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Posts Tagged ‘Stone Box Culverts’

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 This post will show what happens to a trail when it is no longer maintained, and why the thought that some trails might no longer be maintained gets me a little anxious.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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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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1. Rail Trail

I’ve decided that what I like most about rail trails is the same thing I liked about them when the trains were running. Back when I was a boy everything was a mystery and new discoveries waited around every bend. I find that little has changed in that regard on these old paths through the forest. I’ve been walking and biking the rail trails in the area over the past few weeks and this year I decided to look for a little history as well as interesting plants. I found plenty of both.

2. Box Culvert

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.

3. Trestle

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 but trees and shrubs along the river banks are making them harder to see each year. Last year I could see the river from this spot, but not now.

4. Signal Box

This appears to be an old switch box of the kind that would alert the engineer that the through track had been switched to a side spur. Whatever it was, it was powered by electricity. The rectangular base was bolted to a concrete pad and the warning indicators would have been at the top of the pole, but that part had been broken off.

 5. Forget Me Not Colony

One of the largest stands of forget me nots (Myosotis scorpioides) I’ve ever seen is beside a rail trail. You never know what plants you might find along these trails, and I’ve seen some amazing things.

6. Forget Me Nots

Forget me nots are such pretty little things and here they grow happily, way out in the middle of nowhere.

7. Box Culvert

This is another, bigger box culvert. 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 but the one in the photo surprisingly had very little fill over it. The amount of fill over a culvert plays a huge role in how much weight it can carry.

8. New Culvert

This is an example of a new culvert, recently installed. Will it last for centuries like the box culverts have?

9. Rattlesnake Weed

Rattlesnake weed (Hieracium venosum), one of the rarest plants that I’ve ever found, grows beside a rail trail. I was very happy to see that it is going to bloom this year. Its flowers look like those of yellow hawkweed and, though they aren’t very spectacular, flowers mean seeds and seeds mean more plants.

 10. Arch Street

Sometimes these old rail trails still cross over roads.

11. Tunnel

Way up at the top of that embankment through a break in the trees is where I was when I took the previous photo. Many of these old granite tunnels have been taken down, but this one still stands. My question is, how did the railroad build it? Did they dig a hole through the hillside and then line it with granite block, or did they build the tunnel and then fill in with soil over the top of it? I’m guessing the latter, but can anyone imagine the amount of soil they had to move? It’s staggering to think of it.

The plants growing in the gaps in the face stones are pushing them away from the arch stones (voussoirs) and they really should be removed.

 12. Early Azalea

In my last post I wrote about finding a native early azalea (Rhododendron prinophyllum) out in the woods, and just as I was taking photos for this post I found another growing beside a rail trail.

13. Early Azalea 2

The fragrance of this azalea is really magnificent and it was my nose as much as my eyes that led me to it.

 14. Arched Culvert

What most impresses me about the railroad is how, even out in the woods, the stone masons displayed their extraordinary craftsmanship. They knew when they built this arched culvert that few if any people would ever see it, but they created a thing of beauty anyway. Each one of those stones was split, faced and fitted by hand, using little more than hammers and chisels. That they have stood and stood well since the mid-1800s is a testament to their mastery of the art of stone masonry. Having built with stone myself I am left in awe of their skill and knowledge. Stone arch culverts are rare in comparison to the box culvert, representing only ten percent of the total culverts in New Hampshire.

In part two of this post we’ll see abandoned mills, old railroad depots, rock slime, rusting boxcars and of course, more flowers.

Sometimes you don’t choose the path, it chooses you. ~Anonymous

Thanks for stopping in.

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