Posts Tagged ‘Railroad History’

Last year I found a blue cohosh plant on the rail trail out in Westmoreland and I’ve gotten to see the flowers and fruit but I’ve never seen the spring shoots. From what I’ve seen in photos they’re very beautiful things, like little dark blue hands coming up out of the soil, so last Sunday off I went with a pocket full of hope.

There was a little ice on the start of the trail but after that it was ice free. It was a beautiful early spring day with the trees full of bird song and a temperature of almost 60 degrees F. It’s amazing how much snow one warm day can melt. If we had a week of days like this it would all be gone.

There are plenty of reminders of the history of this place, like this signal base. The Boston and Maine Railroad ran through here for many years.

There are some nice old stone box culverts out here, still working fine after 150 years. The stream that runs through this one must be off and on because there was no water here on this day.  Leave it to the railroad to build something “just in case.” That’s why these railbeds are still here 150 years later with virtually no maintenance.

Someone found a bent rail spike and put it on a boulder.

The stone walls out here are very unusual in that there isn’t hardly a round corner to be seen anywhere. That’s because these are stones left over from when the railroad blasted their way through the ledges. They’ve never gone through the grinding action of a glacier. Rather than the usual stone walls built by farmers clearing their land, these walls are simple property markers.

There must have been many thousands of tons of stone blasted out of the hillsides and that’s a good thing because this railbed had to be built high above the surrounding terrain and all of the blasted stone had to be used essentially to fill in a valley between hills. When you build a road bed through a hilly area you take everything you’ve cut from the hills and use it to fill in the valleys, and in that way you end up with a flat, level roadway, hopefully without having to bring in a lot of fill. This shot shows that I was almost in the tree tops where I was walking.

When you look down the side of the very high railbed you see large chunks of stone and realize that you’re walking on a huge, long pile of it.

But you’d never know it from this view of a flat, level trail. The railroad engineers were very good at what they did and the sheer amount of stone under this trail boggles the mind.

If you’re on a rail trail and see a stream going under it that almost always means a box culvert, and I always look for them if the hillside isn’t too steep.

This one was bigger than the first I showed and it had water running through it. It was under the snow though, so you can’t see it. There is mortar on this culvert and that tells me that it has probably been repaired because I’ve never see railroad masons use mortar on anything they’ve built.

Before I knew it I was at the ledges where I found the cohosh. The question was, where exactly did I find it and could I find that spot again? There were a lot of leaves to poke around in.

This is the spot where wild columbines (Aquilegia canadensis) also grow and this is the ledge most of them grow on. Both columbine and cohosh like limestone and that tells me that there must be a lot of lime in these ledges.

There was a columbine leaf from last year, still hanging on. I never knew they were so hairy.

The mosses were as beautifully green as I’ve ever seen them.

I’m not sure what this one is but it’s a very pretty moss. And it was covered by ice.

I tried to dig around in the leaves at the base of the ledges in several spots and found ice under them each time. The only plant I know of that can melt its way through ice is skunk cabbage, so I knew I wouldn’t see blue cohosh shoots on this day.  I’ll have to try again.

In this place it was still a little too cold for emerging plants.

And the snow on the ski slopes of Stratton Mountain over in Vermont proved it. I’m sorry I couldn’t show you those blue cohosh shoots. I’ll see what I can find this weekend; It will be worth the effort to see such a rare plant.  If you’re interested just Google “Blue cohosh shoots” and you’ll see why I want to see them.

That’s what winter is: an exercise in remembering how to still yourself, then how to come pliantly back to life again. ~Ali Smith

Thanks for coming by.


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1. Crossing Sign

Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time most likely knows that railroad tracks and rivers played a strong part in my boyhood. The Ashuelot River was just a few yards away from our house to the south and the Boston and Maine Railroad another few yards to the north. When they tore up the Boston and Maine tracks it felt like they tore part of me up with them, so when I noticed some railroad tracks in Bennington, New Hampshire near where I work I knew that I had to explore them.

2. Tracks

After years of walking rail trails with no rails it was a pleasure to see some again.  So many memories came flooding back that I might just as well have been in a time machine. One of the strongest of those was of my grandmother telling me stories about all the terrible things that happened to little boys who dared to try and hop on a moving train. She must have been psychic because that’s exactly the thing that I always wanted to do, and it was only the pictures that she painted in my mind of disfigured little boys that kept me from doing so. It was probably for the best.

3. Spike

It was clear right away that something wasn’t right about these tracks. For one thing the rails were rusty, and rails that see train traffic are always shiny and smooth and look almost polished.  There were also many spikes that had worked their way up out of the ties and no responsible railroad would let that happen. Once I got home I did some research and found that these tracks were once owned by the Milford-Bennington Railroad and originally serviced the Monadnock Paper Mills in Bennington, but the 18 mile line was abandoned in 1986 and has been owned by the state since 1988.

The Milford-Bennington Railroad still carries stone in Wilton, New Hampshire and if you’d like to see it you can watch a short video of it by clicking on the word here.

4. Tie Plate

Some of the tie plates were dated 1932, but since these tracks were laid in the late 1800s they had to be replacements.

5. Track

A splice bar is bolted to the ends of two rails to join them together in a track. It is also called a fish plate or joint bar. Spending time on the tracks taught me that by puzzling my mind and pricking my curiosity enough to pick up a book and find out what I could. The tracks also taught me about the thermal expansion of steel and why expansion joints are needed, and why trains go clickety clack when they roll. If you want your child to learn about this world just let him or her walk the tracks for a while. They’ll drive you crazy with all their questions, but it will be the start of a learning process that will most likely stay with them throughout their lives.

6. River View

In places the tracks run very near the Contoocook river, one of just a handful in the state that flow from south to north rather than southward. In this spot the river widens dramatically and is called Powder Mill Pond. The name Contoocook comes from the Native American Pennacook tribe and is said to mean “place of the river near pines.” There are plenty of pines along this river’s 71 mile course.

7. High Water

If you want to know how high a river gets when it floods just look at the trees and bushes along its length.  I was astonished to see that this bit of river stuff was hanging high enough in a tree to be over my head, which meant the river would have probably flooded both the tracks and the road that is just off camera to the right in this photo. I’ve read that the Contoocook is considered a high risk river due to regular flooding.

8. Ice on Log

The ice on this pine log shows how cold it was on this day, one of the very few cold days in the month of December. Even so the temperature was still above average.

9. Crossing

I haven’t seen a tractor crossing like this one in a very long time.  It didn’t look that old but it was nice to see it.

10. Reindeer Lichen

Reindeer lichen (Cladonia rangiferina) decorated the sides of the railroad bed. This lichen seems to like to grow in poor, gravelly soil. At least that’s where I find it most often.

11. Moss

In the shade the only real snow we’ve seen this season hung on, refusing to melt.

12. Path

A well-worn path led into the woods and I decided to follow it.

13. Fishing Hole View

As I suspected the path led to a fishing spot on the banks of the Contoocook. The view was fine enough to make it one of those places where you could sit for hours, not caring if you ever caught a fish. I have a sneaking suspicion that my father used to visit such places when he fished.

14. Knothole

I found a beautiful old hollow tree along the path and peeked into the knothole, but there was nobody home. I loved its color and grain patterns, and its oldness.

15. Trestle

The tracks eventually lead to a trestle that crosses a very rocky part of the river to a siding at the paper mill. Since trains no longer run here the tracks are blocked by high fencing, so there was no way onto the trestle, I was sorry to see. The stone piers that hold up this trestle were laid dry with no mortar and it doesn’t look like a stone has moved in nearly 150 years. The stone is granite that was most likely cut very nearby from ledge, bedrock or boulders, as the railroads used to do.

16. Trestle

Many of the secondary piers are made of heavy 12 X 12 inch wooden beams, which are common on railroad bridges in this area. The wooden deflectors tell me that this spot must see some serious ice in winter. I’ll have to come back and see in February.

17. Tracks

You can’t go home again they say, but if you pay attention you can find little pieces of home tucked here and there; maybe in a meal, an aroma, a song, or a place. I was able to easily walk back into boyhood on this day and that’s always a welcome experience. Everyone should have that chance at least once.

A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision; that true instinct for what is beautiful, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. ~Rachel Carson

Thanks for stopping in. I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas!




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When I was growing up we had railroad tracks running almost through our back yard, so some of my earliest memories include trains. Since they passed both my and my grandmother’s house, I was walking the tracks at a young age. Recently I’ve been hiking and biking on what are now the trails where the tracks once were, and it has been like visiting the past.


Big, powerful Boston and Maine Railroad diesel engines rolled by the house each afternoon hauling a seemingly endless chain of boxcars behind them.  These trains, being so close, would shake the house to its foundation. In fact, we had an earthquake once and didn’t know it because the house shook just like it did when a train was going by.

I always wanted to hop a train but my grandmother’s stories of what happened to little boys who slipped and fell under trains while trying to jump onto them were so effective at discouraging me that I never once tried it, even though I often stood just inches away as they went rolling slowly by.


Things like perspective and vanishing points began to gel in my mind and become real as I walked the tracks as a boy. No longer were they just vague, mysterious concepts read about in art class. I also learned to identify many of the plants that grew along the tracks and spent a lot of time eating the raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries that I found there.

 3. Tradescantia

Spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana) was one of my first discoveries as a boy. I couldn’t have been more than 10 years old the first time I dug this plant up from beside the tracks and brought it home to plant in the yard.  That was about the same time my father started saying that he couldn’t understand why I kept “dragging those damned old weeds home.”  When I got a little older these plants got me interested in botany.

4. Rail Trail

By the time I came along the Boston and Maine railroad had been in business for more than 150 years, but things started going badly in the 1960s. By the 1980s it was over and the rails were being torn up. I didn’t mind when the trains stopped running, but it was hard to watch those rails being dismantled. Even though I never hopped a train the rails still took me places because I read about all of the places they went.

 5. Railroad Spike

Because I spent so many years of my life walking the tracks it seems very strange to walk these trails without them here. One of my first thoughts was that the kids of today would never be able to experience what I had, and that seemed like a huge loss. Before too long though, I found that there was still plenty for them to see and do on these trails. There is a lot of railroad history here, and if you do just a little bit of looking as you walk along you can see it all around you. The railroad spike in the above photo would be a worthy addition to any young boy’s treasure hoard.

 6. B&M Tie Plate

If that same young boy had a tie plate to go along with his rail spike he would be the king of show and tell. Not a whisper would be heard as he explained how a spike would be driven through each of the four square holes in the plate, deep into the hemlock ties by men with sledgehammers, to hold the rails in place.

 7. Ashuelot Trestle Winchester 9-2

Old rusty trestles  suddenly loom up out of the underbrush as you walk the trails. The Boston and Maine railroad crossed and re-crossed the Ashuelot River and groups of foolish young boys could often be seen performing very dangerous stunts on these trestles. It really is a wonder that none of us were ever killed. The trails and trestles are maintained by snowmobile and off road clubs now and have had safety railings built along their length.

 8. B&M Trestle Warning Wires

About 50 yards before each trestle on each of its ends, warning wires hung to warn anyone foolish enough to be on top of a boxcar that a trestle collision was imminent. These dangling wires are steel and about the same diameter as a pencil, so getting hit in the face by one while on top of a train going even 10 miles per hour would have hurt, badly. It would have been better than the alternative though, which was the steel crossbar of the trestle.

9. Timber Frame Bridge Support

Steel wasn’t the only material used for trestles and bridges. These twelve by twelve inch timbers still hold up the street bridge that passes over the rails. If I had known this was here when I was a boy I would have been climbing all over it, wondering how it had been built.

 10. B&M Stone Arch Bridge

This magnificent stone arch bridge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Built of granite quarried a half mile away from the site, it was dry laid with no mortar in 1847 and soars 38 feet above the river. The bridge is 27 feet wide with a span of 68 feet, and its arch has a radius of 34 feet. Evidence of the plug and feather method used to split the stones is still visible on the faces of many of them. It’s hard to imagine how it was ever built without the use of modern tools and equipment.

I don’t think I’ve been on these rail trails a single time without seeing kids walking or riding bikes along them, and that’s a good thing. There are still plenty of things here to want to learn more about. History, math, botany, model railroading, and engineering are just a few that come to mind.

And there is the headlight, shining far down the track, glinting off the steel rails that, like all parallel lines, will meet in infinity, which is after all where this train is going. ~Bruce Catton

Thanks for coming by.


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