Building historical connections
Where an ill-fated railroad once ran, the West River Trail offers outdoor fun
BRATTLEBORO — It used to be known as "36 miles of trouble" — a short-lived rail line that suffered washouts, floods and accidents before the trains stopped running during the Great Depression.
Now, the only trouble is finally connecting its upper and lower sections for use by hikers, cyclists and skiers.
The vision for the West River Trail is an intact, 36-mile route from Brattleboro to South Londonderry. While a hiker or biker can make most of the 18 miles from Townshend to Londonderry on the old rail bed of the West River Railroad, the vision for what is known as the Lower Section — from Townshend to Brattleboro — has not yet been achieved.
"It's a multi-year project to connect the whole thing," said Lester Humphries, a member of the Lower Section Steering Committee of the Friends of the West River Trail.
"We've been working on this quite a long time," said Jason Cooper, another member of the Steering Committee.
At this time, the Lower Section runs 3.5 miles, from Brattleboro's Marina Restaurant on the West River north into Dummerston to the trailhead at Rice Farm Road. From there, a dirt road can take you to the West Dummerston Covered Bridge, but there is no official way to make it from the covered bridge to the Townshend Dam Trailhead — the start of the Upper Section — except on Vermont Route 30.
From rail bed to rail trail
Built in 1880, the Brattleboro & Whitehall Railroad was intended to run the nearly 100 miles from the Connecticut River to Whitehall, N.Y.
What was later to become the West River Railroad only made it the first 36 miles to Sourth Londonderry, generally following the path of Route 30 through Dummerston, Newfane, Townshend, West Townshend and Jamaica. The narrow-gauge line traversed a route that was prone to washouts and floods, thus earning its nickname "36 miles of trouble."
According to the Historical Society of Windham County, which owns the restored Newfane Train Station, the rail line was built as a narrow gauge, "which had the advantage of a higher degree of curvature than a broad gauge considering the topography of the West River valley."
In 1905, the narrow gauge tracks were replaced with standard gauge tracks, and the name of the railroad line was changed to the West River Railroad. But as the 20th century progressed, rail travel began to decline in favor of automobiles. The line ceased operating in 1936 and the tracks were removed by the late 1930s, with much of the railroad track beds reverting to the ownership of abutting property owners.
Over the years since, sections of the former track had been used informally by the public for hiking, cycling, skiing, and enjoyment of the surrounding natural areas, according to the Friends of the West River Trail, a nonprofit association founded in 1992.
'A legacy project'
Sharon Crossman, a founding member, and executive board member of the Friends of the West River Trail, said at one time she had hoped the trail might be complete in her lifetime. She now sees it as a legacy project.
"We had a great advantage in the Upper Section because we were working with state and federal lands," she said. "We did not have to deal with private property owners."
While there is still a small gap between the Townshend Dam and the Jamaica end of the trail, Crossman said they are making progress in finalizing the linkage. She also said in 2018, the Friends purchase a former junkyard in Southe Londonderry, 13 acres in total, that will serve as a trailhead, a parking spot and a place for people to sign a log book.
"It's still a little frustrating," she said. "We do have this gap in the middle and it's a pretty big challenge. But our philosophy from the beginning has been 'Make friends, make trails and make progress as we go.'"
The Friends also hope to extend the Upper Section 10 to 12 miles north to Weston to the headwaters of the West River. And who knows? she said. Maybe the next generation will connect the trail to Vermont's storied Long Trail, which runs north to south across the Green Mountain State.
"We are so fortunate that the trail is well-established at this point," she said. "It still has a great opportunity to grow into a newer acknowledgment of recreation as economic development."
Focusing on the Brattleboro section
It could take years before the trail connects between Dummerston to Townshend, so now the members of the committee are hoping to connect the West River Trail to other trails in Brattleboro and New Hampshire.
"Going south there are some really fascinating connectivity possibilities," said Cooper.
A bridge from the West River Trail to the town-owned West River Park, where athletic fields are located is one of those possibilities, noted Cooper. When the I-91 bridge was built across the river, suspension points were installed to hang a footbridge across the river. All that is needed, like so many other aspects of the trail, is a funding source, he said.
Going south from the Marina Restaurant, it would be feasible to connect to an informal trail that runs the length of the Connecticut River to the bridges connecting Hinsdale to Brattleboro. However, working with the Genesee & Wyoming Railroad, which owns the track along which the trail runs, has been problematic.
A spokesman for the railroad did not return a request for comment.
"There are a tremendous number of people who are walking that trail already," said Cooper.
And many of those people are homeless, looking for a place to pitch a tent or just get out from underfoot.
"Last year I counted nine separate campsites along that one mile," said Cooper. "People are walking those tracks in an altered state. There have been people who have died on these tracks. It is going to happen again."
The Friends of the West River and other organizations have been appealing to the railroad to let them formalize the trail and develop it, complete with fencing along some parts of it to prevent people from walking on the tracks. Cooper and Humphries believe if a formal trail is developed along the river it will eliminate homeless encampments and people using drugs will be less likely to go there to escape.
"People aren't going to want to camp in the middle of the trail," said Cooper. "We've pulled together a coalition that includes us, the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance, the town of Brattleboro and members of the state Legislature. Everybody wants to see that happen. Let us put a trail along the riverbank. We can channel it under the railroad bridge at the West River and bring it out onto Route 119, which is a controlled crossing and is much safer."
Trail access in downtown
From Route 119, hikers could cross the Connecticut River to access the Wantastiquet Mountain Trail, a two-mile trail that brings you to the summit and a view across the Connecticut River Valley. The Wantastiquet Mountain Trail is also part of the newly dedicated 50-mile Wantastiquet-Monadnock Hiking Trail, which travels through the Madame Sherri Forest and Pisgah State Forest in Chesterfield and the Horatio Colony Preserve in Keene, along the Cheshire Rail Trail through Marlboro, and over Gap Mountain in Troy before linking up to the Mount Monadnock Trails.
Another option the Lower Section Steering Committee is considering is a trail south of the Route 119 along the Connecticut River to an old railroad trestle owned by the state of New Hampshire.
While most of the way to the railroad bridge is available, said Cooper, there's a small stretch of about 900 feet that is owned by Barrows & Fisher, an employee owned oil company. Barrows & Fisher is currently in negotiation to allow the state to place a bridge footing on its property. The state of New Hampshire is preparing to build a new bridge connecting Hinsdale and Brattleboro and is paying for most of the construction, but the state of Vermont needs to secure property on its side of the river for the Vermont terminus of the bridge connecting it to Route 142.
The Reformer reached out to Barrows & Fisher, which had no comment at this time about the bridge or the trail.
"The town of Brattleboro owns the river bank and the old siding that used to go up to the railroad bridge," said Cooper. "It would be perfect for the trail."
If that connection is ever made, and the Friends of the West River get permission to formalize a trail from the Marina to downtown Brattleboro, hikers and bikers could get access to the Fort Hill Recreational Rail Trail in Hinsdale, which itself is connected to more than 70 miles of rail trail in the Granite State.
The Friends of the West River also hopes to connect to trails in Brattleboro itself, such as the Retreat Trails, the Whetstone Walkway, the Hogle Wildlife Sanctuary Trail and those at Fort Dummer State Park.
Some day, when the new bridge over the Connecticut River is completed and the Charles Dana Bridge and the Anna Hunt Marsh Bridge, which currently connect Brattleboro and Hinsdale, are closed to vehicular traffic, The Island in the middle of the river will once again take its rightful place as an access point to the river. In the distant past, The Island was home to a pavilion that hosted events, concerts and even ball games, but currently it is only used by the homeless looking for a place to camp and people looking for a place to use drugs.
"Think of that vision, having all these trails come together. Brattleboro could become a recreation hub," said Cooper. "We would like to facilitate that. The potential is just amazing."
For trail information and maps, visit westrivertrail.org, or find the West River Trail on Facebook.
Bob Audette is a reporter for the
Brattleboro Reformer. He can be
contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151,
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