Today I took an eight mile walk on the Windham Rail Trail with my wife. The trail segment is four miles long and cuts through ledge and over low areas that were built up to level the rail bed. This section of railroad was originally opened in 1849 and stopped running in the 1970’s. At the time the technology was by far the most efficient mode of travel, and in some cases it still is. That efficiency made it worthwhile to undertake the massive manpower project that was the laying of this rail bed. Just the blasting and moving of ledge must have been a massive project. Add in miles of building up low areas to that and it must have been backbreaking work.
Today the trains are gone, replaced by power walkers, joggers, families on bicycles and dog walkers. The occasional house peaks through the trees, but for the most part you’re out in the woods, and it feels like a world away from the strip malls of Route 28. The highlights of this trail are the long cuts through granite ledge, the water views of Flatrock Brook and Mitchell Pond, and the ghosts of the working railroad that still exist in the quiet forest. Railroad ties stacked on the side of the trail are slowly returning to the earth as moss and wood rot eat away at the timber. Walls made from the ledge kept a hill from creeping onto the railroad bed for decades, and now serve that purpose for the trail.
The segment of rail trail that we walked on was once part of the Manchester and Lawrence Branch. Eventually Boston & Maine picked up this segment in 1887, but eventually the entire branch was abandoned. Nonprofit corporations were formed to raise funds for paving and maintaining the segments. Today there’s a great stretch of paved rail bed from Methuen, Massachusetts all the way up into Derry, New Hampshire.
Rail trails are popping up everywhere. Candidly I rarely think to use them, and wish I’d done so years before. I remember walking along old railroad beds long abandoned in other parts of New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Re-purposing those beds into rail trails is a great way to make open space accessible for everyone. The stretch in Windham is a beautiful example of that and that’s opened my eyes to the opportunity to explore more of these trails.