebuild both wings doesn’t seem likely. Nor do grants from the state and federal governments, he said.

    So the only option is to rebuild just one wing, the less-damaged north/south side, and to reopen the restaurant and accounting firm. But the bulk of the estimated $300,000 needed for even this partial rebuild will have to be raised.

    A tour of what is left of Mr. Ramunni’s accounting office puts the damage in perspective. ”This was our file room,” he said, standing in the middle of papers and soot. ”Crunch, crunch, crunch,” Mr. Ramunni said, making his way down the hall. Upon arriving at the grand, windswept room that was his office, he pointed to a heap of charred white papers atop a burned desk. ”That’s my Day-Timer,” he said.

    Below Mr. Ramunni’s office was the bathroom and kitchen of Keilty’s Depot, a family-owned restaurant that saw more than 40,000 customers annually. There is no place to go until the depot is rebuilt for chef Victor Keilty and his family, so demolition means progress.

    ”I look at it as a step forward,” Mr. Keilty said, who said he was underinsured. ”It’s got to happen, it just can’t sit there. We’re looking for other space, but we’d prefer to go right back in there. But at some point if it’s not going to happen, we’ll have to go somewhere else.”

    Not all of the depot’s seven businesses are waiting to reopen if the depot does. Some already have. Sidetracks, a gift shop owned by Charlene Keilty, the chef’s wife, reopened just up Route 7 on Nov. 11.

    Then there’s Ad-Com Printing, destroyed by water and smoke, not by fire. It reopened in a new location on Nov. 5, and the transition was not easy, Ken Einfeldt, Ad-Com’s owner, said.

    ”To be honest, I never really realized how strange an experience it is to just replace everything,” he said. ”Everybody and anybody you talk to knows somebody who’s been wiped out, and, this might sound insensitive, I never really appreciated it until it was me. You just can’t relate to how depressing it can get.”

    The Visiting Nurses Association of Northwest Connecticut has yet to relocate, the offices of the Housatonic Railroad has moved just up the tracks, and Heritage Home Care is now a block away.

    Jean Melici of Canaan, who works at Heritage, said that although the business has recovered, she has not. ”The depot’s been there my whole life,” she said. ”The town isn’t going to be the same without it. Even if they build it to scale, it’s going to be a replica. This history is gone.”

    The questions Mr. Ramunni and his co-owner Ross Grannon now face is when, how and how much of the Canaan Union Depot should be brought back to life. ”Everybody, to the person, is saying, ‘You’re going to rebuild, aren’t you?’ And I say, ‘It’s just a matter of money.’ That’s all it is,” Mr. Ramunni said.

    But for preservationists like Erik Ledbetter, associate editor of the Internet Railway Preservation News, raising money for just half a rebuild is at best disappointing. ”Then you’re starting to look at a building that is neither fish nor fowl,” he said, echoing other preservationists. ”It’s reconstructed, not original, and it’s not even an accurate reconstruction of the original.”

    After all, if, by definition, what made the Union Depot a union depot was the L-shape of the building that serviced two lines, rebuilding just one wing would not make a union depot.

    Still, Mr. Ramunni is trying to be optimistic. ”Somebody’s got to come forward and say, ‘Look, let me help you out here,’ ” he said. ”It’s not for me, it’s for the community. It’s not just a building with businesses. The cabooses, kids would come by here that had never seen a caboose before. They don’t know what a train station is. I grew up with that stuff.”

    Photos: Exterior and interior views of the Union Depot in North Canaan, which was destroyed by fire last month. The station, which had offices, stores and a restaurant, was 130 years old and had become a tourist attraction. The owner hopes to rebuild. (Photographs by Judith Pszenica for The New York Times)

    http://www.nytimes.com/2001/11/25/nyregion/the-view-from-north-canaan-fire-burns-old-station-and-hits-a-town-s-heart.html

  2. Great photo archives of the station here:
    http://railroads.uconn.edu/exhibits/canaan/index.html

  3. Hello –

    I want to correct an error that I see in the write-up of the Canaan Union Station and that is in regards to the statement that the original station restaurant was on the second floor of the station. That is incorrect and I can affirm that the restaurant was on the first floor. What was on the second floor was the kitchen for the restaurant. Built within the wall was a dumbwaiter that carried the food down to the dining area from the kitchen above and, naturally, the dirty dishes back up.

    I am originally from Canaan myself having lived there from 1929 to the late 1960’s. I worked in the ticket office of the station for the NYNH&H RR beginning in 1947 until going in to the Army at the end of 1953. Currently I am living in Northern California. I used to visit Canaan (my brother still does)at least twice each year, however, now that I am 87 years old, I am afraid that my traveling days are over.

    If anyone is interested in documents and photos of early railroading in the Canaan area, I have donated a considerable number of said items to the Canaan Historical Museum.

    Leroy Beaujon
    Morgan Hill, CA


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