Workers unearth Valley history on Derby-Shelton Bridge

Photo of Brian Gioiele

SHELTON — Ongoing work to improve the Valley's future unearthed a piece of its past recently, according to former Derby Historical Society head Jack Walsh.

Walsh said work crews have completed part of the Derby-Shelton Bridge renovation, when they spotted something interesting.

“A couple of days later as the work shifted to the middle of the bridge, an important piece of history was unearthed when they started removing the paving — the original trolley tracks from the days when the bridge was double tracked for trolleys,” Walsh said. 

Work on the historic bridge — which connects downtown Shelton with downtown Derby — began months ago and is expected to continue through 2023 due to the extensive amount of utility relocations that are a necessary part of the bridge rehabilitation work.  

The middle of the bridge was once double tracked for the trolley cars that were regular users, Walsh said. The tracks, once unearthed, were then removed to accommodate further construction on the bridge. 

Down through the years, Walsh said there have been several bridges that spanned the Housatonic River between Shelton and Derby — from covered bridges to iron bridges to the current concrete bridge, which dates to 1918. 

According to the Derby section of the old Electronic Valley website, the trolley line dates to 1887 and the creation of the Derby Street Railway Co., which focused on building an electric trolley line mainly to haul freight between the Derby docks and the industrial center of Ansonia on upper Main Street. 

Construction lasted until April 30, 1888. The original car was a "one-ender," the motor being at one end of the car. The power plant was at the docks, and cargo would be loaded onto steamboats for transport to New York City. The initial line had three passenger cars, a freight motor and six freight cars. 

The page states said investors then thought that freight would be the profitable part of the line, but that proved not to be the case. Passenger service was first extended to the Sterling Opera House and by 1894 the circular route known as the "Beltline" was complete. 

As passenger traffic picked up cars ran every 15 minutes rather than the previous 30. The cars had a speed of 15 miles per hour. 

As the service grew in popularity, an improved powerhouse was completed, and more stock added. In 1895, they added the branch line to Lake Housatonic Park which was an amusement park designed to boost trolley ridership. 

At this point, the company stock consisted of 25 cars — 10 closed and 15 open. They also had a snowplow and water sprinkler (to keep the dust down). Trolleys now ran every 7.5 minutes. 

In 1888 they traveled 61,200 miles with 177,000 passengers, according to the page, and by 1895, they were doing 247,600 miles and carrying 1,033,977 passengers. 

By 1902, the trolley line connected to New Haven, but some three decades later, buses had replaced the trolleys in Ansonia and Derby. On June 30, 1937, at 1:15 a.m. with George Patrol as the motorman, the line completed its last run, which ended at the trolley barns in Derby, located at the site of the former school portrait building on Main Street.

Walsh said Leo Thomas Molloy’s Tercentenary Pictorial and History of the Lower Naugatuck Valley from the 1930s has a clear reference to the opening of the bridge giving Shelton a much-desired trolley service to go along with the line it already had to Bridgeport starting in 1899. 

The Shelton Economic Development Commission, aided by a grant from the Derby-Shelton Rotary Club, was able to secure $265,000 to conduct a study that ultimately resulted in the current state bridge reconstruction project, according to former Rotary President Kate Marks.

“The connection of Derby and Shelton — historically and currently is and was of the utmost importance,” said Marks. “In 2008, when I was president of the Derby-Shelton Rotary Club, I was able to allocate monies to a project within the community, being the Derby-Shelton Bridge Project, in its infancy of reconditioning. Its appearance is and was of the utmost importance, a welcoming gateway for people to and from both cities." 

This story was updated to reflect that the Derby-Shelton Rotary Club’s smaller grant helped the commission secure the $265,000 grant.