When Amtrak’s Northeast Regional train 67 crossed the Niantic River on its nighttime run from Boston to New York at 11:39 p.m. on September 7, 2012, it was the last train ever to travel on “Old Nan,” the 105 year old railroad drawbridge between East Lyme and Waterford, a historic “choke point” on the nation’s busiest rail line. At 5:2 4 a.m. on September 8, Northeast Regional train 66 traveled northbound across a brand new bridge just 58 feet to the south. At that moment, Old Nan, one of the oldest rolling bascule drawbridges in the nation, officially went out of service.
From the moment the first railroad bridge was built across the Niantic River, about five miles west of New London, by the New York and New London Railroad in 1852, accommodating both railroad and maritime traffic proved a persistent problem. Over the next half century a series of replacement bridges attempted to address the issue. but accommodating heavy trains traveling at high speeds and the constant flow of pleasure boats, military boats and commercial vessels passing under the bridge remained unresolved.
Old Nan was built in 1907, and made use of the latest advances in rail bridge technology. One of five moveable bridges along the Northeast Corridor rail line between New Haven and Boston, it was a two-track bascule bridge (like a medieval drawbridge) with a Scherzer rolling lift design, meaning the bridge rotated in a vertical plane around its horizontal axis and could be raised and lowered at one end. When completed, at a cost of just over $48,000, it was 294 feet long with five spans that rested on stone masonry piers and abutments.
Nan may have met the needs of the early twentieth century, but over time the old issue of adequately handling both rail and maritime traffic resurfaced, along with new issues of speed restrictions and maintenance costs. Trains were forced to slow down to 45 miles per hour as they approached the drawbridge, and only one lane of boats at a time could pass through when it was raised. Moreover, any vessel with a mast higher than 19 feet couldn’t pass at all.
By the early 2000s, Amtrak, the current owner, had prepared plans for a new bridge but these were put on hold until 2010 when the line secured funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The $154 million project, one of Amtrak’s most complex capital improvement efforts, involved construction of new track alignments along the east and west approaches to the new bridge, a new signal and electrical system, and widening the channel below the bridge from 45 to 100 feet, to provide for two lanes of marine traffic. Additionally, the Niantic Bay boardwalk below the bridge was relocated and a new walkway built, and the beach was replenished with 76,000 cubic yards of sand. The replacement bridge, completed and operational by September 2012, is a two track electrified movable fixed trunnion bascule bridge that raises and lowers significantly faster than its predecessor.
As a result of the improvements, the new Niantic river bridge allows for Amtrak trains to travel across at 60 miles per hour rather than 45, and, in addition to providing for two-lane boat traffic in a much wider channel, increases the vertical clearance under the closed bridge from 11.5 feet to 16.
Though Old Nan was replaced by a structure providing much-improved speed and access, her service to Connecticut will not be forgotten. Remnants of the 1907 bridge, including the control house, lengths of chain, a sprocket, and the original builder plate were donated to the Connecticut Eastern Railroad Museum in Willimantic, where “Old Nan” will continue to remind visitors of her work as a bridge over traveled waters.
“Historical Documentation Niantic River Bridge,” Federal Railroad Administration
“ Set of images showing the replacement of the Niantic River Drawbridge from 1979 to 2015,” LaMay, Robert A. Photographer
“Amtrak Opens New Niantic River Bridge,” Railway Technology