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After 16-Year Slog, Tenacious Volunteers Will Soon Witness Groton-Townsend Rail-Trail Construction

The new trail will provide a safe alternative transportation route to heavily trafficked Route 119, most of which is without sidewalks.

This image shows a train running on the trestle track that was part of the Peterborough and Shirley line. Photo provided by Townsend Historical Society.

 

by Michael LaTerz
 
It’s been a long road getting to the start of the Squanacook River Rail Trail. After 16 years, the project start is set for this November. “As soon as the turtles go into hibernation, we can install the erosion controls,” said Squanacook Greenways Board member Peter Cunningham.
     When asked what kept the group’s effort going after so many years, Peter Cunningham didn’t hesitate, “It’s for the betterment of the community.” And Bill Rideout, Treasurer of Squannacook Greenways, stated,
     “It will be a great thing for kids in town to get around safely.”
     The Squannacook River Rail Trail will start in the Bertozzi Wildlife Management Area near Crosswinds drive in West Groton. It will continue north, then northwest, all the way through Townsend Harbor to Townsend Center; and run along the beautiful Squannacook River, which was recently designated a part of the National Wild & Scenic River System.
     The rail trail will be constructed on the remnants of what began as the Peterborough & Shirley Railroad; although, the railroad never did run through either Peterborough or Shirley. It was a spur off the Fitchburg line. It passed through West Groton, reaching Townsend by 1846, and eventually terminated in Greenville, New Hampshire.
     Transporting people and freight for over 130 years, the railroad was once integral to the development of the region. Among the many products that rode the P & S rails were massive shipments of wooden boxes, barrels and leather board to the markets in Boston and beyond. The line serviced the important ice harvest industry of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The railway was used by the Roosevelt family to get to the Groton School, the boys’ alma mater. And, in a sadder time, the line carried stacks of coffins with the victims of the great 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic.
     In 1900, the line was leased to the Boston & Maine Railroad. The Greenville branch was purchased by the MBTA in 1976. The line was abandoned in stages, with the last freight to Townsend in 1981. In 2015, Squannacook Greenways signed a lease from the MBTA for
the unused rail bed in Groton and Townsend.
     Rail beds are ideal for conversion to trails because they are long and flat. The stone dust type of rail trail is a fine complement to the rural environment of the area. It is suitable for nearly every user; walking, bicycling, and wheel- chair access. Many runners prefer the softer impact of stone dust compared to asphalt. Inline skaters, however, are advised to seek another venue. At 3.7 miles, it will be about one and a half hours at an easy walking pace.
     Rail Trails are very popular. They are safe, beautiful, rich in history, and a plus for the environment. The Squannacook River Rail Trail will provide a safe alternative transportation route to the heavily trafficked Route 119, most of which is without sidewalks.
     “Not one thin dime,” stated Bruce Easom, a Squannacook Greenways Board member, when asked how much the Rail Trail will cost the taxpayers of Groton and Townsend. Donations and grants make up the entirety of the capital budget. In June 2019,
awarded a MassTrails Grant for $27,780. With the grant, the capital campaign exceeded its $150,000 goal, ensuring the November target for starting construction.
     All of this began back in the 2003. The original approach was to seek a combination of state and federal funds; a model used to great success in many parts of the country. However, after eight years of pursuit, it became evident Massachusetts was an exception. Roads and bridges had suffered from extended neglect; in no small part due to the enormity of the Big Dig. Rail Trails were not the priority.
“Once we realized what we were up against, we looked to nearby Wachusett Greenways as our new model,” Bruce Easom explained. In October 2011, Squannacook Greenways was incorporated as a 501c3 non-profit.
     So, how do you construct a 3.7- mile rail trail for $150,000? Bruce Easom explained, “Using stone dust over a coarse grade, instead of paving, saves a lot. Then, there’s value in all of our volunteers; there’s value in the rails that will be removed and sold for scrap, or put to another use; and, we save money by constructing the trail only when the turtles are in hibernation between November
and March.”
     To help prepair the Rail Trail before the start of construction, two volunteer days are coming up: Saturday, October 19, and Saturday To help prepare the Rail Trail November 2. More information is available at their website, www.squannacookriverrailtrail.org.
     
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