Northern Rail Trail, New Hampshire

Posted 03/01/13 by Laura Stark in America's Trails

Northern Rail Trail in New Hampshire | Photo by Suzanne Matyas

Trail of the Month: March 2013

Daniel Webster, the famed orator and New Hampshire native, was a featured speaker at the 1847 ribbon cutting for Boston and Maine Railroad's Northern Line. At the ceremony in Lebanon, before a crowd of more than a thousand, he said of the railroad, "It is the spirit and influence of free labor, it is the indomitable industry of a free people, that has done all this."

The same could be said of today's Northern Rail Trail, which begins just steps away from where Webster gave that keynote address and follows the same path as the railway once did. It was built by the hard and loving labor of hundreds of volunteers and is now the longest rail-trail in the state, spanning 52 miles.

"This is one of the best examples in this region of a trail that's being developed at the grassroots level," says Carl Knoch, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's (RTC) manager of trail development in the Northeast.

Although the corridor was purchased by the state when the railroad abandoned the line in 1996, the trail's development has been fervently pursued at the local level. "It probably has the greatest number of groups involved in trying to develop it as a trail," says Chris Gamache, Chief Supervisor for the New Hampshire Bureau of Trails, which oversees the trail. "There are lots of groups working together to the same end goal." It was for this reason that the Northern Rail Trail was featured in RTC's 2012 Community Built report, highlighting exceptional local efforts across America of citizens and volunteers using community strength to build and maintain public pathways.

Shortly after the trail was turned over to the state, snowmobile groups saw the potential of the corridor for recreational use and began to work on it. "The snowmobile clubs were the original maintainers of the trail," Gamache says. Volunteers from the Andover Snowmobile Club, Lakes Region Snowmobile Club, Town Line Trail Dusters and others removed railroad ties, redecked bridges (the trail has more than a dozen), trimmed trees and completed other tasks to make the trail safe and operational.

To address the needs of the trail during the warmer months, two nonprofit groups were formed, one in each of the two counties that the trail traversed.

"Our work was relatively low cost because much of the trail did not have heavy ballast on it," says Dick Mackay, chair of the Friends of the Northern Rail Trail in Grafton County that manages the trail's northern end. "We didn't have all this broken stone. We had cinder, a black, grainy material that's soft and resilient. It's actually one of the best possible surfaces. When the ties were pulled out, we had a trail!"

Volunteers at the southern half of the trail did not have it so easy. "The railroad construction in the two counties was dramatically different," says Alex Bernhard, vice president of Friends of the Northern Rail Trail in Merrimack County. "The railroad upgraded the southern half by laying heavy stone ballast. It has great drainage and is stable for the ties. But when you take up the ties it's impossible to walk on or ride a bike on for any length of time and you can't ride a horse on it either."

The Merrimack County group has spent much of its budget (largely provided by Transportation Enhancements and Recreational Trails Program grants) purchasing, trucking and laying down a custom-designed stone dust over the rocky ballast. Without this special mixture, the trail would only be useable in the winter when heavy snowfalls cover the uneven surface. Another project has been the careful restoration of the granite mileposts lining this section of trail, lingering relics of the corridor's past. Used by train engineers, the numbers on the posts indicate the distance from either B (Boston) or WRJ (White River Junction).

When track construction was attempted through Enfield, the railroad had an unexpected fight on its hands. Although the conservative Shaker community in town did not want the gleaming modern trains within sight of their quiet enclave (a place so beautiful they called it the "Chosen Vale"), they recognized the value of a readily accessible means of exporting their wares. So a deal was struck: in return for an investment in the railroad venture, the tracks were moved away from the Shaker village to the other side of Mascoma Lake. One of the railroad's locomotives was even dubbed "The Shaker." Less than a mile from the trail, the Enfield Shaker Museum offers an intriguing place to learn about the Shakers that settled here in 1793 and practiced equality, celibacy, pacifism and communal property ownership.

Further south, in Andover, history buffs will not want to miss a stop at Potter Place, a Victorian rail station maintained by the Andover Historical Society. Inside, the feeling of a busy train depot in the early to mid-1900s is carefully preserved. An adjacent caboose can be explored. Across from the station lies the homestead and gravesite of Richard Potter, a magician and ventriloquist who broke new ground as an African-American performer throughout the country in the early 19th century. Another notable stop is Franklin, where you can visit Daniel Webster's birthplace, as well as nearby Webster Lake, where he spent many summers.

For those interested in nature, the trail does not disappoint. New Hampshire had been vying to be the most-forested state in the lower 48, and recently nabbed the title over Maine, its longtime rival. Nearly 89 percent of the Granite State is forested, including the area through which the trail runs. If you're looking to see moose south of Alaska, Tewksbury Pond and the surrounding marshlands between Canaan and Grafton is a place they frequent. The occasional bear can be found here, too, as well as eagles, herons, and a flock of wild turkeys in Canaan.

With its increasing year-round popularity, there are movements afoot to expand the trail from both ends. In the north, fundraising is underway to begin construction on the Mascoma River Greenway that would seamlessly extend the Northern Rail Trail four miles closer to the Connecticut River along the state's border with Vermont.

A hoped-for trail terminus is White River Junction, Vt., where the Northern Railroad originally ended. From the rail-trail's southern end, plans are to extend the trail from Boscawen to Concord by summer 2015. This would provide easy access to and from the state capital and I-93, a major thoroughfare.

"The comment we always get about the trail is, 'This was here and we didn't even know it!" says Mackay. "They're stunned that there could be such a wonderful place to walk or bike so close to home."


Do you enjoy and want to support our Trail of the Month feature? Any extra contribution you're able to make helps us stay at the forefront of covering trails and trail projects around the country. Thank you for reading and supporting this feature!

comments powered by Disqus