Railroad roundhouses are as much a thing of the past as steam locomotives and operational cabooses.
They used to dot transportation hubs across the US and Canada, but over the past few decades a high percentage have been torn down to make way for infrastructure upgrades or eliminated through that nefarious enemy of architectural history, urban renewal.
Today, just a small percentage of roundhouses remain, and of these, even fewer possess operating turntables, used to rotate locomotives and rail cars into different bays to enable workers to make repairs.
One such operational roundhouse and turntable can be found in northwestern Vermont, in the small, picturesque town of St. Albans.
St. Albans has been a railroad town since before the Civil War. The Vermont Central Railroad dates back to 1848, with a route running through St. Albans by the early 1850s. The line underwent different owners as the decades progressed, had its named changed to Central Vermont Railway at the end of the 19th century, but continued to dominate life in St. Albans until recent years.
Old-time view of St. Albans, Vt., train yard. Circular roundhouse can be seen in the upper left.
At one point, more than 200 trains a day passed through the town. By 1923, when the current roundhouse was constructed, Central Vermont facilities, including a spectacular headquarters office, a machine shop and freight stations, spread across 51 acres of St. Albans’ downtown.
By the 1920s, the Canadian National Railway owned the Central Vermont and remained in control until 1995, when it sold to short line railroad company Genesee & Wyoming. The new entity was renamed the New England Central Railroad.
Today, the 366-mile line runs from Alburgh, Vt., to New London, Conn.
The St. Albans roundhouse has nearly two dozen stalls, though not all are in operating order. A peek inside last fall showed a pair of Connecticut Southern Railroad locomotives undergoing maintenance. In the yard, several New England Central locomotives were stationed about. The turntable was vacant, but at least one locomotive was positioned to move onto it, likely in preparation for regular upkeep.
Being able to poke around an active railroad roundhouse is akin to taking a trip back in time. The St. Albans facility has been in operation for more than 90 years. There have been train structures on the site for at least 150 years.
To give you an idea how unusual operational railroad roundhouses are, according to a survey done by the Railroad Station Historical Society, there isn’t a single roundhouse in the entirety of my state of South Carolina, either operational or non-operational.
It would appear the closest roundhouses are in Spencer, NC, and Savannah, Ga. Both are now part of museums.
It’s one thing to get a glimpse of the past; it’s another to see it still in action.
(Top: New England Central roundhouse in St. Albans, Vt., today, with Connecticut Southern Railroad just inside bay. Below: Photo from 1920s shows Central Vermont Railway locomotive at same facility.)