The Valley Railroad Company operates the Essex Steam Train & Riverboat. This excursion starts with a 12-mile ride aboard the historic Essex Steam Train from the Essex Station with scenic views of the Connecticut River up to Chester. The train reverses direction back to the Deep River Station/Landing. Passengers who have purchased the riverboat tickets can board the Becky Thatcher at this station. The riverboat brings people on a 1-hour, 15-minute trip up the Connecticut River to the East Haddam Swing Bridge and then back to Deep River Landing. The train then picks up passengers to bring them back to Essex Depot. The whole trip takes about 2 hours 30 minutes.
The Essex Clipper Dinner Train is a 2.5-hour train ride that departs Essex Depot and offers scenic views of the Connecticut River along the way. The train brings passengers to the northern end of the operable line in Haddam. A seasonal four-course meal is prepared on-board and served in restored 1920s Pullman dining cars.
Each November and December, the North Pole Express brings passengers on a fictituous ride to the North Pole for children and their families. Amenities include on-board entertainment, singing, trackside displays, cookies, hot chocolate, and a gift from Santa.
The vision of a Valley Railroad started in the 1840s when President of the Charter Oak Life Insurance Company, James Clark Walkley traced the 44-mile route by stagecoach with friend Horace Johnson. Walkley and a group of business men obtained a state charter on July 17, 1868, to form the Connecticut Valley Railroad Company and start the process of building a railroad.
During 1868-1869, survey crews worked to map out the line from Hartford to Saybrook Point.
In April 1870, construction of the line began, with ground breaking taking place in Higganum, Ct. The plan called for three phases, the "Northern Division" starting in Hartford, Ct and continuing to Middletown, Ct, the "Middle Division" which continued to what is known today as Goodspeed Landing, and the "South Division" which finished the line to Saybrook Point. The Connecticut River Valley allowed for an easy construction as no tunnels or major bridges where required. The line was completed during the summer of 1871 with the first ceremonial train run over the 45 miles (72 km) on July 29, 1871, at a steady speed of 22 mph. At $34,000 per mile the line ended up costing $1,482,903.
The first "regular" train started on July 31, 1871. On August 24, 1871 the Connecticut Valley Railroad declared an official opening. The schedules of trains operating along the Valley Railroad called for one mixed train and four passenger trains each way daily (except Sunday) with fifteen stops along the way.
The company grossed $34,000 in its first year. It continue d to grow, grossing $250,000/year in 1873.
Financial trouble plagued many early railroads, and the Connecticut Valley defaulted in 1876 on its second mortgage bonds and was placed in receivership.
On July 1, 1880, the Hartford and Connecticut Valley Railroad took control with president Samuel Babcock.
The New Haven Railroad was rapidly increasing its stature in Southern New England. Seeing a good chance to sell their new line at a good price, the owners of the Hartford and Connecticut Valley Railroad convinced the New Haven that it should buy control. In 1882, the New Haven followed through by leasing the H&CV. Ten years later in 1892, the New Haven outright bought the H&CV, fully integrating it as a branch line in the New Haven system.
The incorporation was good for the Valley Line as the New Haven put money and improvements into the line. During this time, the Valley Line grew to its limit: never being more than a busy branch line with passenger service and freight service consisting of deliveries of supplies and merchandise to communities and factories along the line. Shortly after World War I, as roads, automobiles, and trucks improved, service on the line was reduced; and by the late 1950s it had only weekday local service and the speed on the line was reduced to 30 mph (48 km/h) from nearly 55 mph (89 km/h).
Hard times fell on the New Haven Railroad itself and in 1961 it fell into bankruptcy. With a major reduction on spending money to maintain its branch lines, the Valley Line soon fell into disrepair, finding only two slow moving freight trains a week using the rusted rails. The last train ran between Old Saybrook and Middletown in March of 1968. By the end of that year, the New Haven Railroad was merged into giant Penn Central.
Concerned volunteers got together to keep the now abandoned railroad from being torn up by the new owners, Penn Central. This group managed to obtain a temporary lease from Penn Central in 1969 and on August 15, 1969, the Penn Central turned over this branch line to the State of Connecticut.
The State of Connecticut granted a formal lease to the Valley Railroad Company on June 1, 1970. This lease authorized the company to use the 22.679 miles (36.498 km) of track for freight and passenger service; and on July 29, 1971 (100 years to the day of the first ceremonial run), after thousands of hours of mostly volunteer effort, the first train of the new Valley Railroad steamed from Essex to Deep River and has been steaming since then. The current president of the railroad is Kevin Dodd.
The Valley Railroad offers a number of special programs and events. Some of these, such as "The Santa Special" and visits from Thomas the Tank Engine, are similar to those offered by other tourist railroads. A more unusual example is the "Your Hand on the Throttle" program, in which participants are allowed to run one of the railroad's full-size steam locomotives (under supervision).
The Valley Railroad Company leases, from the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the track running from Old Saybrook up through Essex, Deep River, Chester, Haddam, and Middletown, totaling 22.67 miles (36.48 km). The trackbed is gravel ballast, with track made of conventional wood crossties, with steel rails fastened to the ties. A major project funded by the Company in 2015 put all mainline track from Essex (MP 4) to North Chester (MP 9.80) in stone ballast. The track connects with Amtrak's Northeast Corridor track near the Old Saybrook Station to the south. Presently, 13.25 miles of the line are restored for train service, with the remaining last seeing service in 1968. The rail corridor between Haddam and Middletown, which has been cleared of brush and receives property maintenance and surveillance from hi-rail vehicles, and is undergoing full restoration as time and funding permit.
The Valley Railroad Company has several grade crossings along its tracks. They vary in their nature, ranging from small caution signs at Private Crossings to flashing lights, bells, and gates and stop signs at public crossings. The busiest public grade crossings are located at Route 153 in Essex, Route 154 in Essex, and Route 82 (just before the East Haddam swing bridge) in Haddam.
The main station, where tickets are sold and all rolling stock is kept, is located in Essex; specifically, the village of Centerbrook. The main entrance and parking access is located off Route 154; there is a rear entrance (not for public use) on Route 153. There is a station building (used as offices for the riverboat operation) at Deep River Landing in Deep River, and a small station (used by the Railroad's track department) in Chester—it was originally the station at Quinnipiac, CT. Goodspeed station, located off Route 82 in Haddam, houses an antique shop and is not affiliated with the railroad. Across the tracks from the station is the Goodspeed Yard Office. This building was the original Chester passenger station, located on Dock Road in Chester, but sold off and removed in 1874 when it was found that the railroad grade was too steep at that location for starting and stopping trains. Donated by the Zanardi family in 1993, it was retrieved by volunteers of the Friends of the Valley Railroad and moved by flatcar to its present location. It is believed that this structure is the sole remaining passenger station from the 1871 opening of the railroad.
On July 18, 2009, the Friends of the Valley Railroad built a passenger shelter in Chester on the site of the original Hadlyme station. The new building is a reproduction of the South Britain station, which was on the now abandoned Danbury Extension of the Hartford, Providence & Fishkill. The original station on this site served passengers of the town of Hadlyme, across the Connecticut River. Passengers use today's station to go to Gillette Castle State Park via the Chester-Hadlyme Ferry, the second-oldest continuously-operated ferry route in the U.S.