Skip to main content

Yard Goats and the Origins of Connecticut Railroad – Part I

By March 5, 2022No Comments

Weston Ulbrich | | March 5, 2022

What exactly is a yard goat? Is it Hartford’s minor league baseball mascot?

Yes. Though long before Dunkin’ Donuts Park, a “yard goat” was old railroad slang for a switcher engine tasked with moving rail cars from one track to another. Essentially, yard goats were to railroads as tug boats were to maritime transport. These switcher engines were unsung technologies as part of a larger rail system. They helped to advance mass transportation, brought heavy industry to Connecticut and forever changed life in New England.

NYNH&HRR “Yard Goat” Switcher Engine no. 217, circa 1867.

Before the locomotive, Connecticut residents were typically confined to their immediate locale. Traveling to New York or Boston was fastest via steamship, though costly for everyday Nutmeggers. The latest method of movement in big cities like Hartford was the horse-drawn trolley. Then demand swelled for railroads in the 1830’s. However rivers, streams and rugged terrain impeded early railroad development in the Nutmeg State.

A horse-drawn trolley on Main Street, Hartford, Connecticut, 1831.

Other states like Maryland and Ohio operated a railroad about five years before Connecticut. Then in May of 1833, the Hartford and New Haven Railroad (H&NH) received a state charter. The railway took six years to survey, design and construct. Chief engineer of the project was Alexander Caitlin Twining, who later invented an ice-making refrigerator. When Twining completed the New Haven line, it provided passengers and freight with access to the interior of the state.

Alexader Catlin Twining, Chief Engineer of the Hartford and New Haven Railroad, 1837.

And yet the Hartford and New Haven line was not Connecticut’s first major railroad. The state’s earliest steam train service was the Providence and Stonington Railroad. Finished in 1837, the Providence line gave westward travelers access to coal-fired steamships from Stonington to New York City. That same year, the Panic of 1837 delayed construction of the Hartford and New Haven. Not until 1839 did the Hartford and New Haven finally open for business.

Passengers could now ride from New Haven to Hartford to Springfield, Massachusetts on the H&NH. Around 1845, business tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt of New York City became a lead investor of the New Haven line and served on the company’s Board of Directors. Transit of people, goods and materials greatly improved. The railway also served as an alternate mode of transportation along the Connecticut River, during freezing conditions.

Portrait of Cornelius Vanderbilt by Nathanial Jocelyn, 1846.

In 1849, Vanderbilt funded the construction of a grand passenger depot in Hartford. Built on the southern side of Asylum Street, the structure was an ode to the Renaissance Revival. The italianate station featured corner towers, arched windows and a tunnel surrounding the tracks. To the north of the depot was a roundabout train yard where yard goats and maintenance technicians serviced cars and engines. The passenger depot signaled Hartford’s advancement in transportation, an achievement that would soon lead to rail expansion in Connecticut and beyond.

An artist’s depiction of the Passenger Depot, Hartford, Connecticut, circa 1845.

Stay tuned as Yard Goats and the Origins of Connecticut Railroad – Part II is coming soon.

Watch a Reel on Instagram


  1. Hartford Courant database via