Wilton Station

Wilton StationI will venture a guess that most of us pay scant attention to that building that sits just east of the Post Office, the former location of Monadnock Survey as well as Dr. Roy’s dental practice; it was also used most recently as the home of Wilton Cares, the organization that sprang up in response to the pandemic to help Wilton families.  We all know that it was a train station, when the trains still came to Wilton.  It was built in 1892, during the heyday of passenger and freight rail service in this area, on a fairly standard design model for train stations across America, sometimes called the “Rico” or “Rico Colorado” style (model train hobbyists can buy scale models of this type of station that bear a marked resemblance to our own station in many details). 

First Wilton StationFew people know, however, that this is actually the last of three stations erected on the site.  The first, a building resembling nothing so much as a small cape-style house, was built in 1851, in the early days of American railroading.  This little structure was our town’s link to the larger world. In the days before the Civil War it began a transformation in Wilton (and, indeed, many other towns and cities of New Hampshire), making it possible to ship in large quantities of raw materials (like cotton and wool) to the newly-emerging mills being built by the river and ship out finished goods to the wide world; a circumstance that migrated our town and this state from a pastoral economy to an industrial one in only a few short years. 

The train also meant a boom for local dairy farms, which expanded rapidly in the latter half of the 19th century here and elsewhere in the state. Farmers now had a ready market available for their produce, since milk could be shipped fresh as far as Boston in less than two hours. 

By 1860 the town and its economy was irrevocably altered.  The mills dominated the landscape, even to beyond the downtown. The fact that the line terminated here in Wilton (the extension to Greenfield wasn’t constructed until 1874) meant that hotels such as the Whiting House and the Jones Hotel (both of which burned in the downtown fire of 1874; the Jones was replaced by what came to be known as the Everett House) grew to accommodate those passengers on their way through to Dublin or Keene as well as the many people who were coming up here by train to catch a few days or even weeks of rest and relaxation in the country.

Wilton Station in 1860A new, larger freight and passenger building was erected in 1860; it was big enough to shelter an entire train under its roof.  The town prospered, and its mills cranked out everything from worsted yarn to wooden boxes, trunks, wooden knobs, dressed lumber and furniture.  After thirty years of use, however, this second station began to show its age; the tin roof was rusting and it leaked.  In 1888 a derrick on a wrecker train caught the side of the building and heavily damaged it; by 1892 it was decided to take down the old building and put up a new station, the station we know today.

Wilton Station panorama ca. 1900Wilton Station from a postcard ca. 1900The picture to the left is from an original panoramic glass negative showing the train station sometime in the teens or early 1920's.  The picture to the right is from a postcard ca. 1900 and shows the Wilton Station with an engine.

Wilton train schedule 1904Another fascinating artifact is this Wilton train schedule from 1904.  It shows the many trains that ran daily between Wilton and Boston, with stops in Nashua and Lowell.

In the years 1926 through 1936, the rail line to Wilton hosted special excursion trains out of Boston and Worcester that carried thousands to our town for the Wilton Winter Carnival, a yearly three-day celebration (usually in February) with skiing and hockey competitions, dogsled races, sleigh rides, barn dances and town suppers, that grew in size and complexity throughout the ten years of its existence.

Nothing stands still, however, and while passenger rail was still the preferred mode of transportation, it was clear as early as the 1930’s that motor transport, cars and trucks on the newly-built highways, was the wave of the future. Regularly scheduled passenger service to Wilton ended in 1936; from then until 1952 only one passenger car per day was attached to the regular freight run. By the ‘50’s even this freight service had been largely replaced by truck transport.  In the late 40’s a restaurant opened in part of the building, operating until the early-to-mid 50’s.  The station was closed when passenger service finally ended and the building, undergoing what architects and preservationists call “adaptive re-use”, was bought by Sam Abbott and re-made into a medical center.

Wilton Scenic RailroadSome seventy years later the medical center is gone; the building still stands, though, as do a few of the other freight and rail yard buildings in the vicinity. There’s freight traffic on the line again, and from 2003 to 2006 the Wilton Scenic Railroad carried passengers on the spur up to Greenfield and back; a small reminder of the days when you could get on a train right here and go wherever wanderlust or the dictates of your line of work might direct you – as close as Greenfield or Hancock, or as far as Boston, or New York, or almost anywhere else the rails in America would carry you.  A journey of a thousand miles or more, to paraphrase the old Chinese proverb, beginning with a single step up onto a platform attached to a train station on the Main Street in our little town. Amazing.

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