At 160 years ago this month in the small town of Keene in Cheshire County a large crowd gathered on Main Street eagerly awaiting the arrival of something most of whom had never seen or experienced before. More than 5,000 people lingered in joyous anticipation, all seeming to concentrate around a specific crossing of newly-laid railroad beds which split through the crowd across a dusty Main Street. The date was May 16, 1848 and the first train to reach Keene was en route from Boston. With the train’s entrance came the birth of one of Cheshire County’s most prized man-made marvels, The Cheshire Railroad.
When the Cheshire No. 5 and the Monadnock No. 6 doubleheader train rolled over the famous arch bridge and pulled into Keene station that day in May of 1848, the town erupted into applause and celebration. Historian and photographer Marium E. Foster wrote of the event:
“The train was decorated its entire length with flags and evergreens. As it came around the curve from Water Street crossing and into the depot, cannons roared and bells rang amid the cheers of over 5,000 people. The train brought Mayor Quincy of Boston … and other prominent men to the celebration. The Boston Suffolk Brass Band volunteered for the occasion and led the procession of stockholders from the depot to the Town Hall for a business meeting, after which the band led the stockholders back to the depot.”
According to historian Donald B. Valentine, Jr., one older crowd member reportedly looked skyward and yelled. “Now O Lord I am ready to go,” after witnessing the train’s arrival.
Nowadays, the railroad is gone after closing for good in the early 1960s due to the improvements made to New England highways and roads. However, to this day, 50 years after closing, the rail bed still exists and inspires. The Cheshire Recreational Rail Trail, as it is known as today, is a hugely popular attraction for historians, bicyclists, hikers, walkers, as well as other recreationalists.
As one who has always been interested in recreation and how it relates to history, I decided to take my bike and my girlfriend on a historical endeavor, coasting on the trail just as a 19th-century train would have done. Although the railroad used to extend over 50 miles from South Ashburnham, Massachusetts to Bedford Falls, Vermont, the recreational rail trail was cut shorter, running from South Ashburnham to southern Walpole, New Hampshire. On its way, the trail passes through Fitchburg and Winchendon, Massachusetts until it crosses the state border into Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire. From there it continues northward alongside Route 12 through downtown Troy, Marlborough, Swanzey, and Keene.
If you have a whole day and you love adventures, taking on the entirety of the Cheshire Recreational Rail Trail would be a perfect way to spend the day (map). Since we didn’t have the whole day, we decided to start at a trailhead off of Route 12 in northern Troy and ride through downtown Keene. It was all downhill from there! (literally)
When we reached the arch bridge in Keene, we were somewhat exhausted, but from here-on-out it was smooth sailing over paved trails. After we cautiously crossed Route 101, we drifted into downtown Keene via the trail across from the arch bridge. This is the portion of the route where road bikes work best.
After following the beautiful Industrial Heritage section of the trail in eastern Keene, we arrived on Main Street. Obviously, when she and I crossed Main Street, Keene’s reaction was not as jubilant as it was in 1848 when the first train came in. We received no outpour of applause or cheer. Only the faint sounds of conversation, the springtime buzz of Main Street business, and the intermingling of car horns and revving engines. Nevertheless, we carefully navigated through Main Street by following Railroad Street across to the concrete path crammed between Margaritas and Corner News.
The path continued alongside Gilbo Avenue, then cut through the Colony Mill parking lot past Elm City Brewery (which has killer burgers if you’re up for a break). After the parking area, we crossed Island Street onto the Cheshire path marked by a sign.
From there, the path leads to a bike and pedestrian bridge above the highways in west Keene.
After the bridge, the underdeveloped trail gets rough again cutting through granite cliffs where the towns of Westmoreland and Surry meet with northwestern Keene. It then continues onward until ending at the junction with Route 12 in Walpole.
The Cheshire Recreational Rail Trail started as an essential link for the Keene economy. Although the railroad’s decline and demise is unfortunate, the rail bed still lives on. I’ll conclude with this quote below from Donald Valentine, Jr., which best summarizes the Cheshire Railroad:
“It was a prosperous shortline run by thrifty local Yankees which formed an integral part of a through route. It never required a roster of more than thirty three locomotives at one time and these were well maintained in its excellent shops. It had the foresight to modernize or change when it was obviously to its advantage or going to be required eventually for reasons beyond its control.”
My favorite part of the trail was feeling the cool breeze between the massive cuts through granite in northern Troy. What’s your favorite part of the Cheshire Recreational Rail Trail?