When it’s hot and humid here in New Hampshire you have a few choices when it comes to cooling off outside. You could go to one of our many lakes, you could climb a mountain to catch a cool breeze, or you could go underground like I did last Sunday. The deep cut Cheshire rail trail in Westmoreland is almost always about 10 degrees cooler than it is everywhere else and there’s always a gentle breeze blowing. I’m convinced that the narrow slot canyon shape of the place creates its own breeze, because it never stops here.
Unfortunately last Sunday, even though there was a breeze, it didn’t feel much cooler as I walked through the man-made canyon. Considering how warm it was I was surprised to see two rock climbers. But I was also happy to see them because photos with people in them always give a sense of scale to the place. He looks quite small but you can see one of the climbers off to the left. He was looking up at his partner who was climbing up the wall of the canyon.
You wouldn’t catch me climbing these walls, but a lot of people do.
The hardware that rock climbers use looks safe enough. One hanger like this one that I read about said it could support 5600 pounds. It had better, because if they should fall this will probably save them.
The railroad workers cut through the solid rock by drilling deep holes into the stone using steam powered drills and then poring black powder into them. 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. I’ve broken stone with a sledge hammer quite a few times but I wouldn’t ever want to face something like this. Breaking up the stone wasn’t the only daunting task; after the wall face was blasted away someone had to clean up tons of broken stone. Much of it was dumped in the woods and abutting landowners picked from the piles and built stone walls along the property lines. You can still see them today and they are oddities with their flat faces and sharp angles. You know immediately that stones like them aren’t natural.
This photo I took last May shows what I mean. There isn’t a rounded edge to be found anywhere in this wall and our natural fieldstone always has rounded edges. This stone is obviously cut and seems very foreign compared to what we’re used to seeing.
Not all of the blasted stone was dumped; the railroad built stone retaining walls along parts of the cut to hold back the hillside. They must have had stone cutters working right at the site, cutting and fitting the blasted stone into stone walls that have stood solid since the mid-1800s. You can always tell that a wall is a retaining wall by the way it leans slightly backwards into the hillside that it’s holding back. It takes skill, care and experience to get it right and the railroad stone masons had plenty of all three.
Even as dry it has been the drainage channels on either side of the trail still had water in them. Groundwater constantly seeps from the ledges and runs through these channels away from the rail bed. They 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 well over a century and a half.
There are many plants growing in the few sunny spots found here and some of the most beautiful on this day were the purple flowering raspberries (Rubus odoratus) in full bloom. This shade tolerant plant is in the rose family and the 2 inch wide flowers might look like a rose at first glance, but one look at its large, light gathering, maple like leaves will show that it isn’t. The plant has no thorns but it does have a raspberry like fruit. The flower petals always look a bit wrinkled.
The fruit of the purple flowering raspberry looks like a large raspberry and is edible but is on the tart, dry side. Native Americans had over 100 uses for this plant, both as food and medicine.
Coltsfoot flowers (Tussilago farfara) might look like dandelion flowers but it’s clear that they don’t have a taproot like a dandelion. Here they grow on solid rock.
Arrowleaf tearthumb (Polygonum sagittatum) is in the smartweed family, which gets its common name from the way your tongue will smart if you eat its peppery parts. Though the flower buds in this family of plants seem like they never open they do, sort of. They look like they only open about halfway though and I find the buds as pretty as the blossoms. This plant is a kind of rambler / sprawler that winds its way over nearby plants so it can get as much sunshine as possible. I was surprised to see it growing here in deep shade along the edges of the drainage channels.
Tearthumb got that name because it will indeed tear your thumb or any other body part that comes into contact with it. Many a gardener has regretted trying to pull it up without gloves on, because when the small but sharp barbs (prickles, botanically) along its stems slip through your hand they act like a saw and make you sorry that you ever touched it. The plant uses these prickles for support when it climbs over other plants, and they work well. Sometimes the stems and prickles are red but in this example they were green. Tearthumb is considered a wetland indicator because it likes to grow in very moist to wet soil. I almost always find it near water, often blooming quite late in summer.
Of course I couldn’t come here and not visit with my friends the liverworts. They grow here by the thousands, and this is the only place I know of where they do.
My favorite liverwort is the great scented liverwort (Conocephalum conicum) and I wore knee high rubber boots so I could walk in the drainage channels to get close to them. 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. They love growing over the drainage channels here with ground water dripping on them from above. They are very fussy about water quality and will only grow where the water is clean and pure. With most of the state in severe drought I’ve been wondering how the liverworts were doing. Some I saw had dried out completely by the looks but thankfully many were still thriving. When you crush a leaf of this liverwort you smell a clean spicy aroma that I always think would make an excellent air freshener. They’re very beautiful things and I wish I could see them every day.
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. It’s much narrower in width than great scented liverwort, and in colder weather it often turns purple on its edges and shrivels a bit. Don’t tell it I said so but I don’t think it’s anywhere near as beautiful as the great scented liverwort.
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 but it’s still called green algae. It grows like small tufts of hair all over some 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 rains were also reported.
I took a walk out of the far end of the canyon to see if the old lineman’s shack was still standing. It was, but I’m not sure how with so many sections of wall and roof gone. I suppose that, like everything else the railroad built, it was built to last. There was an old bakelite (a type of early plastic) television antenna rotor controller on the floor of the shack for well over a year, but it disappeared as quickly and silently as it appeared. I’m guessing that this smallish shed must have been used for tool storage; after all, somebody must have had to shovel the snow out of this canyon in the winter. Just thinking about that makes my back twinge.
With all this talk of railroads and trains I thought I’d better show you the train that ran through here from 1935 until it was retired in 1957. It was a stainless steel 3 car diesel streamliner with “Cheshire” (for the Cheshire Railroad) proudly displayed on its nose. A 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. How I would have loved to have had a ride or two on them.
If the path be beautiful, let us not ask where it leads. ~Anatole France
Thanks for stopping in.