Last Sunday I went to Westmoreland, New Hampshire, which is North West of Keene on the banks of the Connecticut River. Westmoreland is an island of alkaline soil in county of mainly acidic soil. In fact, much of this part of the state has acid soil. If you are trying to find plants that like alkaline soil like hepatica, anemone, and many types of orchids, acid soil can be a problem.
Knowing where the plants you are searching for are likely to grow isn’t enough though-you still need access to the land. Fortunately the Cheshire Railroad provided that many years ago. The railroad was named after Cheshire County, New Hampshire.
This stretch of railroad once ran from Bellows Falls, Vermont to various towns in northern Massachusetts after being built in the mid-1800s. The route runs through, rather than over or around this hill. This is known as a deep cut.
This is what it looked like circa 1870 when it was relatively new. If I had to guess I’d say the man on the right was picking berries. Raspberries, blackberries and black raspberries grow all along the railroad beds in this area. The Cheshire Railroad was swallowed up by the Fitchburg (Massachusetts) Railroad, which in turn was bought out by the Boston and Maine Railroad. This picture is from the Cheshire County Historical Society.
Many railroad spurs in this area had their tracks torn up and were abandoned from the mid-60s to the mid-70s. This section is well known to ice climbers and snowmobilers. Ice climbers have to beware at this time of year though, because much of this ice is rotten. In fact, in places you can hear water running down the stone behind the ice. The height of this ledge was probably 25-30 feet.
Piles of railroad ties line the cut and remind visitors of its history.
In places the walls of this man made canyon soar up to 70 feet or more. It’s easy to see why it was called a deep cut. Out of view-several hundred yards to the left-the north/south Route 12 highway goes up and over this hill.
The railroad workers made their way through the hillsides by drilling holes into the stone and then blasting. Deep holes like these were probably drilled by steam power and are evidence that black powder, rather than dynamite, was used. Packing these holes with black powder and lighting a fuse was a very dangerous business and many were killed doing it, but dynamite wasn’t invented until 1866, so it was either black powder or brute force. After the wall face was blasted away someone had to clean up tons of stone. There are several dump sites that can be seen from the highway, but they are quite far from this cut.
Not all of the blasted stone was dumped-miles of stone retaining walls line the cut and hold back the hillside. The railroad company must have had stone cutters working right at the site, cutting and fitting the blasted stone into stone walls that have stood since the mid-1800s. The railroad also dug deep drainage ditches between the roadbed and walls to keep everything dry. They still work fine today.
Some of the ditches had strange things going on in them. In places algae (?) grew in long strands.
Years of mineral seepage had stained the stones here and there.
With all the stone in the area lichens were easily found. This is frosted grain-spored lichen (Sarcogyne regularis.) Reflective crystals of wax-like material make the red-brown fruiting bodies appear blue.
The crown of an intermediate wood fern (Dryopteris spinulosa var. intermedia) showed great promise, with several fiddle heads all ready to start growing.
Medusa moss (Hedwigia ciliata) grew on boulders. This moss is easy to identify because of thepale, whitish tips on its leaves and bright red-orange stems. Dry plants look like clusters of stiff, frosty worms.
The deepest parts of the cut don’t see much, if any, sunshine so there was more snow there than I expected. Still, things like this small clump of grass were green and growing. I’m going to try to get back here at least once each week to see what else grows here.
There is nothing like walking to get the feel of a country. A fine landscape is like a piece of music; it must be taken at the right tempo. ~ Paul Scott Mowrer
Thanks for coming by.