You may have heard of the Rails to Trails program – where old railroad tracks are cleared away and replaced by paths for walking and biking. In Wolfeboro, as NHPR’s Sean Hurley tells us, the Cotton Valley Rail Trail Club has helped build something unique in the United States – a rail and trail multi-use path.
We are in Cotton Valley headed for Sanbornville, traveling backwards down the tracks at about 10 miles an hour in a Putt Putt. I ask Jon Miner, a software engineer and the owner of this little four seat motorized railcar - sometimes called Speeders - if he always travels backwards. “Usually I’ll turn this car around,” Miner says, “it’s light enough that I can roll onto a grade crossing, lift it with a set of handles and spin it around.”
50 years ago this car would have been used by railroad workers to do track work, bridge inspection, and signal repair. If this were a 100 years ago we’d be riding in a pump car – powering ourselves down the track by hand.
Ahead, a tree branch hangs low over the tracks. We halt and Miner grabs his chainsaw. “So we got a tree here that’s coming down,” he say. “It’s getting low enough that it’s gonna be in the way of the motorcars. It should be pretty simple. “
Miner, along with the 80 other members of the Cotton Valley Rail Trail Club, have been maintaining this 10 mile stretch of track for 25 years. “So not only any trees that are coming across the track we take care of,” Miner says, “but if there were trees coming down over the bike section, we’d take care of that too.”
The latter caretaking highlights a unique feature of this rail trail, as Bruce Stuart, President of the club, points out. “This is actually the only multi-use trail in the United States that has a rail car operation and a walking/jogging/bicycling path that co-exist with each other. It just doesn't exist anywhere else.”
Stuart says the club’s mission is to keep the history of the railroad alive and the track operational - repairing culverts, watching for tie rot and rail spread - the club is also here to make sure the rails stay where they are. If the club wasn’t here, Stuart says, “The rails would have been removed. I know that in my heart because it's actually probably the most cost effective way to do this.”
So instead of Rails to trails – Stuart and the Club have created something new: rails and trails. But as Stuart considers the aging members of his club, he worries how long it can stay that way. “There are some aspects of American life and just history with this country that I hate to see depart,” he says.
But there are some younger members who say they’ll take care of the track and make sure it stays right here. Jessie Mazzie is his 30s. He sits with his wife Elizabeth in a 50 year old Fairmont MT19 Putt Putt. “We’re going out to the diner out there, the Miss Wakefield and have lunch and come back,” Mazzie says. “Just like aviation, this is a hundred dollar hamburger for the day!”
The 8 mile ride to the diner will take an hour. This pleasure touring, Jon Miner says, when he drops me off, is what draws most people to the club in the first place. “There's just something about it,” he says. “You take this up through Crawford Notch you know you get to go across the Frankenstein Trestle, Willey Brook Trestle and you're looking down on Route 302 whereas most people are down on 302 looking up.”
Miner motors away on the rails – backwards again - for a day of branch cutting and culvert checking. As he passes two dogwalkers going along the path beside the rail, he waves - and they wave back.