Trail of the Month: April 2009
Maine's Kennebec River Rail Trail
Before the railroads came, one of the first and fastest routes north into the forests of central Maine was along the 120-mile Kennebec River. Its broad, quiet waters afforded a clear channel into the wilderness for settlers in the early 1700s.
Today, with the 6.5-mile Kennebec River Rail Trail completed, visitors can once again trek part of that original riverside corridor from Gardiner north through Farmingdale, Hallowell and the capital city in Augusta. Re-tracing its long history, the trail gives new life to its roots and fresh incentive to explore Maine's woodland wiles.
Trail planning began in the early 1990s, yet progress sputtered as the four communities worked to coordinate their visions for the project.
"Initially, it was like four cats trying to keep together in the same room," says David Auclair, who runs Auclair Cycle & Ski in Augusta. As president of the Friends of the Kennebec River Rail Trail, Auclair has been a long-time supporter of the pathway. After all the early years of slow growth, he says, local communities now work together as close allies.
"It's like a big family thing, a very social place where people feel safe," he says. Hundreds of volunteers now help clean the trail, and it's used for everything from birding to commuting. Auclair particularly credits a few determined advocates, including engineers Andy Hendrickson and Lionel Cayer, with investing hundreds of hours in behind-the-scenes planning and promoting.
The pathway begins under Memorial Bridge in Augusta. As you head south of the city with U.S. Highway 201 just off to the west, you'll get a clear view of the Kennebec Arsenal, a granite munitions depot built between 1828 and 1838 that remains largely intact. The area is known for its granite quarries, and granite markers notch each quarter mile of trail. You'll notice as well that the trail follows inactive railroad tracks. Rail service may one day return to the corridor, making the route a rail-with-trail. Until then, the pathway guides you along as quietly as the river.
Once heavily polluted, the Kennebec River has thoroughly recovered its ecological diversity. The slow waters are home to a great variety of fish, from salmon to blueback herring and the rare Atlantic sturgeon. Passing above the riverbank—the rail corridor often runs about 25 feet above the water on a steep embankment—you can watch for bald eagles and osprey. The scene makes for a splashy wildlife canvas.
This 2.5-mile section of trail from Augusta to Hallowell was the first to open in 2001. So far, it's paved up until a short stretch of crushed stone leading into Hallowell, where visitors have to take a short, roughly half-mile detour through the downtown. The good news, says Auclair, is that the community very much rewards the diversion.
In Hallowell, you'll be following famous feet—and oars—that have worked their way up the Kennebec River, including one of the most celebrated turncoats in American history. During the Revolutionary War in 1775, Benedict Arnold sailed up the river with part of the Continental Army for an attack on British forces in Quebec City and Montreal. Several years later, General Arnold notoriously switched loyalties to the British.
"Arnold's both honored and reviled, depending on your point of view," says Auclair. While some remember him as a talented general, most still know Arnold best as a traitor to the revolutionary cause. No matter where you stand on his legacy, though, you can visit where he stopped in Hallowell on his route to Quebec. It's only a few hundred feet from the rail-trail.
Hallowell is also notable historically as an early hub of ice storage, refrigeration and shipping. One of the chief local industries in the 1800s involved carving huge blocks of ice from the frozen Kennebec River in the winter. Located at a hook in the river, the city's riverfront was ideal for the business. When the waters thawed in spring, those blocks were shipped to points all around the country, and even internationally.
History detour complete, you can reconnect with the trail at the south end of Hallowell. A ramp, known as the "great wall," leads you back up to the rail corridor. From this elevated spot, you get a great view of the state capitol building.
Completed and opened in 2007, the next segment leads to the communities of Farmingdale and Randolph. Even with the interstate nearby, the trail remains insulated and preserves a striking solitude as you mosey along its curves and wooded lanes.
For now, the end of the trail deposits visitors in the heart of Gardiner. But several local organizations are hoping to extend the pathway another 25 miles down to Merrymeeting Bay and on to Topsham. Trails extending up from Portland may eventually reach Topsham from the south, creating a vast network of pathways linking Maine's largest city to its capital—just as the railroad did originally.
For more information, photos and user reviews of the trail, or to post your own comments, please visit TrailLink.com.