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
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 Grafton.
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
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
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
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
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
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 Hopper's G&U
book and added it 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 the land.
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 Priscoli said.
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