On the Trail of New Hampshire's Northern Railroad

Oct 28, 2019

Traveling from Concord to Lebanon along Route 4, you’re likely to see people walking or biking on the Northern Rail Trail. While Potter Place Station has been preserved, that 50 plus mile stone dust path is really all that remains of the once thriving Northern Railroad.

NHPR’s Sean Hurley spoke with historian Ken Cushing, who’s writing a book on the Northern, as well as Jean Gove, who grew up across the street from busy Cardigan Station in Grafton, to give us this glimpse of the Northern Railroad as it was.  

In the garage behind his house in Grafton, Ken Cushing works on cars. Old cars mostly. “And what we're looking at here is the fenders from a 1922 Kissell,” Cushing says. “Amelia Earhart used to have one of those. There's only about 15 in existence now by the way.”

Ken Cushing in his garage - flanked by the wing-like Kissell fenders.
Credit Sean Hurley

But when Cushing walks back to the house, he shifts to trains. For the last 14 years he’s been writing a book on the history of the Northern Railroad. 

With 174 miles of track and almost a century and a half of life, the story of the Northern Railroad, as Cushing tells it, begins with the story of walking. His first chapter is called Shanks’ Mare. 

“Are you familiar with the expression ‘shanks’ mare’?” Cushing asks.

“Shanks’ mare is somebody who's walking. Prior to 1830, the scenario was we were just on the threshold of the industrial revolution, but up to that time, everybody was, you know, you walked to get around.”

In the 1830s and 40s, as trains began to clickety-clack their futuristic way across Great Britain, where the railroad was invented, a particular malady overtook the shanks’ mare walkers of the world.

“Everybody wanted a railroad,” Cushing says. “Oh man! It was called railroad fever. You gotta be online. And we're not talking internet here. This is online, really online, physically online, and railroads were being built left and right in New England.”

This image shows the high point of the line in Orange. It took 2 years to cut through the rock here.

Chartered in 1844, the Northern Railroad took a year to plan and two to build. By 1847, steam locomotives traveling between Concord and Lebanon stopped every three miles to load up with fresh wood and water, and to drop off and pick up passengers and mail.  

A train in Grafton in the 1930s around the time Jean Gove lived there.
Credit Conrad Ekstrom, Jr

89 year-old Jean Gove used to live in Grafton. 

“You know you lived there with the mine in full swing and the trains coming and going all day and people coming to the store to shop,” she recalls.  

In 1935, when she was 5 years old, her parents bought the General Store in Grafton. Ruggles Mine was nearby and Cardigan Station was right across the street.

“At night there would be freight trains. They were pretty loud - freight train clickety clack clickety clack and they're pretty noisy,” Gove says.

Where she lives now in West Lebanon, Jean Gove says, used to a farmer's field that she'd spy from the train.
Credit Sean Hurley

These days she lives in West Lebanon with her cat and dog. But she remembers taking the train with her father to Lebanon in 1940-something — and unknowingly seeing the site of her future home.

“And I'd ride up here and this was a farmer's field and I'd think ‘I never want to live here. Everything is gray. The laundry hanging out is gray,’” Gove says. “And you know everything was smoke and cinders from the trains. And here I've lived here 65 years.”

If you were a seasoned traveler, Ken Cushing says, you carried two sets of clothes. “One you wore on your back. And then when you got to your destination, a change of clothes. And you'd be saturated in coal dust, the smell and everything else.”

Before the railroad, Cushing says, it would take a farmer six days to “shanks’ mare” his way from Lebanon to Massachusetts to sell his cattle or produce.

“With the railroad? About one day,” he tells me. “That's considerable savings in time and effort. And I'll tell you there was a lot of traffic on this line. By 1893 they had a 24 trains a day coming through here and they were talking about double tracking it because there was so much traffic. So much traffic.”

The 1884 train rates from Boston to various NH stops.

Cushing says the Northern thrived for nearly 50 years. “But it's 1892 okay. Things are booming. You know the dot com bubble and whatnot? That’s what was happening here. And then when you get to the next year, 1893. You know what happened to the dot com? It burst, right?”

The panic of 1893, it was called.

“By the time the country had worked its way out of that,” Cushing says, “it was a whole new world. There was a new mode of transportation on the horizon. The automobile. And that changed everything. A lot of the farms became unprofitable. With electrification back in the early 1900s, a lot of mills went down closer to where the cotton was. By the end of World War II, the population of Grafton was about 365 individuals. Back in 1860 I think it was about over 1,300 people. So that's quite a drop.”

The Northern valiantly struggled on through 1960s and early 70s. “The last through train,” Cushing says, “was 1982 or thereabouts. There was no ceremony. Nobody said goodbye.”

“To me I thought there was always going to be trains,” Jean Gove says. “I never dreamed that there wouldn't be the train line.”

Cushing acknowledges the irony of the main line of the Northern being used now as a walking path and jokes that his last chapter might also be called Shanks’ Mare. Despite that, he’s hoping for a different ending.

“The State of New Hampshire owns that right of way,” he says. “So any day, Amtrak for example, could say to the state, “Hey we want to re-introduce passenger rail to Montreal.” State would have to say, ‘Hey trail users, get the hell off the track!’”

This is something Ken Cushing wouldn’t mind hearing in his lifetime.