This “deep cut” rail trail is a place that I hadn’t visited for a few months so, since it was a hot day and this narrow man-made canyon has natural air conditioning, down I went. I say “down” because if you look up at the top at the cliff face on the left side of the photo, that’s the height of the road where you park and walk in, and in places these ledges soar to 50-60 feet to reach road level. Somehow the still air on the outside is drawn into this place on a breeze that is created right here and it’s always about 10 degrees cooler.
The railroad workers cut through solid rock 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; stone retaining walls line parts of the cut to hold back the hillside. The railroad 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.
A stainless steel 3 car diesel streamliner with “Cheshire” (for the Cheshire Railroad) proudly displayed on its nose ran through here from 1935 until it was retired in 1957. A big 600 horsepower Winton engine was in the first car. The second car was a combination baggage / mail / buffet dining car, and the third car had coach seating for 188 passengers with rounded glass on its end that allowed 270 degrees of countryside observation. A sister train called The Flying Yankee ran on another part of the railway.
What the passengers on The Cheshire saw out of the windows was probably very close to what we see here today. Mosses, ferns, vines, liverworts and many kinds of plants cover every inch of space in areas, making the place look like James Hilton’s Shangri-La or the hanging gardens of Babylon. For a plant nut it’s a wondrous sight.
Groundwater constantly seeps from the ledges and runs through drainage channels on either side of the rail bed. These channels are filled with water year round and help keep the humidity stable and slightly higher than it would be otherwise. They’ve also kept the rail bed dry for over a century.
Great scented liverwort (Conocephalum conicum), grows in places where it never dries out so they love growing over the drainage channels here. They are very fussy about water quality and will only grow where the water is clean and pure. Though they like a lot of water they can’t stand being submerged for any length of time and stop growing just short of the water surface. When you crush a leaf of this liverwort you smell a clean spicy aroma that would make an excellent air freshener, and I’m surprised that nobody has bottled it.
Great scented liverwort is also called snakeskin liverwort for obvious reasons. The reason it looks so reptilian is because of the way its pores and air chambers are outlined on its surfaces. It is the only liverwort with this feature, so it is very easy to identify. I think it’s a beautiful thing.
Another liverwort that grows here is called overleaf pellia (Pellia epiphylla.) At a glance it looks like great scented liverwort but a close look shows that its leaf surfaces are very different. This liverwort always reminds me of bacon and I’ve learned to spot it from a distance by its shape and wavy edges. In colder weather it often turns purple and shrivels a bit.
Because the 3-4 foot wide drainage channels separate anyone walking on the rail trail from the ledge walls I put on rubber boots and walk in the water of the channels to get close to the liverworts. The problem with doing this is rocks can and do fall from these walls; I’ve seen fallen stones that would have crushed half a car. So far I’ve never seen one fall but they are lying around everywhere, so it’s just a matter of time. That thought stays with me when I’m walking in the drainage channels, so I don’t stay in them long.
Falling rocks or not, who could resist wanting to see things like these bright red Jack in the pulpit berries (Arisaema triphyllum) up close? Jack in the pulpit plants grow all over these ledges and when the berries form their weight makes the stems bend and they are left hanging.
Flowering plants of all kinds, from coltsfoot in spring to the New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) seen here, grow along the edges of the drainage channels. This is the only place I know of where I can see some form of green growing thing year round. Even in winter there are mosses, liverworts, and evergreen ferns to see.
One of the flowers that grow here is waxy leaf meadow rue (Thalictrum revolutum.) This plant looks very similar to tall meadow rue and I thought that’s what it was, but the black seeds match only the waxy leaf meadow rue, from what I’ve seen. This is the first time I’ve ever seen this plant so if you know it I’d really like to hear about it.
One of the strangest things growing here are these green algae, (Trentepohlia aurea) which are actually bright orange. A carotenoid pigment in the alga cells called hematochrome or beta- carotene, which is the same pigment that gives carrots their orange color, hides the green chlorophyll in the algae. It grows like small tufts of hair all over certain rocks. I’m not sure what that algae / stone attraction is, but it only grows on certain ones and this is the only place I’ve ever seen it.
The algae are very small and hard to photograph. They are described as “filamentous green chlorophyte algae.” The pigment that masks the green chlorophyll can also be yellow or red. In India in 2001 airborne spores from these algae were in high enough concentrations in to cause a “red rain” that actually stained clothes pink. Yellow, green, and black rain was also reported.
In the winter ice columns as big as tree trunks grow here and they are colored by what I’ve assumed were minerals leaching from the soil. I’ve seen several shades of blue ice, green ice, orange Ice, brown ice and even black ice. This photo shows what I think is an instance of the ice coloring minerals leaching from the soil. I saw this happening in a few different places.
Each time I come here there is less to see of the old lineman’s shack. Since there is so little left of the walls I expect the roof to cave it, but still it hangs on. There are people’s initials and dates going back to at least 1925 chalked on its walls so people have been visiting it for nearly 100 years, at least.
This object wasn’t here when I was here last, but there it sat on the floor of the lineman’s shack. At first I thought it was a piece of equipment used to run the railroad but a friend suggested that it was a television antenna rotor control box, and when I Googled 1950s television antenna rotor control sure enough, I found several images of items that looked much like it. Did they watch television here in the shack I wonder, or did they use an antenna for some other purpose?
There are roads known by everyone and there are roads known by no one. Choose the second, the mysterious one where many glories are hidden. ~Mehmet Murat ildan
Thanks for stopping in.
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Saturday, September 26th
Join Clif Seifer and Wendy Ward on an inaugural birding expedition along the new boardwalk through Tenant Swamp at Keene Middle School, where we’re likely to encounter a variety of migrating woodland warblers and thrushes. Meet at 7:30 a.m. (until 9 am) at the entrance to the boardwalk, which is located behind the school at the back of the playing fields.