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Saturday, February 17 Opinion

Woog's World / Railroad ties: Westport's culture shaped by trains

It's been the commuting version of hell. First, a Metro-North train stalled between the Saugatuck and Greens Farms stations. Passengers shivered in the cold -- did I mention it was 8 degrees outside? -- for a couple of hours. When the cars finally moved they zipped past Greens Farms, where drivers waited for their passengers. The train was on the wrong track; it finally stopped in Southport.

The next night, Grand Central became the world's largest waiting room. Power went out on all three Metro-North lines: New Haven, Harlem and Hudson. It took at least two hours to sort all that out, too.

The back-to-back woes were not the railroad's only recent problems. Harsh weather has caused slowdowns, train cancellations and other frayed nerves all winter long. In the summer, similar difficulties were blamed on the heat. But trains are late -- or simply stop running -- on gorgeous fall and spring days, too.

Westport's history is long intertwined with the railroad. In the 19th century, construction of the Saugatuck station made New York suddenly accessible, for business and pleasure. It also brought a huge influx of Italian workers to the area. They stayed long after their work on the railroad was over. Their next project -- building a tight-knit community -- was equally important.

The Saugatuck stop was just about the furthest from the city that could make daily commuting manageable. Bankers and stockbrokers lived closer, in towns like Greenwich and Darien. The longer commute made homes here a tad more affordable. So the men who boarded the train every day in Westport tended, in the early- and mid-20th century, to be less wealthy (and, some would argue, more creative). They were illustrators, editors, admen. As they climbed achieved success, they attracted like-minded men (and a very few women) to their town. Westport's growth as an arts colony was due to many factors, but the train station was a major one.

The post-war suburban boom brought great growth. Corporate executives joined the artist types. By the mid-1950s, "the man in the gray flannel suit" had become a stereotype. When a movie version was made, Gregory Peck landed the lead. Several memorable scenes were filmed at the Saugatuck train station.

The Westport station can been seen in another period piece: Rod Serling's "A Stop at Willoughby." The "Twilight Zone" writer drew upon his few years on High Point Road to craft a story about a Westport-bound commuter who somehow gets off at a different stop -- 80 years earlier. Life was much simpler then, and he yearns to go back. The ending is typical for a Serling story, but as you watch it today you realize the toll trains took, half a century ago.

Another stereotype was the alcoholic commuter. As with any popular image, it contained some truth. Bar cars filled up quickly; so did the bars directly across Railroad Place from the Saugatuck station. New Yorker cartoonists -- and writers like John Cheever and J.D. Salinger -- made Westport (and many other towns like it) symbols of a peculiar time. From the vantage point of half a century, we can look at the "Mad Men" our fathers were, and laugh. Sort of.

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The train station was an important destination for entire Westport families. Mothers in one-car families regularly woke childen early, bundled them into the car, then dropped Dad off at the platform. Twelve hours later, it was time for pickup.

Families that could afford it owned "station cars." These were the oldest, most beat-up vehicles that could still run. All they had to do was make it to the train and back, five days a week. There was perverse status to a station car: The more successful a man became, the longer he held on to his wheezing vehicle.

Some time in the past couple of decades, that calculus changed. Today's station cars are things of beauty -- and expensive. Very expensive.

Station cars are not all that's changed, commuting-wise. The New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad is long gone. Its successor -- after a few fits and starts (remember Conrail?) -- is called the much less romantic "Metro-North." Judging by its recent NY, NH&HRR-style failures, it's called a lot more things, too.

Gregory Peck and Rod Serling would not recognize Saugatuck, if they drove to the station today. Once there though, they'd feel right at home. Despite a refurbished eastbound waiting room, a new underground tunnel, the addition of automatic ticket machines -- and many more female commuters -- things are much the same as they were back in the day.

Which includes, unfortunately, trains that suddenly stop in the middle of nowhere, and sit. Cars that are too cold, too hot, too dark; conductors with too little information to impart. And commuters who still complain about the @#$%^&* railroad, the frayed umbilical cord that for over a century has tied suburban Westport with New York City, 47 tantalizing miles away.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his "Woog's World" appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is www.danwoog06880.