Spring is here

Spring is finally here and there is a lot going on with the ARRT. First off, most of Massachusetts is in a full-blown drought, with tinder dry brush alongside the trail. Yesterday, the ARRT volunteers had their first spring cleanup in Maynard. We were picking up trash on the northern half of the ROW, which has been wood chipped for the last 4 years and is a popular walking path. This evening a large brush pile next to the path caught fire, with flames 25 feet in the air. It took the Maynard Fire Department an hour to put it out.

The Maynard cleanup was the first of 4 ARRT sponsored events over the next 5 weeks. We are doing our annual spring cleanups in Hudson and Marlborough and repainting part of the ARRT RR caboose in late May. The full schedule can be found on the ARRT calendar page.

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New Maynard Book

Beacon-Villager columnist and ARRT Director David Mark has just published a book of his best columns and blog posts. It is titled “Maynard – History and Life Outdoors” and can be purchased in Maynard at The Paper Store, Gallery Seven and Ray & Sons Cycle and Ski; also Willow Books (Acton) and Concord Books (Concord). It can also be bought online at Amazon.com.

Included in the book are stories about biking, the ARRT and the history of the railroad.

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New Marlborough Business

After 2 years of stagnation, the Crowley Drive section of the trail is seeing new economic activity. Vestas Technology is a large wind turbine company from Denmark, that is building a generator  testing lab in the office park next to the trail. Construction had started last month, and is scheduled to be finished in 2012. They are also leasing office space in the 4-story building next door. That makes them the first tenant in the empty building that was built 3 years ago, but was caught in the 2008 recession.

The other site in the neighborhood is Toll Brothers “Regency at Assabet Ridge“. This is a 55+ condominium complex that is being built by the largest multi-unit residential developer in the country. The first 4-unit town house opened 2 years ago, but was only used as the sales office. The rest of the 69 units were put on hold because of the economy. But since late summer, construction of the next 12 units has started. The name of this community is directly inspired by the Assabet River Rail Trail, being located 50 feet from their gateway entrance.

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Storm Damage

Today I checked out most of ARRT route in Hudson and Marlborough. It’s been 7 days since the record-breaking October 2011 snowstorm hit New England and the ARRT wasn’t immune to the damage.

Starting out at the east end of the trail, the Wilkins Street parking lot and the section running westward was in good shape, with only one large blow down that had already been cleaned up. The section from Cox Street, past the caboose, and through downtown Hudson was perfect. That’s to be expected, with not that many trees near the trail.

Coming up on the High Bridge over the Assabet River, I see the first change. Sometime in the last 2 months, the Hudson DPW has removed the flimsy top plank on top of every trail fence, for the entire length of the trail. We have been complaining about those planks for years, so it’s nice to see them finally gone.

South of Washington Street is where the real damage starts. Coming up behind Hannafords Supermarket, I see a middle-aged couple appear to be meticulously removing some loose branches from the side of the trail. Getting a little closer, I see that they are striping off the clusters of red and orange berries on the branches. So they were no help!

Beyond Hannafords, there are tree limbs on or beside the pavement every 50 feet, for the next 1/2 mile. I can’t imagine what it must have sounded like last Saturday night, with branches crashing to the ground every couple of minutes, all in less than 12 hours. Even the RR telltale at the Farmers Bridge got hit by falling branches, bending the top of the iron bars, 30 feet above the ground.

Past Farmers Bridge is the 1000′ straight away through the densest forest of the entire trail. This is where the big trees came down, taking out the railings on both sides of the trail. The Hudson DPW seems to have started work here a couple of days ago. The broken fence rails have been neatly stacked up on the side, waiting to be nailed back on the fence posts.

This is a good spot for some quick informal research. The biggest fallen tree is about 18′ in diameter. The chainsaw cut lets me count the tree rings. The tree seems to be about 50-55 years old, far younger than I would have guessed.

About 8 saplings had been planted on the Hudson side of the tunnel in 2005. With this storm, the last 3 trees have been lost. Not by losing branches, but toppling over at the roots.  The mural in the tunnel is in good shape and the overhead lights are back on. But there had been so much graffiti on the abutments that they have been painted a solid yellow to cover it all up.

Outside of the tunnel, I cross into Marlborough. There is little damage for the next mile, as there is less forest and more open parkland. This section was opened in 2003 and has two rows of 25 maples bordering the trail. Every tree is undamaged.

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Caouette-Simeone Farm

On October 17th the Caouette-Simeone Conservation Restriction committee presented to the Acton Board of Selectmen the final draft of the conservation restriction for the Caouette property.

This was the first town committee I’ve ever been appointed to and probably the last! We had our first public meeting in April and 14 meetings later, finished the 16 page conservation restriction and map. It was 8 pages describing what the farm could be used for, now and in perpetuity. And 8 pages to describe what was going to be forbidden.

The ARRT came out of this process in pretty good shape. First, we will be permitted to relocate the last 100 yards of the trail, over to the Calouette property in South Acton. This will potentially save over a 1/2 million dollars from the original design. This informal map shows how the rerouting might look in 2016.

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The Big-3: Cambridge

The last of my Big-3 rail trail communities is Cambridge Massachusetts. The Alewife Circle neighborhood is the junction of 3 old railroads. The first was the Bedford to Cambridge commuter rail line, that was abandoned in 1981. Construction of the Minuteman Rail Trail started in 1991, but the last section that extended it into Cambridge was not finished until 1998. It essentially ends after it comes out of the rail tunnel under Route-2 and stops in front of the Alewife Red Line Parking Garage.

The branch off to the east of this intersection is the Somerville Community Path. This is a rail trail that has different names in different places. The west end is part of the Alewife Linear Park and connects to the Minuteman Rail Trail. The middle section is usually called the Somerville Community Path. The east end is the Grove-Cedar Bike Path and was built in 1992. There is an extension from Cedar to Central Street that is proposed, but held up by the Green Line extension delay.

The branch that goes off to the west, is called the Fitchburg cut-off. Which is an odd name for a rail trail that doesn’t come within 40 miles of Fitchburg! Only the first mile in Cambridge is done, but extending it west into Belmont is proposed.

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It’s been a busy day. Started out by over-sleeping and arriving late for the annual Marlborough ARRT trail cleanup. This part of the rail trail was finished in 2005 and gets a  cleanup every spring. About 7 volunteers were already out on the trail when I arrived. The biggest item in the last couple of years has been plastic water bottles on the side of the trail.  Joggers start out with a full bottle and toss them in the weeds when empty. It must be something about the thin clear plastic that makes so hard to spot on the ground. The other big problem are the vines and brambles that grow into the chain link fences. It can take hours to cut them out of the links, especially if they are the variety with 1-inch thorns.

Driving home after we finished, I spotted another fashion shoot on the trail, the 2nd in as many months. Conrad Steward of Allure Photography was shooting model Ellese at the ARRT caboose.

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Lines and Boundaries

It’s amazing when a group of people with a shared interest get to talking, what interesting turns a real and virtual conversation can take.

It all started last month, when Bob Brooks of Maynard, sent us a great winter photo. It was of Track Road in Stow, the future location of the ARRT, buried deep in the record-breaking snowpack of this winter. The Assabet River is in the background, with Russell Bridge in the distant left. He closed out his e-mail with a question about where exactly was the Stow-Maynard town line in this photo. The short answer is that it straddles the center of the bridge, with Stow in the foreground and Maynard behind it.

ARRT secretary Duncan Power decided he wanted a more exact description of the town line and found a book in the Massachusetts online archives.  It’s a 54 page leather-bound atlas that covers 8 towns in Middlesex County.  There were 26 of them printed by the state in 1904. When Maynard was created in 1871 by carving up parts of Stow and Sudbury, an irregular 5-sided pentagon boundary was created. Each of the 5 corners was marked with a granite post. Most of these markers are in obscure locations, deep in the woods. The towns are required to periodically confirm the existence of the markers, by painting the year it is checked, on the side of the marker.

At that point, myself and David Mark were off on a quest to find and photograph the 5 Maynard markers. David is the ARRT’s Maynard director and a columnist for the Maynard Beacon-Villager newspaper. Over the next week, I found 3/5 of the markers and David bagged all 5. The photo on the right is the Sudbury-Maynard marker. You can see that Sudbury last certified their side of the stone in 2010. But Maynard hasn’t checked this stone since 1981, as marked in black paint on the backside of the marker.

Probably the boundary with the best story is the SW corner, which is deep inside the new Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge. When the army took over the land in 1942 for a huge ammunition depot, they needed to build 10 railroad spurs, so that the ammunition could be shipped out of the bunkers by rail. One of the new RR tracks was going to pass right over the 1871 granite post.

So the army pulled out the marker and replaced it with a small square one, set flush to the ground. It was so close to the rail it is claimed that the RR wheels would clip the corner of the new marker.

The old marker was simply thrown down the embankment and can still be seen lying in the leaves if you know where to look. With the RR tracks long gone and the boundary right in the middle of a new  refuge trail, maybe now is the time to put the old one back in its proper place.

So here is a Google map that sums up the whole adventure, 5 boundaries, 4 pictures, 5 people and lots of stories.

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The Big-3: Bedford

My 2nd Big-3 rail trail community is Bedford Massachusetts. The Minuteman Rail Trail was first proposed in 1974, 7 years before the railroad was officialy abandoned. Construction first started in 1991 and most of it was finished by 1993.  In 1998, the last section from East Arlington to the Cambridge Alewife station was opened.  The west end of the trail is in Bedford at Depot Park. There are 2 public parking lots, the freight house which is the visitor center, a restored Boston & Maine Railroad passenger car and a bike shop across the street.

The second path that starts at the Depot is the Bedford Narrow-Gauge Rail-Trail. It was opened in 2001 on the abandoned old Billerica & Bedford Railroad. This was the first narrow gauge railroad in the country, opening in 1877. By 1879 it was bankrupt and closed. Six years later, the Boston & Lowell Railroad had converted it to standard gauge and reopened the route. After it was abandoned for good in 1962, it was converted into a 3 mile long rail-trail in 2001.

The third path at the Depot is the Reformatory Branch Rail Trail. It is a rough dirt path that runs about 2 miles to the west, ending at a small parking lot on Route-62. It passes through 3 different conservation areas; Elm Brook, Mary Putnam Webber Wildlife Preserve and the Delovo Conservation area. The March 25th 2010 Bedford Town Meeting voted to authorize design of turning it into a paved rail trail.

In 2008 the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) named the Minuteman Bikeway as the fifth inductee to the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame. The Boston-area trail is featured in Rails-to-Trails magazine and on RTC’s Web site, complete with photos and a detailed ride-along description of its scenic views and remarkable history.

The paved 11-mile rail-trail running through suburban Boston is one of New England’s most popular pathways, attracting an estimated 2 millions users a year. Heavily used by pleasure-seekers and commuters alike, the route connects directly with the Alewife “T” Station in Cambridge.

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The Big-3: Northampton

Some communities embrace rail trails more than others. I’ve always felt that 3 in particular were above and beyond the rest. My criteria is simple, a Massachusetts city or town that has 3 or more distinct rail trails and community paths, all coming together at a single interesting location.

My first Big-3 town is Northampton. They built their first trail in 1984, the Northampton-Ryan trail. The second trail is the 1993 Norwottuck, that starts in Northampton, crosses the Connecticut River into Hadley, passes just south of downtown Amherst and finishes 3 miles east of town. The 3rd is technically a trail in Easthampton, the Manhan that was opened in 2003. But a major extension was built in 2009, connecting the Manhan to Northampton.

Each of these 3 trails has recently had significant enhancements. The Northampton-Ryan was extended 1.5 miles to the village of Leeds in 2009 and the town purchased some of the ROW in Williamsburg in 2010, to eventually extend the trail into that town. That’s right, one town is buying land in another town, to extend a trail. Now that’s enthusiasm!

The Norwottuck was extended across Rt-5 in 2007 and ends just east of an active RR line. Plans are underway to cross the tracks to the Northampton-Ryan on the other side.

The Manham trail is expanding in 2 directions. Except for one bridge, the connection to Northampton was built in 2009-2010. The western Manhan extension to Southampton was started in 2010 and should be finished in 2011. It’s biggest feature is a long bridge across Rt-10, which was opened on 11/3/2010.

A key player in all this activity is a friend, Craig Della Penna. I recently visited him at his new business, Pedal-to-Properties in downtown Northampton. A long time real estate agent, he opened his own real estate office last spring. It is built on a novel concept, that a good way for prospective house hunters to look at new listings is to bicycle to it! The concept was started in Boulder Colorado and Craig’s business is the 3rd in the country. With Northampton’s network of bike paths, it’s possible to comfortably bicycle to 90% of the town’s residences.

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