Perley J. Pressey, the last station agent to serve at the Danville station experienced many changes that impacted the railroad industry during his long tenure with the St. J. & L. C. Railroad. The amount of freight traffic gradually increased, while at the same time, there began a steady decline in the number of passengers riding on the trains. Better roads and more cars resulted in greater independence for travelers not wanting to be held to the time schedule of the train.
The St. J. & L. C. was notorious for never being on time and no one was ever quite sure exactly what time the train was going to arrive at the station, not even the station master. Like the “little engine that could” it was a steep climb up the hill from St. Johnsbury to Danville, even for the newer diesel locomotives which replaced the old steam engines around 1948. When 25 or more cars were on the train headed west, it was necessary for the engines to double up to make the steep grade. In railroad terminology, this was known as a double-header. Even with the extra engine, the train still traveled at a painfully slow pace.
Some would say the only way you knew the when the train would be arriving at the station was when you could hear it or see it. Others claimed you could count the spokes in the wheels as the train passed. The enormous amount of drifting snow in the winter months, especially between Danville and West Danville, caused the trains to go off the tracks and keeping the railroad crossings free of snow and ice was a continual challenge for railroad employees. Charles F. Ranney (unknown if related to Danville station agent Charles S. Ranney), a conductor on the St. J. & L. C. Railroad in the early years, once joked that the St. J. & L. C. “runs a tri-weekly service, the train leaves on Monday and they try all week to make it back.” Over the years, the St. J. & L. C. became affectionately known by several unflattering nicknames, each alluding to their lack of punctuality.
“What time do you expect the noon train today, Mr. Pressey?” This was the question asked by Margaret Ide one day when planning to take the Saturday noon train to St. Johnsbury with her children for an afternoon of shopping or maybe take in a Saturday matinee at the movie theatre. They would then catch a ride home with her husband, Richard after finishing up his workday at the family business, the E.T. & H. K. Ide Feed Store, located on Bay Street near the St. Johnsbury railroad station. Perley Pressey’s reply was, “They are 45 minutes late out of Greensboro, but they are making up time. I’ll call you when they get to West Danville.” This gave Margaret and the children enough time to get to the station before the train arrived. Margaret recalled how Mr. Pressey spent long days sitting behind the desk in his cigar smoke filled ticket office with his little white dog by his side for company with the sound of the constant ticking of the telegraph machine.
In 1947, the railroad was running mixed trains with a combination of freight and passengers. The passenger section was half of a freight car that had been retrofitted with straight back wooden bench type seats, not necessarily designed for comfort. The other half of the car included the U. S. mail and express packages as well as passenger baggage. Folks traveling on the mixed trains might very well be sharing the ride with a bawling calf in a pen or possibly a few crates of hens on their way to the butcher. Depending on the nature of the cargo, it could be a rather noisy trip. No matter how informal the accommodations were for the passengers, the conductor would still take the rider’s ticket with the same pomp and circumstance as if it were the Airline to Boston.
When Oliver Cote, an engineer on the St. J. & L. C. Railroad, came to Danville with his wife and five children, they lived in the house which is now the Danville Inn. He ran the freight train that went west from St. Johnsbury to Swanton and back the next day. Debbie Emmons Prevost, who grew up living on Danville Green, recalled when Mr. Cote’s train was coming into the station from the west, if there was a good movie playing at either the Star or the Palace Theaters in St. Johnsbury, she and her friends could pile on the train sitting wherever there was room, either in the caboose or the baggage car, and they would get a free ride. Neither the conductor or brakeman ever let on that they knew the kids were hitching a free ride when they asked them for their names and each one responded with the last name “Cote.”
Telegraph messaging was one of the most efficient methods of communication between people from one town to another but also across much greater distances in the early years until telephones were installed in public buildings and private homes. Western Union telegrams could be sent and received over the wire by the station agent on duty from the telegraph office any time day or night.
During World War II, parents and friends at home exchanged news about those in the military. It was reassuring and comforting to know that a service member overseas could connect with someone from home. Sometimes the messages relayed contained unfortunate or unhappy news for those on the other end. The community was alarmed when William and Mary Sevigny received a telegram on May 10, 1944, their son’s 21st birthday saying that Air Corps Staff Sergeant Reginal R. Sevigny was missing in action. They received another telegram the following month on June 30 informing them that he had been taken as a prisoner of war by the Germans. After he was eventually liberated in 1945, he traveled by boat to New York City, then by train to Boston before finally returning home to Danville.
Ernest Devenger was summoned to the railroad station from his work at the Devenger Brothers Garage on the Danville Green to receive a telegram from the U.S. War Department. The message relayed the sad news that his son, Pfc Delmas J. Devenger, had been killed in action on Feb. 20, 1945 during a assault on Mt. Belvedere in the northern Italian Alps. At the time, Devenger was a ski trooper serving in the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division. He would have turned 22 years old on March 18 of that year. Both men, well known in the community, were friends and classmates and graduated from Danville High School, with the Class of 1941.
Many in Danville still remember the “troop trains” that came through this area near the end of WWII. The trains carried men who were enlisting in the service during the war and when the war was finally over, the trains helped bring them back home.
After 49 years of continuous service as a station master for the St. J. & L. C. Railroad, Perley J. Pressey retired from active duty in his position at the Danville station on May 27, 1954. He was described as a very modest and unassuming man and on his last day of service was asked to share any interesting experiences he had during his career. He stated that he preferred to “go out as quietly as he came in” and that he had just “done his job as anyone else would have done.” He admitted that he still preferred telegraph communication over telephone for railroad work.
As a result of increasing financial difficulties, the St. Johnsbury & Lake Champlain Railroad was reorganized and sold in 1948 after which the name was changed to the St. Johnsbury & Lamoille County Railroad. The fortunate thing about the new name was the fact that the initials were the same as for the old name and therefore it was not necessary to re-letter and re-paint the equipment.
By the fall of 1955, fewer passengers were taking advantage of riding on the mixed trains. Over a one-month period, the total revenue from ticket sales amounted to only about $12. Regular passenger service on the St. J. & L. C. was discontinued the following year. The mail was no longer transported by train and the post office cancelled their contract with the railroad. Mail was not allowed to be carried on freight trains according to U.S. Post office regulations and was now delivered directly to the post office in each town by Express Mail trucks.
Doug Lamothe and Tom Beattie, both of Danville, recalled their parents desire to have them experience riding aboard the St. J. & L. C. on its route between Danville and St. Johnsbury before regular passenger service was discontinued which would mark the end of an important era in the town’s history.
By this time, the wooden platform had already been removed from the south side of the station and Doug remembered the conductor had to bring out a step stool for he and his mother, Fran, to climb aboard the train. Also stuck in his memory was how uncomfortable the wooden straight back seats were to sit on for any length of time.
Tom recalled he was about six years old when his parents, Kate and Harold Beattie, felt that it was too big of an event to miss on that sunny autumn day when one of the last regularly scheduled passenger trains ran from St. Johnsbury to Danville. He remembers the train being full of folks, many of them from Danville, who just could not pass up the opportunity for one last ride.
The last official train to carry passengers on the St. J. & L. C. line ran out of St. Johnsbury on June 23, 1956. It was a troop train carrying Maine National Guard soldiers headed for summer training camp in Fort Drum, New York. The Maine National Guard would occasionally use the St. J. & L.C. to haul the troop train loaded with men and equipment from St. Johnsbury to Swanton to board the ferry across Lake Champlain to the New York side. The train consisted of 20 heavy weight cars which required six 70- ton engines to make the steep climb in elevation from St. Johnsbury to Danville. Three of the engines were cut off at the Danville station and the remaining three hauled the train on to Swanton.
With no more need for a station agent to sell tickets to travelers or send telegraph messages, the Danville station was now designated a freight house by the railroad company. It served as a way station for trains to deliver shipments of freight from public delivery tracks. The Danville site had the capacity to accommodate up to three freight cars at a time. Grain deliveries were made to Maynard Burrington, Danville Grain Co. and E. J. McReynolds. The Town of Danville received shipments of coal and George C. Morse, who owned a dairy farm just a short distance from the station, received shipments of coal and fertilizer.
Bruce Houghton, who grew up in Danville and lived in the house beside the Danville Grain Store across the road from the railroad station, said he and his brother Russell spent a good deal of time hanging around the station with the section crew when they were working on the tracks. One afternoon, Martin Maynard, of Danville, who was the section crew chief, let them have a ride on the St. J. & L.C. caboose all the way to St. Johnsbury after which they walked over to the E. T. & H. K. Ide store and caught a ride back home to Danville with neighbor, Dick Ide. Many times, Martin would give them a ride on the motor car to the storage shed where it was parked when not in use. Occasionally he would give them money to buy drinks and candy bars at the Danville Grain Store, both for themselves and the railroad crew.
The railroad company used the basement area below the Danville railroad station to store equipment. It was the starting point each morning for many of the men who worked on the railroad crew. The big double doors would swing completely open which would allow the men to access the necessary equipment for whatever job they were doing that day. Houghton worked on the railroad section crew over the course of two summers during his high school years with his friend and classmate, Dale Lynaugh, who grew up in North Danville. They worked alongside Martin Maynard, Dale Rollins and Fred Maynard, who were just a few who worked on the section crew. One summer, the railroad provided Martin Maynard with an oversized station wagon to transport the crew from Danville station to the worksite and back each day.
After several changes in ownership and many derailments due to deteriorating tracks, the railroad line east of Morrisville closed in 1972. To try to save the rail service, the State of Vermont purchased the line in 1973 and renamed it the Lamoille Valley Railroad. Ties and ballasts were replaced, and the lightweight track was upgraded to heavier material.
To the delight of railroad enthusiasts, and after nearly 20 years had passed, excursion trains were once again running over the rails for special occasions. On January 6, 1975, the front-page headlines of the Caledonian Record announced, “Hundreds Greet Return of the St. J. & L. C. Train.” Throughout the 1980s, several excursion trains were run for special events including the annual Dowsers Convention, charity fundraisers to benefit the American Cancer Society as well as sold out trains during fall foliage season.
The excursion trains were supported by a group that formed and called themselves the St. Johnsbury Railroad Club, Inc. and consisted of local railroad aficionados whose mission was to operate as a non-profit educational organization. Many of their meetings were held at the Danville railroad station. In August 1984, a special train was organized that carried a capacity crowd of passengers from the St. Johnsbury depot to the Danville depot for the annual Danville Fair. From there, the train made mini excursion trips to Joe’s Pond and back. The main attraction was the historic Danville depot which was sporting a brand new wooden passenger platform, built by a crew of volunteers just in time for the occasion. The Danville Historical Society also used the station for displays of artifacts and photograph some particularly related to the history of the railroad.
Retired railroad engineer Archie Prevost, president of the Railroad Club explained to the crowd that several renovations had been made to restore the building to maintain it as a point of interest for many years to come.
Kate Whitehead, chair of the DTSC usage committee, summarized the goals of the committee at a recent Danville Select Board meeting, “As we look toward the future and begin to reimagine and redevelop Danville’s Historic Depot Station the vision and endless possibilities for its use continue to emerge. The Depot Station will play an important role in contributing to our communities’ sense of place, economic vibrancy and quality of life. Both the indoor and outdoor spaces surrounding the building will complement and build on each other, creating a hub of activity that will act as a gateway from the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail into Danville’s Village Center. As the completion of the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail is underway, we have an incredible opportunity to create a public space that will celebrate all that Danville has to offer, provide an experience for trail users, a boost for our local economy and provide activities that will build community.”
To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Danville railroad depot in August 1871, the DTSC will host a special celebration in the passenger waiting area of the station on Danville Fair Day, Aug. 7. The DTSC will partner with the Danville Historical Society and the Chamber of Commerce in celebrating this important milestone for the building which is now listed on the State of Vermont Register of Historic Places. Watch for more details in the coming weeks.