Train Sculpture Honoring Waterbury History Will Make Extended Stop In Town

Jul 19, 2018

A new train is coming to the old Central Vermont Railway line in Waterbury — but this one is being built to stay in one place for decades to come.

Waterbury has a long and rich train culture. The Amtrak still rolls through town twice a day on what was long-called the Central Vermont Railway, chartered in the 1840s. Now it operates as the New England Central Railroad.

"Waterbury loves its train history," said Karen Nevin, executive director of Revitalizing Waterbury. "It loves its trains; it loves its history; it loves its train history."

Nevin said the town is honoring that history with a public art project attached to a railway bridge that goes over Route 100 at the gateway to town.

Once finished, the train sculpture will be hung from the side of this railway bridge, over Route 100.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

"The sculptor is Phillip Godenschwager from Randolph," Nevin said. "He is building a train, that is going on the bridge, out of aluminum. And each car is one of the historic buildings in town."

Godenschwager has been working on the sculpture full time since the beginning of the year. He plans to have it installed before Labor Day.

As Nevin explained, it’s no small project:

"It is 10 cars long," she said. "The train itself will be ultimately 60 feet long. It is all aluminum. It is going to be backlit at night. It’s spectacular."

This is Godenschwager's conceptual drawing of the sculpture.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

The design was actually picked by popular vote. Godenschwager said it was a first for him.

"The people of Waterbury, I think they had over 800 people vote, which is a better turnout than you get for an election, in all honesty," he said with a chuckle. "And that’s how they picked the final design. And that’s where I won the commission."

Godenschwager will attach each train car building to an aluminum track, then the entire sculpture will be hung from the side of the railroad bridge.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

Godenschwager is a commercial artist who works in various media. Most of his other public art projects have involved stained glass.

This is his first large-scale project in metal, but he said he’s tapping into his background in illustration and architectural drawing.

"So you take the buildings and you put train cars under them," he said of the concept. "It’s kind of like making it a cartoon. But by approaching it as an architect, I’ve made the designs very tight. To me, it added a whole 'nother twist to the train concept and made it unique to Waterbury."

Godenschwager said the Waterbury Congregational Church, left, was chosen as one of the town's "architectural gems" to be included in the sculpture. That replica, right, and the other train cars, will be lit from the back with LED lighting that will shine through the windows.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

While the train cars represent Waterbury’s historic buildings, the engine is more traditional. In fact, Godenschwager based it on something he found at the Waterbury Historical Society.

"It was a pencil drawing done by a man from Waterbury, quite some time ago, and it’s mounted on the wall at the historical society," he explained. "So my engine is an exact take of his drawing."

That detailed drawing is the work of Merrill Bennett, who was a patient at the former state mental hospital in Waterbury. He was well known around town for his love of trains and cats.

The scupture's engine is based on this pencil drawing, by Merrill Bennett, that hangs at the Waterbury Historical Society.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

Godenschwager also found inspiration for his caboose at the historical society.

"When I was doing my research, I found this little steam launch that used to be made in Waterbury at the turn of the century," he said. "It’s a beautiful little lake boat … and I decided I would make that the caboose."

An American flag will fly from the back of the caboose. 

The caboose represents a lake boat made in Waterbury at the turn of the last century by Cooley Manufacturing Co.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

The sculpture is designed to last 20 years, attached to a working railroad bridge. And Godenschwager said he is taking extra care to be sure it will hold up.

"Every step of the way I’m overbuilding this thing, just to be careful," he said.

"It’s inch-by-inch heavy wall aluminum tubing and all of the facades of the buildings are made from eighth-inch aluminum sheet that is through-bolted, so that everything is firmly attached to a framework," Godenschwager added.

The buildings’ architectural details are attached with stainless steel bolts and aluminum rivets, resulting in something that manages to look both elegant and industrial – kind of like Waterbury.