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Posts Tagged ‘Abandoned Structures’

Finding ice baubles along the shore of the Ashuelot River last week made me wonder if the ice was growing at the deep railroad cut called the “icebox” up in Westmoreland, so last Saturday I decided to go and have a look. There was ice on the man-made canyon walls but it was too early for the ice climbers who named the place to be here.

Broken ice at the base of the ice falls told me that the icicles had formed and melted a few times. It takes a good cold period to get them going but once they start growing in earnest, they can reach the size of tree trunks in just a few weeks.

The groundwater that seeps through the fractures in the stone never stops. Winter or summer, it still flows. The reason the ice grows so well is because, the walls are shaded in this part of the canyon. The canyon rim is 50 feet high in some places, so sunshine might kiss the canyon floor for an hour each day. That’s also why you find no plants growing here.

In this photo from a few years ago you can see the scale of the place and you can also see that the ice climbers don’t wait long to start climbing. These are very focused, intent people and I don’t like to bother them when they’re up there.

In places water pours from the walls in streams but in most places it just seeps slowly, drip by drip.

Never was moss so green as it was on this day.

As you can imagine it is cold here, usually made colder by the breeze that blows through, so the 28 degrees F. I started with was probably more like 18 or 20 when I finally turned south to find some sunshine.

The railroad engineers had a lot of stone to get rid of once the canyon had been blasted through the hillside and one of the ways they got rid of it was to build massive retaining walls along sections of railbed. For the most part they’re still in perfect shape after 150 years.

The southern canyon’s walls aren’t quite so high so more sunshine pours in, and that means more plants grow here on the southern end. At this time of year it seems kind of empty but in summer the growth here is lush, with every vertical and horizontal surface covered by growing things, and it always reminds me of the Shangri-La that James Hilton described in Lost Horizon.

Last summer I discovered ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) growing here and here was the evidence; their feather like fertile fronds, covered with spore capsules. There will most likely be more of them here in the future. They’re a beautiful fern so I hope so.

There are lots of blackberries growing here as well and most still had leaves to show off.

But just because the sun shines brighter here in the southern canyon, that doesn’t mean that ice doesn’t grow here. The cold wins out over the weak winter sunshine and these walls are often trapped under ice that is feet thick until spring.

To give you a sense of what I’m talking about, here is the southern canyon in March of 2015. The ice columns, stained various colors by minerals in the groundwater, were thicker than tree trunks. It’s a good idea to wear warm clothes if you come here in winter.

Until and unless the drainage channels freeze over the ice, no matter how big it might get, is cutoff by the flowing water.

You can see how easily the groundwater can flow through the cracks and fissures in the stone. That’s what makes this place so special. I’ve been in other deep cuts but none have had ice like I find here. Everything has come together perfectly to create a land of water, stone and ice.

Here was new mineral staining that I hadn’t seen before. If an ice column grows in this spot, it will most likely be orange.

An evergreen fern grows in a grotto, set back from the face of the wall and each year icicles, like prison bars, surround it until spring.

But I’m getting a bit ahead of nature, because in other places the ice was rotten. Ice becomes rotten when water, air bubbles, and/or dirt get in between the grains of ice and cause it to honeycomb and lose its strength. Instead of a sharp ringing crack when it is struck it produces more of a dull thud. The grayish white color and matte finish are a sure sign that you should stay away from it when it’s hanging over your head. Compare the ice in this shot with that in the previous shot and the difference will be obvious.

There was puddle ice to see. Do you see the fish?

In one spot on the wall of the southern canyon a green alga called Trentepohlia aurea grows. Though it is considered green algae the same pigment that colors carrots orange makes green algae orange. It’s is very hairy, but with the drainage channels filled with water I couldn’t get close enough to show you.

Reptilian great scented liverworts (Conocephalum conicum) also grow on the southern canyon walls. This beautiful liverwort gets its common name from its fresh, clean scent. It will only grow near water that is very clean and it grows here just above the drainage ditches. Groundwater constantly splashes them and keeps them wet in warm months. In winter they are often encased in ice, and they will stay that way until spring. It doesn’t seem to hurt them any because there are thousands of them growing here.

The saddest thing I saw on this day was how the trail had flooded over half the length of the southern end. Nobody has maintained the drainage channels enough to keep them fully open and with all the rain we had over last summer they failed and flooded the trail. Snowmobile clubs try to keep up but there is only so much they can do with hand tools. To fix this properly now you’d have to bring in truck loads of gravel and heavy equipment to restore the drainage channels to the condition they once were in. It won’t be easy or cheap but I hope someone will do it because it would be a shame to lose this one-of-a-kind place. There is simply nothing else like it in this area.

All of the water in the drainage channels becomes a stream that runs off into the woods under that old bridge, and I was shocked to see how much soil had washed away from its banks. What was once a little surface stream is now about two feet below the surface.

I don’t know what this old bridge was used for but there was a lot of stone to be moved out of the canyons and I’m guessing that it was wheeled across this bridge and dumped in the woods. The railroad did that a lot and you can find piles of blasted stone all over this area. If I could find a way out there I’d go and see, but nobody is crossing this bridge unless they’re a tightrope walker.

And then there was the old lineman’s shack which, with its ridge beam broken, can no longer support its own weight. It now tilts at about 30 degrees, and if we have any mentionable amount of snow this winter I think it will surely come down.

It looks to me like the heavy slate roof is actually pulling what’s left of the building apart. It’s a shame that something so well built has to give itself up in this way but with absolutely no maintenance over a century or more, it has put up a good fight.

Though the old shack is beyond repair I hope the townspeople will somehow vote to find the funds to repair the damage to the trail itself one day. Other parts of the rail trails that surround Keene have had extensive work done to them, but they’re closer to town so more people use them. Meanwhile I’ll continue enjoying the place for as long as I’m able. I hope you enjoy seeing it as well. It’s a rare and special place that should be appreciated more than it is.

It’s amazing how quickly nature consumes human places after we turn our backs on them. Life is a hungry thing. ~Scott Westerfeld

Thanks for stopping in.

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I’ve heard stories about a deep cut rail trail up in Hancock New Hampshire for a couple of years now so last Saturday I decide to see what it was about. This railroad was different than the ones that I’m familiar with because it went out of business before the second world war and all of the steel, including the rails, bridges and trestles were sold off during the second world war to help the war effort. The original railroad, built in 1878, was called the Manchester and Keene Railroad. It was taken over by the Boston and Maine Railroad in 1893 and used until flooding damaged many of the trestles. Since replacing the trestles would have been extremely costly, the line was simply abandoned.

What I thought was a drainage channel was actually a stream. It was nice to have its music with me as I walked along.

The water was crystal clear.

Just as I was thinking that it was strange that the stream wasn’t frozen I ran into ice on the trail. I had my micro spikes on so I wasn’t worried about ice.

I like looking at the patterns in ice.

Ice can do amazing things and it can also be very beautiful.

I saw some unusual things out here and this was one of them. This wall is not holding back anything so it isn’t a retaining wall. It looks more like a loading dock but it’s too far away from where the rail cars would have been, so it’s original use is a mystery. Someone went through a lot of time and effort to build it though so it had some importance in its day.

Ice needles grew here and there by the thousands.

I saw the seed heads of heal all (Prunella lanceolata) so I know there are flowers out here. Heal all has been known for its medicinal value since ancient times and has been said to cure everything from sore throats to heart disease, and that’s how it got its common name. Native Americans believed the plant improved eyesight and drank a tea made from it before a hunt. There are Botanists who believe that there are two varieties of heal all; Prunella vulgaris from Europe, and Prunella lanceolata from North America.

I saw the tracks of wild turkeys that had come out of the woods. Turkeys have a “toe” at the rear of their foot that leaves a little dot in the snow and though it’s hard to see in this photo, they are there.

There are whitetail deer out here as well.

The land sloped away on my right and an old stone wall marked what was once pastureland. Many of what are today forests were cleared pasture lands in the past. Most stone walls dates from the late 1700s to early 1800s. Many farmers went off to work in factories in the mid-1800s after the industrial revolution and gave up farming and their pastures slowly returned to forest, but I have a feeling this land was still being used for pasture when the railroad came through in 1878.

The original stock fencing, so common along these old railbeds, wouldn’t have been needed if the land wasn’t being used to keep animals on. You didn’t want animals on the tracks so many miles of this fencing was strung up along the railways.

And then there was this; a tunnel under the railbed. I doubted it was a culvert because there wasn’t a stream nearby so I think it was a passage for animals. A way to get them from one side of the tracks to the other without them having to cross the tracks.

It was all concrete. Concrete has been around since Roman times so it wasn’t a clue to age but I’d guess it had to have been built while the original railbed was being built. The roof wasn’t high enough to let a horse, cow or tractor through but it was plenty high enough for sheep. Sheep farming was very big in New Hampshire’s rocky ground in the 1800s so a passage under the railbed would make perfect sense. You wouldn’t want your flock on the tracks when a train was coming.

And here was the deep cut, snowier than I had hoped. I like to see what grows on these old exposed walls and that isn’t an easy thing to do when they’re snow covered.

It was easy to see what they did with all the stone from the cut. There are several of these big piles in the woods.

I wondered if they had blasted the stone and sure enough, there were the marks of a steam drill. The railroad workers cut through solid rock by drilling holes into the stone and then blasting. Holes like these were often 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. Dynamite wasn’t invented until 1866 so it was either black powder or brute force before that. Since this railroad was built in 1878 they might have used dynamite but I doubt it. It would have been far more expensive and harder to get than black powder. After the wall face was blasted away someone had to clean up tons of stone, and that’s how all the stone piles came to be in the woods.

There were signs of groundwater seeping through the stone and the staining on the snow pointed to minerals in the groundwater.

All in all though I didn’t see that this would be a good location for great scented liverworts (Conocephalum conicum) because of the lack of water. They like to grow on stone that hangs over water. That way they get plenty of the humidity that they need.

But there were liverworts here; or at least I think so. I believe this example might be ciliated fringewort (Ptilidium ciliare). Wikipedia says the Ptilidium part of the scientific name comes from the Greek word ptilidion, meaning “small feather”. According to what I’ve read it is widespread in Canada, Alaska, the northeastern United States, Greenland, Iceland, and northern Europe. I’ve never seen it before, so if you know that I’ve given it an incorrect identification I hope you’ll let me know. I suppose it could be a very dry moss but I don’t get a moss feeling from it.

NOTE: A lichenologist friend told me that this liverwort is actually called  grove earwort or (Scapania nemorosa) . It’s great to have helpers.

I also saw an old friend; a single smoky eye boulder lichen (Porpidia albocaerulescens), and the light was just right to show off some of its beautiful blue spore producing apothecia. Like jewels sprinkled on the stone; that’s what they always remind me of.

Broom moss (Dicranum scoparium) peeked out from under the ice.

I was surprised to find a red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) out here. These shrubs are on the rare side in this area so I hope nobody cuts it. From its purple buds in winter to its pretty white flowers in spring to its bright red berries in fall this is a beautiful native shrub. We had a beautiful well shaped example where I work until someone who thought they knew what they were doing hacked at it. Now there is a lot of dead wood on it and I’m not sure it is going to make it.

It looked like a mouse or chipmunk had done some house cleaning. Acorns keep a lot of birds and animals alive in these cold winters.

No matter how much fun you’re having it can’t last forever so I finally headed back down the trail, promising myself that I’d come back in the spring. I have a feeling this might be a good place to find some spring wildflowers. Because of all the deciduous trees a lot of sunlight must reach the ground in early spring and that’s what they like.

Go to the winter woods: listen there; look, watch, and ‘the dead months’ will give you a subtler secret than any you have yet found in the forest. ~ Fiona Macleod

Thanks for coming by.

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