Several years ago while driving through Hopedale, Mass., I happened to see a sign on the side of a small
building that read "Grafton & Upton Railroad Company." Never having heard of any railroad with this name, I
returned a few weeks later and determined that there really was a small 15.5-mile-long industrial railroad
running from Milford, a large town in southeastern Massachusetts, through Hopedale, Upton, West Upton
and Grafton to North Grafton, a town located a few miles southeast of Worcester.
Shortly after I became involved in the study of the Grafton & Upton (G&U), it became apparent that this rail
line was unique. Probably the most unusual reason for this was that the railroad had been operated and
controlled by its original owners for almost 80 years. It is most remarkable to find a road of such length in
New England today, linking such large areas as Milford and Worcester, which has not been acquired by
larger railroad interests. The G&U is of particular interest to students of shortline railroading.
In addition to its mainline, the railroad has nearly five miles of yard trackage; and although it is basically an
industrial line, it has had a varied history. The G&U has survived strikes, storms and various economic
recessions. From a pair of narrow-gauge steam combination-type vehicles in 1874, through a progression
of gauge widenings and line extensions, along with a complete rebuild, it was one of the few railroads to
go from steam to electric operation before changing to diesel power.
For more than a century, change and progress were a G&U trademark, but at the same time its owner, the
Draper Company, tended to keep publicity at a low key. Draper was interested in maintaining an efficient
railroad with which to haul its products, and not in gaining renown for its shortline. The G&U provided
freight service from 1896 until 1967 for the Draper Company, a large textile manufacturer, and for several
smaller companies. In 1967 the railroad was acquired by Rockwell International's Weaving Machinery
Division and was purchased in 1979 by Torco, a firm specializing in the leasing of piggyback trailers for rail
The southern terminal of what is now the Grafton & Upton Railroad is a point in Milford where the tracks
join with a CSX (Conrail) branch line. Offices and main yards of the G&U are located in Hopedale, adjacent
to the buildings once associated with the Draper Company. Other yards are located at Milford, West Upton,
Grafton, and at the northern terminal where the tracks join with CSX (former Boston & Albany) at North
In the Beginning: The Grafton Center Railroad
As early as 1873, a need was felt for a railroad to operate over the three miles between Grafton Center
(now Grafton) and New England Village (now known as North Grafton). During that same year,
approximately 50 residents banded together and initiated the birth of a local rail line -- the Grafton Center
Railroad. These citizens, along with many others, felt there was a real need for a railroad in Grafton.
Consequently they proceeded with the endeavor.
In addition to financial backing provided by the incorporators, Grafton residents were canvassed in an
effort to obtain more project funding. Many donated money and this was of considerable importance to
getting the road started. On September 17, 1873, it was reported that the entire $30,000 in stock had been
subscribed for, and on October 22, 1873, the Grafton Center Railroad was incorporated under the general
laws of Massachusetts. Survey work and construction were started immediately on a three-mile narrow-
gauge line to run from the Boston & Albany (B&A) Railroad depot at New England Village to Grafton Center.
Eight gravel cars and a second-hand steam locomotive were purchased for a work train. Grading of the
new road by laborers receiving $1.25 per day was completed by February 1874 with the exception of four
rods. Second-hand wooden ties were purchased from the B&A. These ties were turned over, laid 2,600 to
the mile, and used to support 30- to 40-foot lengths of rail weighing 35 pounds to the yard. The latter were
in place by April. Foundations for a depot at Grafton Center were laid by May 21,1874, and the building
completed three weeks later. It was located in the rear of the Grafton town hall near Jordan's garage. One
end of the station was used for express service, while the structure otherwise had two doors and stalls for
housing two locomotives overnight. Each door had its own set of tracks leading to the mainline.
A railroad station, together with a freight house, was owned by the B&A at New England Village. Parts of
each building were used by the Grafton Center for several years. The earliest equipment on the new
railroad consisted of a self-contained vehicle for passengers and baggage. This "dummy" car weighed
eight tons and was powered by an upright steam engine positioned inside the car. Painted yellow with red
and brown trimmings, it came equipped with crimson velvet cushions for the convenience of passengers.
The engine was separated from the rest of the car by a partition, while passenger capacity was between 25
and 30 people. Its crew consisted of two men: a conductor who sold tickets and an engineer who also
acted as brakeman.
Great excitement prevailed at Grafton Center on July 14, 1874, as residents anticipated the initial arrival of
the "dummy," scheduled for about 7:30 p.m. However, because its pump broke down "on the flat," the
vehicle did not arrive until 10:30 p.m. Its whistle woke the sleeping populace even though it had to be
towed to the depot by horses. The pump was replaced and several test runs were made the following day.
The County Commissioners accepted the railroad in August and regular operations started on August 20,
1874. Total cost of its construction was $10,274, while the dummy cost $3,725. At first, the road was
primarily a passenger carrier and it conducted a good business from the Grafton Center depot. During the
first 40 days of operation, the passenger service netted $728.13. Although the car was built to seat about
25, it is known that, on one run, 59 people were packed in by a derby-hatted conductor. The car traveled at
a speed of between seven and 15 m.p.h. while the conductor collected the five and one-half cent per mile
fare. Trains left the Grafton Center depot four times each day to make connections with Worcester-bound
B&A trains, and five times each day to make Boston connections. A count taken around September 1, 1874,
indicated that 180 passengers had been carried on the railroad during the one day that was checked. The
average daily number of passengers carried was 100.
The annual report of the Board of Railroad Commissioners of Massachusetts for 1874 made the following
observation: "Excavations and embankments are light, the road following the surface of the ground pretty
closely, with sharp curves and heavy grades." The sharpest curve was 23 degrees and the grade was
about two percent both north and south due to the descent from the B&A to the Quinsigamond River and
the ascent from the river to Grafton Center.
There were occasional problems. For instance, on January 16,1875, someone placed a rail across the
tracks which the dummy was able to dislodge. On about January 21, the engineer discovered another rail
laid across the track near "Carroll's Crossing." During the winter of 1875, ice froze so thick on the rails that
the engineer and conductor had to chop it away with an axe.
Receipts for the first six months of operation were $2,794.03, while 16,839 passengers were carried
during this period. Near the end of December 1875 several private individuals purchased a second dummy
which they loaned to the company whenever the occasion required it, and by March 1876 the railroad had
settled its land claims. Records for 1878 showed gross receipts of the railroad to be $3,995.07, with total
operating costs being $3,202.45. Net income was $792.62 and 22,327 passengers were carried during
the year. Actually, the profit ratio was high, being in the neighborhood of 20 percent. A freight department
had been established that August at a cost of $375.39 and its earnings at the end of the year amounted to
$511.90. The cost of fuel used amounted to $1.38 each day. The first superintendent was J. H. Wood,
followed by Winthrop Faulkner. The success of the road was due very much to the personal care Faulkner
exercised over its interests. Edmund Capron, Faulkner's successor in 1879, had been the efficient
conductor from its beginning and his experience helped promote the future efficiency of the enterprise. It
was reported in 1884 that the original dummy car had been sold for $77.42.
The Grafton Center Railroad was operated successfully for thirteen years by its owners, and it did its share
toward keeping the town in touch with the business world. However, the need for a railroad with a larger
capacity and a different terminal had been noticeable from the start. Furthermore, the cost of its
management had been an important question to the investors. The administration had been economical
and adequate, doing much with the small resources of a small railroad. However, the tracks were in poor
condition after many years of use and the entire system needed reorganization. Edward P. Usher, a lawyer
and town counsel of Grafton, secured control of the railroad's stock in 1887 and he was elected president
of the company on March 26, 1887. Original stock-owners, having little faith in receiving returns on their
investments, were willing to sell the property for almost anything they could get for it. The last train
operated over the Grafton Center Railroad on July 9, 1887. Thereafter, under Usher's direction, the three-
mile line was rebuilt to standard gauge.
Building the G&U
With the Grafton Center Railroad having been taken over by Edward P. Usher in 1887 came a decision to
extend the line to West Upton, a distance of 4.5 miles. This was of much interest and concern to the
several local businesses, including the Wm. Knowlton & Sons straw hat shop in West Upton and the
Benson & Nelson straw hat shop in Upton. Knowlton needed the transportation in order to ship its hats to
all parts of the United States and Canada. Changes came quickly under Usher's management. The 60
foot long bridge across the Quinsigamond River was replaced and in July of 1887, the depot at Grafton
Center was moved to the ball grounds and modified to include a passenger room, a ticket office and a
lounge room. A new engine house was also erected nearby. Several passengers and freight cars, along
with a snowplow and a new steam locomotive, were acquired. A railroad yard extending from Westboro
Street to a point near Waterville Street was built at North Grafton. Additionally, a turntable was installed
near the junction of a new connector track and the original track that already ran to the B&A depot on
Westboro Street. Steam locomotives, when placed correctly on the North Grafton turntable, were turned
manually by two men until its use was discontinued in 1919.
In 1887, when the new Grafton Center depot was erected, sidings were installed to reach the depot and
the engine house, as well as a coal yard. The track running to the North Grafton depot was used for
passenger service, while the connector track served as an interchange with the B&A. A 300 foot long track
in the North Grafton yard, designated as the "Allen track," was used as a public siding. Structures in the
Grafton Center yard included a small freight shed behind the depot, later replaced by a boxcar body, and a
tool house located near the switch that controlled the yard entrance.
On January 1, 1888, the County Commissioners held a hearing at Worcester on a petition to extend the
line to Milford. [No holiday on New Year's Day back then, evidently] By a special act of the state legislature
on February 17, 1888, the name of the railroad was changed to the Grafton & Upton Railroad Company. C.
H. Wellington was contractor for the extension. Owners of the Wm. Knowlton & Sons hat factory were
instrumental in having the tracks extended to West Upton and in 1889 carried 1,000 tons of coal to the large
hat firm. The first passenger cars were run over the new railroad early in February 1889 for the
convenience of the road builder, several stockholders and directors. George W. Knowlton joined the
company on the return trip.
On March 12, 1889, a day long celebration at West Upton for the railroad included gun volleys and salutes
by Battery B of Worcester, as well as concerts by the Upton band. A contract to build the eight-mile long
extension between Upton and Milford was awarded to Newell & Snowling of Uxbridge, Mass., during May
1889. Construction work on the railroad between Benson & Nelson's shop and the Upton depot was
pushed by the contractors working on this segment, Dunbar & Crockett. During the construction period,
when workers were near what is now called Brown's Road crossing, it's believed that part of an Indian
burial ground was uncovered, with several bones, arrow heads, shell beads and an entire skeleton being
found. By the end of December 1889, the road had been ballasted between Upton and Hopedale and
there had been an excursion for officials and directors. The train halted at various points of interest while
the work was examined.
At this time, 300 men and 75 teams of horses were working in three separate gangs at Milford, Hopedale
and Upton. These crews worked for 13 months hewing through massive rocky barriers along the crooked
roadbeds between each town. No power equipment was available and the labor was done the difficult way
- by man and beast. Early in January 1890, construction had reached the Milford-Hopedale town line, with
150 men and a dozen or more teams still engaged in the work. Switching tracks were laid at the Draper
Company in Hopedale during January and a bridge over the rollway of Dutcher's Pond (I suppose this must
have been the 'Lower Pond' a bit downstream from Freedom Street, where the Dutcher Temple Company
was located for many years.) was rebuilt in order that freight cars could go directly to the foundry.
Also in January, the first carload of freight arrived in Milford and went to the elastic fabric mill.
Within one month of completing the railroad to Milford, an injunction was served on President Usher by the
New York & New England Railroad, preventing the G&U from joining the NY&NE near Depot Street.
Differences between the two roads were resolved by early May, whereafter workers finished laying a switch
and side tracks in the Milford yard. One of the switch tracks led to the turntable and engine house, while
another was a 500 foot-long "turnout" and a third was a 300-foot siding. A party of about 35 people made an
inspection trip over the road on May 14. The trip started at the Milford terminal, with others picked up at
stations along the line. This train was in charge of Superintendent Charles B. Powers, while President
Usher and General Manager Frank W. Morse were in the party. Railroad Commissioner Kinsley, after
boarding at North Grafton, inspected the road and stations.
An official opening of the entire line took place May 17, 1890, with several ceremonies. Seven trains ran
each way on the first day. A round-trip ticket admitted the rider to a Worcester theater to see the early
moving picture, "Little Lord Fauntleroy," or to the Music Hall in Milford where Annie Ward Tiffany starred in
"The Step Daughter." Another feature of the day was a baseball game between Milford and Natick.
Growth and Changes
Freight service was initiated the day after the line officially opened. Shortly thereafter, 200 cans of milk from
outlying farms in Upton were being shipped daily from the Upton depot to Milford. One hundred twenty-
eight cases of hats from the Benson & Nelson hat shop were also shipped daily from the Upton depot,
while the Knowlton hat shop was shipping about 212 cases of hats each day from the West Upton depot.
The Milford Daily News was carried from Milford to Upton and West Upton by rail for many years and, after
setting the fare at three cents per mile, passenger service was retained on the G&U for nearly 40 years.
At this time, the management policy was that the initial construction debt should be eliminated as soon as
possible. Business was good and instead of projecting the earnings and working on a long-term debt,
earnings of the railroad were utilized for the next five years to obtain complete freedom from all
encumbrances. During this same period, the heavier engines being used, along with heavier loads being
carried, made it necessary to replace the 35-pound rails used on the original three-mile-long road with
more durable 50-pound steel rails. The 40-pound rails used on the original extension between Grafton
Center and West Upton were also replaced with heavier 50-pound rails.
Business during 1894 was poor, resulting in part-time operations and the elimination of one train crew.
This year also marked the entrance of the Draper firm into the perpetuation of the G&U. W. F. Draper,
head of the Hopedale firm, was appointed to the railroad's Board of Directors in November 1894. The
Draper Company was one of the largest manufactures of textile looms in the world and its plant was
located adjacent to the station and large freight yard at Hopedale. The bulky machinery produced did not
lend itself to other forms of transportation and the management knew the value of having a railroad
connection. Consequently, control of the line by the Draper Company was planned and gradually
accomplished by the purchase of stock.
A 2.75-mile-long electric car loop designed to carry passengers between Brooks and Williams streets in
the Uptons, which had been built during 1901 and 1902, was purchased by the G&U on June 19, 1902. At
the same time, electrification of the railroad's mainline was progressing. On June 23, 1902, electric
streetcar service was inaugurated by the railroad between Milford and North Grafton by way of the loop, thus
ending the passenger service which had been provided by steam train since 1890. Steam freight trains
used the mainline at night to avoid delays to the daytime passenger operations. Trains left Hopedale at
midnight each day, went to North Grafton, then to Milford and returned to Hopedale before 5:30 a.m. in
order to allow the electric cars uninterrupted use of the line. Two electric converters that were required to
furnish power for the new service were installed inside the Grafton Center depot during June 1902. Station
Agent Albert Goddard was the first G&U employee to operate the new equipment.
Many of the 700 guests at the wedding of Dorothy Draper (daughter of ex-Governor and Mrs. E. S. Draper of
Hopedale), who became the bride of Thomas B. Gannett, Jr., on November 21, 1911 at the Hopedale
Memorial Church, arrived in two special trains from Boston. They ran over the B&A to Milford and then
transferred to G&U iron at Milford for the remaining journey. The cars of the first special were attached to a
regular train as far as Milford, where a special locomotive took the cars through to Hopedale without
change. The second special included three cars.
The Milford engine house was completely destroyed by fire on March 14, 1914. The No. 5 steam
locomotive, which survived the fire, was entirely rebuilt by John F. Damon, owner of a Milford machine shop.
It was at first believed that the locomotive would have to be shipped back to the factory where it had been
built, but Damon took the job and finished the work in record time. After receiving a test and inspection, the
engine made a trial run to Hopedale and back with everything working smoothly.
Former Massachusetts Governor E. S. Draper's body was brought to Milford after he died unexpectedly in
Greenville, S.C., on April 9, 1914. Upon its arrival at Milford, the funeral train was transferred to the G&U in
order to reach Hopedale.
Freight service using steam locomotives was continued until April 22, 1919, at which time two steeple cab
electric freight motors (Nos. 7 and 8) were purchased and the steam engines were sold. Use of the North
Grafton turntable ended at this time and on June 1, 1919, electric car service through Upton and West
Upton was shifted to the mainline. Rails on the "Loop" were taken up late in 1920.
From the inception of electric use on the G&U, power had been supplied from a converter at Grafton and
from another one at Draper's engine room at Hopedale. During April of 1923, the Draper plant was so busy
that it became necessary to stop supplying power to the railroad and for the G&U to purchase power from
the New England Power Company at Millbury, Mass. A 13.2-Kv feeder line was extended from the power
company's No. 1 substation at Millbury via the Fisher Manufacturing Company at Fisherville to the Grafton
Passenger and express trolley service over the mainline was discontinued on August 31, 1928. Carrying of
the U.S. Mail, which started on September 15, 1890, along with the Railway Express service, was
discontinued in 1952. A used Wason electric express car, purchased from the Worcester Consolidated
Street Railway Company in May 1930, continued to carry hats from the Knowlton shop to an express
building at North Grafton until the mid-1940s. By 1932, the railroad's schedule had been cut to three days a
week. Freight revenue had decreased considerably during the Great Depression and the railroad struggled
through the 1930s with no relief until after the start of World War II. This brought an increase in traffic and
revenue to where all of the rails had been replaced with 85-pound steel.
Following the end of the war, it became necessary to cut operating expenses, so the line's electric
operation was terminated. Electric power was shut off on July 3, 1946, and a B&A steam engine, No. 300,
was put into service on July 4, 1946. On July 11, two GE 44-ton diesels (Nos. 9 and 10) were purchased.
Around the 25th of the month, the steam engine was returned to the B&A and the diesels took over freight
operations. Following this, the copper wires, poles, guy wires and trolley hangars that had been part of the
electric operations were removed and sold. The obsolete express car was scrapped by a Hopedale
salvage dealer in 1949.
In September of 1948, the directors voted to rehabilitate the road by using new ballast and ties as needed,
by resurfacing and relining the tracks and correcting bad curves, sags and grades. The roadbed was
completely reconstructed during 1950-1952. At North Grafton, the yard was rebuilt to hold 110 standard 40-
foot-long cars and the old passenger track from the mainline to the B&A depot was removed. The longest
crooked sections of track remaining from the original Grafton Center Railroad were straightened during this
program. Revenue was down in the late 1950s and the stations at West Upton and Grafton Center were
closed on February 15, 1961. Previously, a petition to close the station at Upton was filed on January 2,
1953, and the old building was removed by a group of Hopkinton Boy Scouts in 1956. Its lumber was used
later in the construction of a Boy Scout camp in Hopkinton.
With the sale of the Draper Company in 1967, ownership of the G&U was taken over by Rockwell
International. By 1970 about eight cars were handled each morning between Hopedale and North Grafton.
A trip would be made to the Milford interchange later each day. During July 1973, the Penn Central Railroad
stopped serving the southern terminus of the Grafton & Upton. This was done strictly as an economy
measure because of financial problems besetting the PC. For the next six months, the southern
interchange was not used although the roadbed, the tracks, the Milford yard and the actual interchange
were kept in excellent operating condition. Service to this yard resumed on January 21, 1974. This was
done as another economy measure by the Penn Central because of a critical fuel crisis. Several years
later, Milford was closed down again and, during the mid-1980s, trains were prevented from reaching the
Milford yard from Hopedale because the Route 16 highway crossing was covered with blacktop.
A business recession in 1975 signaled the beginning of several events which gradually led to a reduction
of revenue services and a general deterioration of the roadbed and various pieces of equipment. Deliveries
to the Draper Company facility came to an end. Its foundries were closed and no looms were shipped over
the railroad. Deliveries of coke for the Whitin Machine Company also came to a halt as that company's
foundry had been converted to electric operation. No trips were made to North Grafton for several months,
but 170 carloads of road salt were delivered to the Upton Fuel & Construction Company that year.
Operations struggled along and the North Grafton interchange was reopened in mid-1976 after a long
period of inactivity. Rockwell International turned off the heat in several buildings, causing the Hopedale
depot to close in December 1977. Railroad office operations were shifted to the former foundry area, and
later, to an area located in the engine house. At the end of 1977, salt and coke cars were still being
delivered to the Upton Fuel Company and runs were still being made when needed to the Washington Mills
facility at North Grafton.
In more recent years, several gas turbines had been brought to the North Grafton yard for delivery to a
power company in Shrewsbury. Early in November 1978, Rockwell International representatives
announced that the company had entered into an agreement for a transfer of common stock shares in the
Grafton & Upton Railroad to Torco, Inc. of Worcester. Later that same month, it was announced that four of
the eight remaining employees would be laid off due to a lack of business. The cost of an earlier major tie
replacement project is believed to have approached the selling price of the railroad-reportedly about
$100,000. The sale included all of the G&U holdings, including buildings. The North Yard at the former
Draper plant and two large rail cranes stored near the engine house were not part of the sale. Torco
assumed control of the railroad on January 29, 1979, with the owners stating that they expected to continue
freight service. Torco was a division of Central New England Consolidated, located at 40 Pullman Street in
Worcester. One of its primary businesses involved the leasing of railroad piggyback haulers.
At this point, operation of the Grafton & Upton Railroad Company took on a grim outlook. Only 391 cars
were hauled during 1983. About 30,000 tons of calcium chloride and salt were brought to West Upton
during 1986 and revenue service by 1987 was intermittent. Freight service to West Upton ended in mid-
1987 due to the loss of its major customer and to the unsafe condition of the roadbed. However, service
was continued at different intervals to the Washington Mills Abrasive Company during 1988. The Upton
Fuel & Construction Company came back to the railroad in October 1993 as a customer after an absence
of about seven years, and carloads of road salt are again being delivered to this company. (The unloading
trestle at West Upton was rebuilt in 1993-1994.) G&U's 44-tonner is stored outdoors in the West Upton
yard. It is used to haul salt cars to the unloading trestle from the G&U yard at North Grafton. Many ties
between West Upton and North Grafton have been replaced and the road is again in pretty good shape.
However, the line between West Upton and Hopedale is out of service. Rails are still in place at the Milford,
Hopedale, West Upton, Grafton and North Grafton yards. The interchange with CSX at Milford has been
disconnected and some of the rails removed. At Upton, the single yard track has been disconnected and
some of its rails have been removed. The interchange at North Grafton has been rebuilt and remains in
use. The salt building track at West Upton and the nearby unloading facility also remain intact. Depots at
Hopedale and Grafton still exist but are no longer used by the railroad. Tracks at the former Draper
Company's north and south yards remain in place.
The Lucey family of Worcester now controls the railroad and continues the operation as the G&U observes
its 125th anniversary. Recent history of the G&U is reflected in the physical changes at the Draper plant
which caused a drop in the amount of freight handled by the railroad. The number of revenue customers
otherwise decreased over time as trucks succeeded in taking away business. However, management and
direction of the railroad was excellent and the wise judgments made throughout the years reflect the
important fact that -- despite modern-day difficulties -- the railroad remains in business as an important
entity and not as a tiny speck in the web of a giant railroad system. Editor's Note: The author, Gordon
Hopper, intended to write a book about the Grafton & Upton, but passed away before completing the task.
James Reisdorff, of the publisher South Platte Press, David City, Nebr., condensed and completed the
manuscript for this article. National Railway Bulletin, Volume 64, Number 4, 1999
While the editor's note above states that Hopper never completed the book, actually he did, but it was
never published. I was given a copy of the 142 page manuscript by Paul Curran. I've made copies for the
Upton Museum and the Bancroft Library in Hopedale. Some of the G&U pages on this site are from
Hopper's work. DM
Several years after writing the paragraph above, I completed scanning it and adding
Hopper's G&U book to this site. Here it is.
G&U Menu Pictures of G&U locomotives Businesses Menu
Old G&U Photos on YouTube Demolition of the G & U Station in Hopedale HOME
|The Grafton & Upton Railroad
by Gordon Hopper
Thanks to Peter Metzke of Melbourne, Australia for
sending this report on the G&U Railroad. It's from the
1894 edition of Poor's Manual of Railroads.
See a 2010 Milford Daily News article on the rebirth of the G&U near the bottom of this page.
Holmes: The rebirth of the G&U Railroad
New England’s textile industry followed the straw hat industry into oblivion, and the G&U slowed to a
stop. Trees grew between the ties. Rails were torn up and grade crossings paved over on the
stretch between Hopedale and Milford. Homeowners treated the G&U’s right-of-way as extensions
of their backyards. Conservation-minded people in the towns along the tracks talked about
converting the railbed to a rail trail. But now, the G&R is coming back.
By Rick Holmes/Local columnist
When I first moved to Upton back in the mid-1980s, the train still rattled through town once a week. I
remember walking my kids, just toddlers then, through the woods at the end of our street and down
to the tracks to watch the little engine chug by.
The owner and main customer for the Grafton & Upton Railroad, the Draper Corporation of
Hopedale, had by then pulled up stakes and moved to North Carolina. The new owners, I remember
being told, had to run a train down the track from time to time to keep the railroad from being
classified as abandoned. They owned a trucking company and there were tax advantages to owning
a railroad, even one that wasn’t taking anything anywhere. Federal law is riddled with special
treatment for railroads, a legacy of the political clout of the 19th century railroad barons.
The G&U was built in 1873, at the height of the age of rails. It brought straw to the Knowlton mill in
West Upton and hauled out straw hats for the nation. It brought raw materials to the sprawling
Draper factory in Hopedale, which made the looms at the heart of America’s textile industry.
But New England’s textile industry followed the straw hat industry into oblivion, and the G&U slowed
to a stop. Trees grew between the ties. Rails were torn up and grade crossings paved over on the
stretch between Hopedale and Milford. Homeowners treated the G&U’s right-of-way as extensions
of their backyards. One man built a pool in the railbed. No one much missed the railroad, and
people bought properties with tracks on their lot lines, blissfully unaware that the old G&U was
sleeping, not dead.
Conservation-minded people in the towns along the tracks talked about converting the railbed to a
rail trail. At the railroad’s West Upton hub, a 22-acre site that is home to a former landfill, gravel yard
and construction company, developers a few years ago proposed a mixed-use village, with boutique
stores, townhouses, a ballfield, a town common and a new town library. People talked about putting
an ice cream shop over on the railroad side of the property to cater to the hikers and cyclists riding
the rail trail.
Then the economy crashed, and funding for the village development dried up. Upton voters had
approved a new bylaw for the village, but they balked when the developers proposed the town buy
Now, what’s old is new again. The G&U is coming back.
The rails have been straightened, and thousands of new ties installed. The first of several
sidetracks has been built at the now-capped Upton landfill, where containers will be offloaded onto
trucks bound for all corners of New England.
“It’s 19th century technology with a 21st century business model,” the new owner of the G&U, Jon
Delli Priscoli, told me during a recent tour.
The G&U is a “short line” a term familiar to railroad enthusiasts and Monopoly players. It connects to
the main CSX line in North Grafton on one end and the Franklin rail line in Milford. Think of CSX as
the wholesaler, interested in moving product in large quantities, Delli Priscoli explained, while short
lines like the G&U take the freight to a distribution point.
One of Delli Priscoli’s first customers is an outfit that makes wood pellets for stoves. Now, the
pellets are shipped to New Jersey, and trucked to New England. Any day now, they’ll start arriving by
freight car in Upton, and be trucked from there to retailers throughout the region.
It’s cheaper, he said, and greener. CSX says it can haul a ton of freight 423 miles on a single gallon
of fuel. Fuel efficiency is the main reason the nation’s rail traffic is expected to double by 2030, Delli
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