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Posts Tagged ‘Railroad Boxcars’

Last Saturday I decided to hike one of my favorite rail trails. Not only does it have wildflowers and flowering shrubs all along it, it has plenty of railroad history too. I hadn’t been out here for a couple of years because I had heard of a bear out here that seemed to have no fear of humans. A bear that has no fear of humans is a bear to fear, but bears and many other animals are most active early in the morning and in the evening, so when the clock reached mid-morning I grabbed my can of bear spray and out I went.

This is the first example of spreading dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium) that I’ve seen blooming this year and it’s about a month early. Dogbane is toxic to both dogs and humans, but insects love it. It’s closely related to milkweeds and has milky sap like they do. Monarch butterflies drink its nectar. Though it is an herbaceous perennial its growth habit makes it look like a 3 foot tall shrub. The Apocynum part of its scientific name means “away from dog.” Not only dogs but most other animals avoid it because of its toxic sap. Native Americans used the plant medicinally and used its strong fibers to make thread and cord. The plant’s milky white sap is very sticky and I wonder how they removed it from the thread they made.

An Ox eye daisy bloomed in a sunny spot at the edge of the trail. It was notable because there was just one.

Invasive but very fragrant multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) grew up trees all along the trail. I just featured this plant in my last post if you’d like to know more about it.

If you’re on a rail trail and see a stream flowing under it, there’s a good chance that it is flowing through a culvert-possibly a very old culvert. The one in the photo is a box culvert, made up of two side walls, top or lintel stones, and a stone floor. In the mid-1800s railroad stone masons cut these stones from ledges or boulders found in the woods near the rail line. There were certain rules that they had to follow. One regarded the thickness of the lintel stones and by how many inches they had to overlap the side walls, and even how much soil would be packed on top of them. These lintel stones were at least a foot thick and supported the weight of locomotives twice a day for over a century.

According to a website I found called Historic Stone Highway Culverts in New Hampshire the difference between a bridge and a culvert is the length of the span. (Width of the opening) Anything less than 10 feet is a culvert, and more than that is a bridge. Most culverts are covered by earth fill and the amount of fill over a culvert plays a huge role in how much weight it can carry.

Though I grew up hearing everyone call this type of span a trestle, according to Wikipedia this is a Warren-type through-truss bridge. This type of bridge was made of wood, wrought iron, cast iron, or steel. We have several that cross and re-cross the Ashuelot River and for the most part they are cared for by snowmobile clubs, but I was dismayed to find that this one had seen no attention for a while. All the wooden side rails were missing and the floor boards were rotting enough so some had holes through them. I hope the snowmobile clubs haven’t abandoned this leg of the trail. We owe them a great debt of gratitude for working so hard to keep these trails open. They donate their time, tools and quite often their own money.

The view of the Ashuelot River from the trestle shows how low it is. We’re over 3 inches shy of average rainfall now, and I don’t think we’ve had a real rainy day for about a month.

I was surprised to find native whorled loosestrife (Lysimachia quadrifolia) blooming out here already. It’s about two weeks early and as this photo shows, it was wilting from the dryness and heat. This plant’s leaves and flowers grow in a whorl around the stem and that’s how it comes by its common name. A whorl, in botanical terms for those who don’t know, is made up of at least three elements of a plant (leaves, flowers, etc.) that radiate from a single point and surround the stem.

Both the leaves and flowers grow in a whorl on whorled loosestrife, because where each leaf meets the stem (axils) a five petaled, star shaped yellow flower appears at the end of a long stalk. Many plants grow flowers in the axils of the leaves, but most do not grow in whorls. Almost all species of loosestrife with yellow flowers often have a lot of red in them as this example had.

This old train depot along the rail trail in Ashuelot, New Hampshire  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 yards 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.

The town of Ashuelot has a beautiful covered bridge which was built in 1864, which is a strange time because the Civil War was still raging. I’ve read that it was originally built so wood could be carried across the river to wood burning locomotives, but I have no way to verify that. Anyhow, in spite of the fighting it was built in two spans and is 160 feet long. It’s a Town lattice truss style bridge, patented by architect Ithiel Town in 1820. The open lattice work sides were a big step away from the solid walled bridges that came before it. Now, instead of being dark like a cave covered bridges were filled with light and had better air circulation. They also often had covered walkways for pedestrian traffic, as this bridge has on the far side. I’ve crossed both styles and the difference is amazing. The change must have been a very welcome one to people of the 1800s.  At one time there were about 400 covered bridges in New Hampshire, but only 70 of them were left at the end of the 20th century. The Ashuelot Bridge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

There are many plants growing in the few sunny spots found along the trail 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 name “forget me not” (Myosotis) comes from the original German “Vergissmeinnicht” and the language of flowers in 15th century Germany encouraged folks to wear them so that they wouldn’t be forgotten by their loved ones. Mozart wrote a song about the flowers and Franz von Schober wrote a poem about them. It seems that the plant has always been associated with romance or remembrance; Henry IV had forget me nots as his symbol during his exile in 1398, probably so his subjects would remember him. Surely they must have; he was only gone for a year. Only Myosotis scorpioides, native to Europe and Asia, is called the true forget me not. The plant was introduced into North America, most likely by early European settlers, and now grows in 40 of the lower 48 states. In some states it is considered a noxious weed though I can’t for the life of me understand why. I hardly ever see it.

In several places the sides of the trail had grown in so much there was barely room for two people to pass, and that gave me another sinking feeling that there had been no maintenance here for a while. I do hope I’m wrong.

This view of the river shows how low it really is. In a normal spring you would hardly be able to see a single stone here.

The last time I was out here a hawk circled overhead for quite a while as I walked so I wondered if this time a hawk didn’t snatch up a woodpecker, because I can’t think of any other birds with feathers like this. I hope the birders among you might have a better idea. The feather wasn’t very big; maybe about an inch or inch and a half across.

June is the month when our native mountain laurels (Kalmia latifolia) bloom and they are one of the reasons I wanted to hike this trail, because they bloom along quite a good length of it. The wood of this shrub twists and turns and can form dense, almost impenetrable thickets when it grows in suitable locations like this area. An older name for mountain laurel is spoon wood, because Native Americans used the wood to make spoons and other small utensils.

Like the bog laurel I showed in my last post the pentagonal flowers of mountain laurel have ten pockets in which the male anthers rest under tension. When a heavy enough insect lands on a blossom the anthers spring from their pockets and dust it with pollen. Once released from their pockets the anthers don’t return to them. Though related to the blueberry, all parts of this plant are very toxic.

What once may have been five petals are now fused into a single, cup shaped blossom on mountain laurels. This rear view shows the cups that the anthers fit into. The way that these flowers work to make sure that visiting insects get dusted with pollen is really amazing.

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.

I know that a lot of freight was hauled over these rails but I was surprised a few years ago to find these old boxcars slowly sinking into the earth outside the 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.

The old knuckle couplers still held the boxcars together after all this time. After a three mile walk I’d seen enough and it was time to turn around and walk the three miles back to my car. I spoke with several homeowners along the way who were out doing yardwork and every one said yes, they had seen bears out here, but I didn’t see one and that made for a fine hike.

After all this talk of railroads I thought you might like to see one of the trains that ran through here. A sister train to the Flying Yankee pictured here 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.

Human history and natural history are visible from trails. The old railroad routes through a town can show a lot about how the town developed, what it was like long ago. When you go through a town on an old railroad route, the place looks very different than from the customary perspective of the car and the highway. ~Peter Harnick

I’m sorry this post is so long, but I hope you enjoyed it. Thanks for stopping in.

 

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