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Posts Tagged ‘Railroad Artifacts’

On Easter Sunday I thought, since it was such a beautiful day, that I’d head up to Westmoreland to see if I could find some of the beautiful blue spring shoots of the blue cohosh plant that grows here. I found them last year but I was about two weeks late because they had already started turning green.

Right off I saw a red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) with flower buds. This was a surprise since the others I’ve seen haven’t even broken bud yet. Had I been earlier the finger like leaves would have been deep purple. The purple flower buds will quickly turn green before blooming into a head of small, white flowers, and if pollinated they will become bright red berries.

I saw lots of railroad artifacts here on this day, including this old signal base.

I was shocked to find the buds of striped maples (Acer pensylvanicum) showing. I think this is the earliest I’ve seen this happen. As the buds grow they will become beautifully colored in pink and orange.

There are lots of beech trees up here but the buds didn’t show any sign of swelling or lengthening. They will become one of the most beautiful things found in a spring forest when the buds break and the leaves start to show. It won’t be long!

Last year’s beech leaves have turned white and become thinner than paper, and the wind easily strips them from the branches at this stage. There are lots of theories about why beech leaves keep their leaves all winter, including to discourage deer from eating their buds, but nobody really knows for sure.

This pile of old railroad ties brought back memories. I grew up just a few yards from railroad tracks and seeing all the rails and ties torn up after the trains stopped running hit me almost like a death in the family would have. For many years I didn’t go near a rail trail but then, after some gentle prodding by an old friend, I started walking them. I’ve been glad ever since that they are here to enjoy; they’re much easier to hike than the tracks were.

I saw a tie plate lying beside the trail.

Someone had found an old rail anchor and placed it on a stone. Rail anchors were used, as you would guess, to keep the rails from moving. Eight were used on each 39 foot length of track but their numbers were increased as the grade steepened. Four of them in original as found condition will cost you $36.00 online.

There are a few old box culverts out here, still doing their job of keeping streams from washing the railbed away. This stream had dried up but I think it only runs in heavy rains or when the snow melts.

I was a little apprehensive when I reached this point because this is very near where I met up with the biggest bear I ever want to meet in the woods. That happened a couple of years ago on just about this date but on this day the bear had apparently gone over the mountain.

In case you missed it the first time, here is the bear I saw that day. It was big and it just stared, and that was a bit unnerving. Thankfully it let me leave and didn’t follow. I doubt that I’ll ever forget it.

Grapevines were hanging on to any branch they could grab. This is how they climb trees to get into the crown where there is more sunshine.

I was getting close to where the cohosh grows when I stopped to take this shot. There was bright sunshine when I started out but high thin clouds had made the light flat and strange by this time.

Finally I reached the ledges, cut through the hillside by the railroad, and the mosses glowed.

Marks from the old steam drills can be seen here and there. These holes would have been filled with black powder. You basically lit the fuse and ran, and then you cleaned up all the blasted rock.

I was surprised to find icicles on the ledges but it had been a cold night. They were falling fast after a the sun reached them though, so I had to make sure there were none above me when I got close to the ledges. You can just see a wild columbine to the left of the icicle, and that’s why I wanted to get close to the ledges.

I’m beginning to wonder if they aren’t evergreen. I used Google lens on this plant to see if it could identify it and it came back with Aquilegia canadensis, which of course is correct.

Unfortunately it couldn’t identify this moss that you see covering the ledges because it is so tiny I couldn’t get a shot of it with my phone. I’m still looking through my moss books for it. It forms huge mats here on the stones.

I tried Google lens on this fern and it came back with evergreen woodfern (Dryopteris intermedia), which I think is correct.

Its stalk (stipe) was very scaly and I was surprised that I had never noticed this. I’ve seen scales on lady ferns but there are actually three ferns with scales; spinulose ferns also have them. I haven’t seen any fern fiddleheads yet.

I never did find the blue cohosh but trying to remember where a one inch tall shoot once was in such a large area can be difficult, even though I recognized the stone and log it had been growing near. I’m sure I’ll see the plant with its leaves when I come back to see the wild columbines blooming in early May. Purple trillium, Jack in the pulpit, herb Robert, and many other plants also grow here.

Baby tooth moss (Plagiomnium cuspidatum) lit up a bit of ledge. I can’t think of another moss with so many spore capsules. They start off straight up and pointed like toothpicks and then begin to swell and turn downward. I have it growing in my yard and it’s cheering to see how it glows in the afternoon sunshine.

Cushion moss (Leucobryum glaucum) reminded me of little Miss Muffet’s tuffet. This moss can appear silvery, white, bluish green or grayish green but it always forms a thick cushion and stands out from the mosses that might surround it. It likes plenty of water and shade and grows on rotting logs or on stone when there is enough soil. It is probably the easiest of all the mosses to identify.

How soft and sweet the breeze was, and how warm the sun. I could easily imagine it being an early summer day but anyone who has grown up in New Hampshire knows what a changeable month April can be, and he knows what might seem a soft caress one day could quite likely seem a hard slap the next. Best not to be daydreaming about the coming summer I reminded myself, there was plenty to love about this day.

Landscapes have the power to teach, if you query them carefully. And remote landscapes teach the rarest, quietest lessons.” –David Quammen

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There is a rail trail in Keene that is probably the best one to walk if you like railroad history, and since history and botany are my favorite subjects it’s a must see for me. I think it has been about a year since I was out here last but I remembered what a pleasure it was to walk on the wide rail bed. It was icy in spots but since it is level it wasn’t bad.

There is a nice old box culvert that I’ve seen before but I didn’t know that I could see right through it to the far end. It spans the entire width of the rail bed to let a stream pass under it, so it’s quite long. It’s amazing how much weight these culverts once carried and how long they have lasted un-maintained. A train hasn’t rolled through here since the early 1970s.

Old signal boxes litter the sides of the rail trails in this area and a blogging friend who does asbestos remediation warned me that many of these boxes contained asbestos. I just take photos of them though, so they don’t bother me.

I can’t explain what is going on with the end of this log but I thought it was interesting.

Blue sap lines were run in the woods parallel to the trail in places.

The way these plastic lines save time and effort is by eliminating the need to empty hundreds of sap buckets into large tanks. These tanks were pulled through the woods by horses or tractors and it was a labor intensive operation, especially when we had feet of snow. What the lines haven’t eliminated is the need to still drill and tap the trees each spring. I’ve also heard that a moose or deer can wreak havoc if they get caught in the lines. All it takes is a pin hole to stop sap flow, and then you have to walk all the lines until you find and fix it, so there’s still a certain amount of labor involved each year.

You don’t realize how high up you are until you see a road below you.

The road passes through this tunnel built by the railroad. The previous photo was taken way up there where the ground is flat. The tunnel was probably 2 wagons wide when it was built but now only one car can pass through at a time. I’d guess the tunnel was built first and then all the soil you see was put over it, which would have been a huge amount of work.

There are at least two culverts out here in the woods that are built in the same way the tunnel in the previous photo was built, but on a smaller scale. It’s pretty amazing to find something like this out in the middle of nowhere. The railroad masons were true craftsman who took pride in their work and it still shows 150 years later. I’ve heard that many were from Scotland but I don’t know how true that is. I do know that I would have loved to have worked with them.

You don’t realize what wilderness the city of Keene encompasses until you come out here. This view is just a few miles from major roads but I wouldn’t be surprised to meet a bear, bobcat or moose out here.

Anyone who knows anything about railroads knows they don’t take sharp turns or go steeply uphill like that trail on the left, so what’s going on? The original trail keeps going straight, right through that fallen tree on the right. If followed it’s an education, but you’d better be prepared to climb over and under a few fallen trees.

Once you climb over a few trees this is what you see; more fallen trees in a deep cut through ledge.

A mountain of stone off in the woods shows how much was taken out of the deep cut.

Though it’s hard to see because of the snow it’s very wet here. The drainage ditches have failed and water has filled the rail bed, so if you come here you’d better wear good waterproof hiking boots.

There isn’t much groundwater here and I know that because there wasn’t much ice.

In the deep cut rail trail I visit up in Westmoreland the walls are fairly straight, having been drilled and blasted. Here the walls look quite natural, so I wonder how it was done. Since there is a mountain of stone in nearby the woods it was obviously taken from here. There are tool marks here and there that I have seen, so they did have to drill in places, but not many. In any event it would have been a huge amount of work but that’s what the railroads were known for; doing the impossible.

I saw some lush examples of delicate fern moss (Thuidium delicatulum).  

What this place reminds me of is what all of our rail trails would look like if they were no longer maintained. In this area many of them are maintained by snowmobile clubs and the deserve or thanks, as well as any time and / or money we could donate.

I turned around here but I have been all the way to the end before and the end of the line is nothing but a huge pile of dirt. But that is a problem, because railroad tracks don’t just stop at a dirt pile; this line ran north to Westmoreland and then cut over into Vermont at one time, so I know it came through here. Hurricane Road was laid out in 1761 and ran to the Westmoreland town line and the railroad came to this area in 1848, so the tracks would have had to run under the road at this spot. Does that mean that there is a beautiful granite tunnel under that huge pile of dirt? Did they take the tunnel apart and fill in the hole when the railroad stopped running? In any event this rail trail is a dead end. Sort of anyway; you can still cross Hurricane Road and pick it up again on the other side. But what happened to the tunnel? It would have been great fun to walk through.

I didn’t meet any horses on the way back down the trail but I did meet Tucker, a very happy and friendly golden retriever. He was taking his humans for a walk.

The trail is the thing, not the end of the trail. Travel too fast and you miss all you are traveling for. ~Louis L’Amour

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Last Saturday I did a post about a rail trail that I had hiked in Winchester and in that post I mentioned that I was a bit anxious that the trail looked like it was no longer being maintained. The maintenance of many of these rail trails is handled by local snowmobile clubs. They volunteer their time and effort to keep these trails open for winter use but there is only so much they can do, and I’m afraid they might have had to let that one go. This post will show what happens to a trail when it is no longer maintained, and why the thought that some trails might no longer be maintained gets me a little anxious.

Two weeks ago we had a thunderstorm. It didn’t seem like anything special; we expect thunderstorms in June in this part of the world. It only lasted for maybe 20 minutes and as I say, it didn’t seem like anything special. Until I looked out my window and saw my neighbor’s huge old oak tree on my lawn, that is. Then I knew that this wasn’t just a June thunderstorm. In fact thousands of trees had been blown down all over the state, and close to 100,000 people lost power because of it. This day, on this trail, I saw at least 10 trees that had blown across the trail, but they had all been cleaned up. Do we ever wonder who does all the cleaning up? I wonder. Some trees fell where I work, and it took all day for two of us to clean up a single pine tree like the one pictured above. It was a lot of work, and that was just one tree.

There will be more tree work on this trail; I saw 3 or 4 trees that had fallen and gotten hung up on trees on the other side of the trail. These are called “widow makers” and I hope nobody is under them when they come down.

I’m still not seeing many fungi because of the dryness, but a little rain the day before was apparently enough to coax this yellow mushroom into fruiting. It had a little slug damage on the cap but it was still worthy of a photo or two.

A colony of heal all plants (Prunella lanceolata) grew in a sunny spot, still moist from the previous day’s showers. I love to see these small but beautiful orchid like flowers.

Other flowers I like to see are maiden pinks (Dianthus deltoids) and they found sunny spots to grow in too. At first I thought they were their cousins the Deptford pinks (Dianthus armeria) but the jagged circle in the center of the flower told the story. Deptford pinks don’t have this feature.  They should be along any time now.

There are lots of box culverts carrying streams under this rail trail but much of the rail bed was built on fill that was packed between two hills, and in some cases it’s a 50 foot climb down to see the culverts. This example was the only one that was just a few feet below the rail bed. That granite lintel stone over the opening is about two feet thick; strong enough to have locomotives roll over it for well over a century.

There are plenty of other reminders of the railroad out here as well, like this old signal box. I once had an asbestos abatement contractor tell me that these were often lined with asbestos, so it’s best to just let them be.

Old stone walls still mark the boundary lines between private and railroad property.

I’ve never seen a horse on this trail but you can tell that they’ve been here.

I was surprised to find many pinesap plants (Monotropa hypopitys) up and ready to bloom. I don’t usually find these until well after their cousins the Indian pipes (Monotropa uniflora) bloom, but I haven’t seen a single Indian pipe yet this year. The chief differences between the two plants are color and flower count. Indian pipes are stark white and have a single flower, while pinesap plants are honey colored or reddish with multiple flowers. Neither plant photosynthesizes. Instead they receive nutrients from fungi that are associated with the roots of oaks and pines.

I’m guessing this log must act like a sponge and hold water, because it had coral fungus all over it. I think the soil is simply too dry to support much fungi at the moment.

I think these were crown tipped coral fungi (Clavicorona pyxidata) but since I don’t have a microscope to make identification a certainty, please don’t hold me to that.

This is a great trail for groups of people to walk because it is so wide. I think 4 people could walk side by side over most of it. It is level over much of its length and mostly arrow straight as well. When it does curve the curves are so gentle you don’t even realize it.

And that is why this should tell you something; the railroad would have never built anything like this. It’s hard to tell but it goes steeply uphill and the curves are far too sharp for a train to follow. That’s because this is a detour around the actual railbed, which lies abandoned over there on the right.

If you were to ignore the detour and keep walking straight on, this is what you’d find; the original rail bed. After I climb over and under a few downed trees, we’ll have a look.

The original rail bed was another deep cut, with a man-made canyon hacked out of the stone hillside. I’ve explored it before and found that the far end is blocked by many tons of gravel, which was poured into the canyon when a road was built across it. It’s a confusing conundrum, because I’m sure both the road and railbed are very old. If the road was there when the railbed was built there should be a tunnel under the road. If the road was built later over a running railroad there would have been a bridge or trestle over the rails. In any event there is just a huge mound of gravel at the end, and that has caused the drainage ditches on either side of the railbed to fail, so I got very wet feet in here. I should have worn my winter hikers.

These photos show what our rail trails would look like if the maintenance on them were to suddenly stop. When I say that we owe our snowmobile clubs and all of the other volunteers who keep these trails open a huge debt of gratitude, I’m not joking. I think it took me over two hours to pick my way through the entire length the first time I explored it, and this section isn’t even a mile long.

The woods have a luminous quality out here but even so this part isn’t a very pleasant walk. I spent far more time climbing over trees and avoiding walking in standing water than I did actually walking so I decided not to follow the canyon to the end. Standing in ankle deep mud taking photos isn’t much fun, so my only thought was to get out of here.

I grew up in a house that was just a few yards from a Boston and Maine Railroad track that freight trains ran over twice a day, so when I saw them tear up all the rails and take them away it was traumatic enough to keep me off rail trails for a very long time. Seeing a dirt trail where the trains once ran was a hard thing but finally after 30 years or so I convinced myself that it was time to get over it and I’ve been walking these rail trail ever since. In that time I’ve discovered what a great gift they are. For a nature lover who wants to get far into the woods without having to cut a trail, there is simply nothing that can compare. I hope we will all do our best to keep them open, even if it is simply telling a town or state representative how much we enjoy them. To stand aside and watch nature reclaim something so unique and valuable would be a real tragedy, in my opinion.

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

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1. Pink lady's Slippers

As I said in the last post, rail trails are excellent places to find rare and hard to find plants, including pink lady’s slippers (Cypripedium acaule.) I know of one trail where they grow all along one side of it. How can you witness something so beautiful and not feel grateful to simply be alive?

2. Ashuelot Depot

This old depot in Ashuelot, New Hampshire, just south of Keene, isn’t as elaborately adorned as some that still stand in this area but it has been taken care of and seems to be fairly complete, except for the wooden platform it surely must have had. The train would have stopped just a few feet out from that red door. This was on the Ashuelot branch of the Cheshire Railroad, which was part of the Boston and Maine Railroad system. The Cheshire Railroad ran from Keene to Brattleboro, Vermont, and from there north into central Vermont or south to Massachusetts.

3. Flying_Yankee 1935

A sister train to the Flying Yankee pictured here would have carried passengers on the Cheshire Railroad from 1935 until its retirement in 1957. The gleaming stainless steel streamliner with “Cheshire” on its nameplate ran over 3 million miles in its history as a state of the art diesel passenger train. Its second car was a combination baggage / mail / buffet dining car and the third car was coach seating and had a rounded end with 270 degrees of glass for observation. It carried 88 passengers. Thanks go to the Troy Cheshire Railroad Depot Commission for providing this information, and to Wikipedia for the photo.

4. Boxcars

I know that a lot of freight was hauled over these rails but I was surprised to find these old boxcars slowly sinking into the earth outside an old abandoned paper mill. There was a lumber yard and warehouses across the tracks from my grandmother’s house and when I was a boy I used to play in and on boxcars just like these. That was back when the trains were running so I also used to get chased out of them frequently.

5. Boxcar Side

These cars were from the Green Mountain Railroad, which still runs as a scenic railway through parts of Vermont.

6. Boxcar Couplings

The old boxcars weren’t coupled correctly, so if you moved one the other wouldn’t follow. Can you see what the problem is?

7. Train Coupling

This is how knuckle couplers should look when coupled to move the cars in tandem. The parts with the holes through them should always front to back as they are in this photo from Wikipedia. Or side to side, depending on how you choose to look at them.

8. Fringed Polygala Colony

I recently found the largest colony of fringed polygala (Polygala paucifolia) that I’ve ever seen growing out in the middle of nowhere, alongside a rail trail.

9. Fringed Polygala

It’s always a pleasure to see these little winged beauties. It took quite a bike ride to get to them but it was worth the achy knees.

10. Abandoned Paper Mill

New Hampshire used to have a lot of paper mills but many have gone out of business. This one seems to be slowly crumbling. I’ve watched buildings like this crumble before and it always seems to start with an unrepaired leak in the roof. The water coming through the roof rots the roof rafters, floor joists and sills, and finally the rotting building is too weak to handle the snow load and, usually after a heavy snowfall, down it comes.

11. Railroad Artifact

You can find many old rusting railroad artifacts along these rail trails. I took a photo of this object because I didn’t know what it was, and I still don’t. It was about a foot long and quite heavy.

13. Rock Slime

In my 50+ years of being in these woods I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite so strange as this-whatever it is. I call it rock slime because it looked slimy but I was surprised when I poked my finger into it, to find that it felt like cool water and wasn’t slimy or sticky at all. It hung down for about a foot under a rock overhang that constantly dripped water, so that it couldn’t dry out. If you’re reading this and know what it is, or if you’ve seen something like it, I’d love to hear from you.

12. Rock Slime Closeup

This is a close up of the rock slime. The back looked the same as the front. Are those eyes I see in there?

14. Dead End

Sometimes, rarely but sometimes, you run into a dead end on a rail trail. This fallen tree marked the end of the maintained part of this trail and it reminded me that this is what they would all look like if it wasn’t for the dedicated, hardworking volunteers that keep these trails open for the rest of us. Here in New Hampshire it is mostly snowmobile clubs that do this work all summer and they accept donations. If you use the rail trails in your area, why not find out who maintains them and consider making a small donation or volunteering some time? I’m sure it will be greatly appreciated. Just think of what strange, interesting, and beautiful things we’d all be missing if they weren’t kept open.

Go outside and walk a bit, long enough to take in and record new surroundings.  Enjoy the best-kept secret around – the ordinary, everyday landscape that touches any explorer with magic. ~John R. Stilgoe

Thanks for coming by.

 

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