New Milford’s Merwinsville Hotel marks 175 years of meals, living history
NEW MILFORD — Looking at the exterior of the Merwinsville Hotel, it’s easy to picture what the popular meal stop was like in the 1800s as scores of travelers made their way between Bridgeport and Pittsfield, Mass.
Railroad tracks still line the three-story building and candles fill the windows.
“You can just sort of imagine it,” Jeremy Ruman, president of the Merwinsville Hotel Organization, said as she described women in their dresses ascending the grand staircase.
The hotel just celebrated its 175th year, though its focus has shifted from feeding travelers to living history, offering a glimpse into what a hotel along a railroad was like back in the day.
It took a lot of work to get to this point. Ruman’s father, George Haase, used to drive different routes from their home in Sandy Hook to his job at the Bulls Bridge power plant. On one of those trips he saw the hotel and became fascinated with it though he wasn’t able to find it again until the family moved to New Milford, not far from the hotel.
Haase rallied support from the community and began restoring it, starting with the roof, securing the foundation with a steel beam through the basement and painting the outside. The owner, Ed Dolan, sold the building to the group for $1 so it could be restored.
Antique furniture now fills the rooms on the first two floors, including decorated pianos and sofas. A replicated station master room is off of the entrance where a replica check-in desk sits. Railroad and Gaylordsville artifacts are also scattered throughout the hotel, including the old postal box.
“The hotel had one foot on a banana peel and we’ve been very lucky,” Ruman said. “If something was teetering on the end of obliteration, it was. We’ve had wonderful items donated to us over the years and great volunteers.”
The hotel was built in 1842 and opened the following year. Sylvanus Merwin had heard Housatonic Railroad was going to be traveling up the valley through Gaylordsville and so purchased land on the route and began building a hotel. He then insisted the railroad stop at his hotel if the company wanted his right of way and call the stop Merwinsville. The company agreed.
Merwin built a ticket office and waiting rooms on the south end of the hotel and also a built a shop and school for girls.
Train staff and a dozen or so customers would have a meal during the 20 minute stops at the peak, but business took a hit with the invention of the dining cars in the 1870s, which allowed travelers to eat on their train ride. The contract with the Houstanonic Railroad ended in 1877 and the family held dances in the third floor ballroom and boarded summer travelers in the decades to come to try to sustain the hotel.
First the school, then the store closed and then the railroad company replaced the Merwinsville stop with the Gaylordsville one about 50 yards down the track.
Ruman recalls the condition of the building at that time. She and her sister would walk around the rim of one of the rooms on the second floor that had a gaping hole to the level below.
The first two floors have since been restored and the hotel is decorated similar to what it might have looked like in the 1800s, as the volunteers piece the history and each room’s function together.
“We sort of have to guess on some of this,” Ruman said, adding they use some local history books. “There’s not a ton, but it’s a little to go on.”
The restoration effort has now shifted to the ballroom.
Renderings of what they envision the ballroom to look like once it’s restored sit off to the side of the room, which looks more like an attic at the moment than a place the Harvey Girls once performed.
Before the ballroom can truly be used for events, the restoration group will have to build a new staircase that is more accessible than the steep stairs now that go up to the third floor. To do this, they will have to switch the well and septic. The overall project is expected to cost at least $500,000.
There is also continuous upkeep.
“There’s always a lot of maintenance,” Ruman said. “We take things as they come, depending on funds.”
The organization is a nonprofit and donations can be made through their website to help with the projects.
A master gardener is working with the group and plans to plant a kitchen garden in the spring.
A special place
Ruman said she believes the building is one of the last rail stop hotels east of the Mississippi River with a ballroom on the third floor and is honored to keep it standing and going after 175 years.
“It’s really special,” she said. “There’s not anything really like it.”
Another unique aspect of the hotel is its architecture. It has nine columns and was built in a Georgian style with latticed balconies. Dumbwaiters were used to deliver the food from the kitchen up to the four dining rooms. The train only stopped for 20 minutes so the food had to be ready fast.
Ruman said it’s great to see how far the hotel has come, especially given all of the hours her father has put into it.
“We’re really proud,” Ruman said. “It’s such a hidden gem.”