Trail of the Month: July 2022
“You have all these different vistas. I think there’s something for everyone.”
—Wendy Hammerle, president of the Friends of the Manhan Rail Trail
In the 20 years since its construction, Rosemary Laporte has hardly missed a day on the Manhan Rail Trail, a paved 6-mile route across Easthampton in western Massachusetts. Rain or shine, she starts her day around 6 a.m. with a leisurely stroll along the beloved trail. Most days, she walks with a friend.
“It’s very scenic,” said Laporte. “We walk by some pond areas and a huge variety of birds. In the wintertime they’ve started to plow it, which is great. We enjoy it all year round. We rarely take a day off.”
In addition to its abundant wildlife, the bird watcher and retired Easthampton resident appreciates the trail for its tranquility. “We walk very early in the morning, and it’s very quiet as opposed to walking on a main street, where it gets kind of noisy and it’s hard to have a conversation,” Laporte said.
Wendy Hammerle, president of the Friends of the Manhan Rail Trail, said that the trail is perfect for meditative walks as well as experiencing the lively downtown area or taking in Mt. Tom. “You have all these different vistas, and some people like different sections for different reasons. I think there’s something for everyone,” she remarked.
A Pivotal Transformation
From the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, Easthampton was a successful mill town churning out textiles. At its peak, Easthampton was so bustling that it was served by not one but two railroads: the New Haven Railroad’s Canal Division (which later changed hands between Penn Central Transportation Company, Conrail and the Pioneer Valley Railroad) and the Boston and Maine Railroad’s Mt. Tom branch.
Everything changed after manufacturing facilities began migrating south in the mid-1970s, leaving Easthampton’s mills mostly abandoned. After a decade, railroad traffic had decreased by nearly 88%. To make up costs, the Pioneer Valley Railroad implemented a heavy per-car surcharge on traffic into Easthampton, but that caused the customer count to plummet further. They filed for abandonment of the section in 1992.
In 1994, a vision to transform the corridor into a rail-trail began to take shape. At first, some didn’t understand why they should spend the region’s road money on a bike path, and they were apprehensive about having it in their backyards. But even though rail-trails were a largely unfamiliar concept back then, the majority saw the value it would bring.
“Back in the mid-1990s, a small group of residents from Easthampton and Southampton met to discuss the possibility of turning an old rail line that ran through both communities into a bike path,” said Hammerle. “Many more meetings followed, and more folks joined the effort to plan, fundraise and garner political support for the idea.”
The Friends of the Manhan Rail Trail was formed to pursue the corridor’s conversion to trail and, with the community’s support, plans went forward. Jeff McCollough, a senior transportation planner at the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, said it was a tough process that took a long time to complete, but city planners and others involved stuck with it because “they knew this trail was going to be something that was going to reshape their communities.”
In 2004, after 10 years of persistence and hard work, the trail’s first section—a roughly 4-mile stretch from downtown Easthampton to the Connecticut River Oxbow—was completed. Two more segments followed, and the trail was finished in 2011.
As you head north from the Y-shaped trail’s southern end at the Southampton border, the landscape is peaceful and relaxing until you reach downtown Easthampton, a charming city full of local businesses. Hammerle believes the rail-trail is what encouraged many of these businesses to establish themselves there and that their location on the trail has helped them thrive. “It’s a positive feature of the town, and it’s been a real catalyst to all kinds of other developments along the rail-trail,” she said.
One example is Tandem Bagel Company, which occupies an old train depot. Further down is Eastworks, a former mill that now houses shops, restaurants, breweries, apartments and more. Developers are also working on converting another mill at the far end of the trail.
Across from Tandem Bagel Company is the iconic Manhan Rail Trail Millenium Mural, a project led by artist Nora Valdez in 2002. It was painted by the community it represents and it’s a sight that brings Hammerle joy. She was one of the volunteers who helped bring it to life.
At the junction near Ferry Street, you have two options. The northeast spur opens up to views of Mt. Tom and provides access to nature preserves. It also brings you to the Oxbow, a section of the Connecticut River that forms a loop resembling a horseshoe. This is the source of the Manhan River, which the rail-trail roughly follows. If you continue north at the Ferry Street split, you’ll soon enter the vibrant city of Northampton, where the Manhan Rail Trail connects with an expansive trail network.
Support From Many Sources
The trail’s appeal extends beyond local appreciation: In 2020, it was designated as a National Recreation Trail after a lengthy application process and a visit from representatives. It’s a prestigious recognition that brings the trail visibility and assistance from the American Trails organization.
Along with the recreational aspects of the trail, many use it regularly for commuting to work or school. In early 2022, the City of Easthampton received a grant from the MassDOT Safe Routes to School program. The funds will be used to build an accessible path from the Manhan Rail Trail to the new Mountain View School by 2026.
According to Hammerle, gaining support has never been much of an issue. When it comes to political support, everyone understands the trail’s positive impacts, including its economic benefits. It takes pressure off the roads and brings tourists to the area’s restaurants and shops. “It’s a win-win for everybody,” said Hammerle.
Tom Sexton, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s northeast regional director, agrees, noting that the trail is a key part of the New England Rail-Trail Network, a growing 560+ mile system connecting the region’s six states by trail. Sexton said he’s had to be the cheerleader pushing for certain gaps in the New England network to be filled, but not for the Manhan. “The Manhan area just doesn’t need me,” said Sexton. “Their planning entity is a real strong one, and they have great volunteers in the area.”
North(ampton), South(ampton) and Beyond
With more links to its surrounding trails, the beloved community connector is expanding its reach and impact in the region. In the north, the Manhan Rail Trail is connected to the Northampton Bikeway and the Norwottuck Rail Trail, part of the Mass Central Rail Trail spanning 104 miles between Northampton and Boston. There are also plans to expand the trail south to New Haven to complete the 81-mile New Haven and Northampton Canal Greenway connecting Massachusetts and Connecticut.
“I think one of the things that’s so unique about the Manhan is that it’s sort of the link in all those networks,” said McCollough. “It’s the heart of the system. It’s so critical that the trail be maintained and that we have the resources to keep it a pristine, beautiful facility. They’re always out there taking care of that trail with the understanding that if this piece falls apart, we’re all in trouble.”
Hammerle stressed that maintenance is the most important thing at this point. And while the city and volunteers take care of its paving and landscaping, visitors are encouraged to respect the trail and keep it clean. Laporte used to pick up trash along the trail, although fortunately she’s been noticing less litter lately. With the trail woven so tightly into the community’s DNA, everyone works together to preserve it for years to come.
“I can’t think of a trail that is more integrated into the community,” McCollough said. “I see you every single day if you’re on the trail because I’m on the trail every single day. We make these connections in a very safe and beautiful place, and I think that’s absolutely wonderful. We’re really lucky and in many ways blessed to have a trail like this. People can’t even imagine their community without their trail.”
The Friends of the Manhan Rail Trail has received messages from residents saying that the trail is the reason they moved to Easthampton. “It’s nice to know that we have so many people out there enjoying it,” Hammerle said. “It’s very satisfying to be part of that and know that it’s working.”