A Special Gift to Our Communities

From Visionary Leaders of the 1970s

One of the most notable things about New England that most people don't realize is the super- abundance of unused former steam railroad corridors. In fact, since the early 1960s, there have been over 70,000 miles of former steam railroad corridor taken out of the nation's inventory, and the majority of this mileage is here in the Northeast. In the 1970’s, the MBTA purchased a slew of old Boston & Maine and New Haven Railroad branch lines in over 60 communities in Eastern Mass.

Most of these were dormant or abandoned, and though they didn’t know what would happen with them, a rail trail wasn’t really thought of. Though there were a few rail trails created from former RRs, in a few scattered places in New England; it was not a common thing. So those dormant branch lines in EMass, complete the rails still in place, sat dormant, forgotten and the forest began to take over and overgrow these rights of way. There are over 1,000 miles of
former RRs in Mass owned by either a state agency or a utility. They are slowly being redeveloped into trails.

They don’t lead to forgotten, coal-mine branch lines where no one lives, this network led to huge antediluvian mill complexes which today have been largely converted to apartments or condos or offices. The network of off-road paths that can be built in southern New England is simply unmatched
anywhere else in North America and they connect right where people live, work, play, and attend school.

Living Life Directly Next To A Rail Trail
We live on Chestnut Street in Northampton’s historic Civil War industrial village center of Florence and on the trail adjacent to our house, each day begins with pretty much the same scenario. Starting at around 5:30 a.m., or the crack of dawn, joggers and power-walkers pass by. By 7:30AM, the dog walkers are out and by 8AM, school kids pass by. In fact, scores of kids. Most are walking, but a substantial number are on bikes and even a smattering on roller blades. So many kids here walk/bike/blade to school that I would hazard a guess and say two school buses aren't needed because of this safe route to school.

Around 8:30AM, a number of utilitarian bikers ride by—people biking to work. At midday, the users are mostly retirees and mothers pushing baby carriages. The dog walkers are back out late in the afternoon. Finally, the evening strollers, joggers, and walkers pass by.

To call these facilities "bike paths" is a misnomer, as there are too many walkers and joggers. In fact, to call them "recreation trails" is a misnomer as well, as they are true transportation facilities. The city has come around to this realization as well because several years ago, they began plowing the trail in the winter so it can be relied upon as a "Safe Route to School."

On weekends, the complexion of the path changes. There are more bicyclists, who tend to be tourists, but the local joggers, power-walkers, strollers, and dog walkers are still out there in force. Being only 8 feet away, our house was one of the closest houses ever to have a railroad built next to it-and, conversely, it is certainly one of the closest houses to sit next to a rail trail.

In fact, when our house was built, the railroad officials stepped up and reinforced all the plaster ceilings with lath strips nailed up from below. Since that wasn’t attractive, they then hung taut, but flexible canvas a few inches below the reinforced plaster ceiling. The reinforced ceiling have held, and the canvas ceilings were able to flex. The trains went away in 1969, and the trail was built and opened in 1983—after several years of passionate debate I might ad. Now, we’ve been here only since 2001, but with only bikes and pedestrians going by today, I can attest that the house doesn’t shake anymore. And we just love living here, eight feet from the trail.

Craig Della Penna is Executive Director with Norwottuck Network, an Associate Broker with The Murphys Realtors, Trailside Team, as well as the Owner of Sugar Maple Trailside Inn in Florence, MA.

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Within a 125-mile radius, there are currently about 200 separate projects underway that will provide non-motorized options for day-to-day use.

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