When Complete, Wenham Rail Trail to be Part of Larger Trail Plans

The rail trail that's under construction right now in Wenham, off Route 97, is part of a plan to connect Boston to New Hampshire with a bike path.

The work happening now along the rail trail off Route 97 will eventually connect Wenham to an increasingly large trail network that supporters expect to eventually link towns in the Boston area and even along the entire East Coast.

But before that ambitious goal becomes a reality, construction must still be completed on the local bike trail that connects Wenham with Danvers and Topsfield.

Albert "Win" Dodge, who serves on the Wenham Rail Trail Committee, reports that there are no regulatory hurdles standing in the way of the trail's completion. Instead, one problem he cites is a 30-foot gap in the trail that workers have been working to remedy and which was apparently caused by a mix of spring flooding and beaver activity.

Much of the gap is due to the fact that Wenham's portion of the bike trail runs through an area that consists heavily of swamps and wetlands. Dodge described it a a beautiful part of Wenham that reminds him of a mile-long stretch of a separate bike trail located in Newburyport.

Despite this year's flooding setbacks, Dodge does not believe there is a high probability of recurring water-related problems, since railroads functioned along the line for decades. Culverts, water piping and fill will also help address any further drainage issues on the Wenham portion, he said.

Along with connecting several of the area's towns, Dodge points out that the trail runs straight past the Topsfield Fairgrounds, which he highlights as "one example of people being able to ride around, commute and recreate." He also predicted that this project could have a "magnet effect" where other new trails and sidewalks could be built in the coming years to connect schools and parks to the main trail.

"It's going to really promote biking and alternative transportation," Dodge said, adding that the trail is likely to deliver an "immediate impact" in towns like Danvers and Wenham as residents begin to take advantage of a new way to get around.

As far as the construction work goes, the Colorado nonprofit group Iron Horse Preservation has spent much of the summer working on the North Shore and is expecting to wrap up the trail by late this month.

Iron Horse handles rail trail projects all over the country and strives to hire local workers - preferably veterans - to cut vegetation on the usually overgrown abandoned tracks. From there, workers head in with forklifts, spike pulling machines and other equipment to remove railroad ties and iron rails that have been in place since the early 1900s in many cases.

The services of Iron Horse are particularly attractive to town officials and other policymakers in a time of tight budgets and other financial constraints. The nonprofit does not charge for its services, but instead takes the removed iron rails to be sold for transportation projects and other uses elsewhere in the country.

"In Massachusetts the selectmen from different communities have all been very pro-recreation trail, but the big thing is, nobody has any money," said Joe Hattrup, Iron Horse's COO, adding that "other contractors see tracks as an obstacle - not a funding source."

Hattrup also pointed out that Iron Horse includes several former railroad contractors, which gives a built-in advantage over other companies when it comes to developing rail trails and disposing of tracks and other material.

Hattrup said in the west railroad ties can often be resold, while in the eastern states the ties are usually disposed of at co-generation plants, which burn scrap wood to provide both heat and electricity to nearby buildings.

Once the tracks and overgrown vegetation are cleared, Iron Horse's workers create the trail itself using packed gravel.

After the project connecting Danvers, Wenham and Topsfield is complete, the region's bike trail supporters will continue working to develop some longer-term goals.

For example, Joe Geller of the Topsfield Rail Trail Committee notes that area bike trail organizations are also working on a "Border to Boston" project that will eventually make it possible to ride from the New Hampshire border to Boston. He also reports that the far more ambitious East Coast Greenway project seeks to eventually link bike trails from Florida to Canada, with about 20 percent of that goal currently met.


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