“Over the River they beckon to me,/Loved ones who crossed to the further side;
The gleam of their snowy robes I see, But their voices are lost on the dashing tide.
There’s one with ringlets of sunny gold/ and eyes the reflection of heaven’s own blue;
He crossed in the twilight, gray and cold/ and the pale mist hid him from mortal view.”
Over the River was written one stormy April day around 1860 by Nancy Priest Wakefield who was a young woman who worked in a factory along the Ashuelot River in Southern New Hampshire. As I took my family on this journey to explore a portion of the river, I thought about Nancy’s experiences as a mill worker and how timeless this pristine part of New Hampshire continues to be.
Our family began our trek at the Cresson Bridge just south of Keene NH along Route 10. Follow Matthews Road on Route 10 for a mile or so and you reach this lovely landmark. Bikers can pick up the trail here.
The Ashuelot Recreational Trail follows 21 miles of this historic river. The small section we walked took us about an hour to go from trailhead to the bridge and back; numerous games of Poohsticks* included.
The Ashuelot River is rich with history and natural beauty, protected by a myriad of conservation groups. The Southwest Region Planning Commission and Keene State College created a wonderful map which you can find here. We were on an adventure searching for a section of the Ashuelot Rail Trail which bordered the River in Winchester and Hinsdale – Nancy Wakefield’s section.
Once we reached Winchester, we followed the map provided by Winchester Trailriders, Inc. Near the Winchester/Hinsdale border we found a trailhead and parked. The walk along this section of trail cuts through a wetland which twists along the Ashuelot toward the Connecticut River.
This area was filled with mills and factories from a century ago. It felt timeless watching my children run ahead on a trail originally made for steam engines and rail cars.
From the trailhead, we passed numerous patches of wildflowers and wild strawberries. This bridge provided a lovely view of the river and a great spot to stop and play Pooh-sticks*.
*Poohsticks is a game played in The House at Pooh Corner, by A.A.Milne. You choose a perfectly streamlined stick, with maximum buoyancy, and drop it from one side of a bridge, then run to the other side to see whose stick appears first.
The poetry of Nancy Priest Wakefield came from a text titled, “The Poets of New Hampshire, by Bela Chapin in 1883. Its collection of 300 poems can be found online as a free ebook here.
“Over the River”, by Nancy A. Wakefield
OVER the river they beckon to me,— Loved ones who ‘ve cross’d to the farther side; The gleam of their snowy robes I see But their voices are drown’d in the rushing tide. There ‘s one with ringlets of sunny gold, And eyes, the reflection of heaven’s own blue; He crossed in the twilight, gray and cold, And the pale mist hid him from mortal view. We saw not the angels who met him there; The gates of the city we could not see; Over the river, over the river, My brother stands waiting to welcome me.
Over the river, the boatman pale Carried another,—the household pet: Her brown curls waved in the gentle gale— Darling Minnie! I see her yet. She cross’d on her bosom her dimpled hands, And fearlessly enter’d the phantom bark; We watch’d it glide from the silver sands, And all our sunshine grew strangely dark. We know she is safe on the farther side, Where all the ransom’d and angels be; Over the river, the mystic river, My childhood’s idol is waiting for me.
For none return from those quiet shores, Who cross with the boatman cold and pale; We hear the dip of the golden oars, And catch a gleam of the snowy sail,— And lo! they have pass’d from our yearning heart; They cross the stream, and are gone for aye; We may not sunder the veil apart, That hides from our vision the gates of day. We only know that their barks no more May sail with us o’er life’s stormy sea; Yet somewhere, I know, on the unseen shore, They watch, and beckon, and wait for me.
And I sit and think, when the sunset’s gold Is flushing river, and hill, and shore, I shall one day stand by the water cold, And list for the sound of the boatman’s oar; I shall watch for a gleam of the flapping sail; I shall hear the boat as it gains the strand; I shall pass from sight, with the boatman pale, To the better shore of the spirit land; I shall know the loved who have gone before,— And joyfully sweet will the meeting be, When over the river, the peaceful river, The Angel of Death shall carry me.
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According to the NH Dept. of Environmental Services, NH’s rivers and streams cover 17,000 miles! I hope you are inspired to explore some of their treasures this spring! Have you ever found yourself wandering a river-route searching for surprises around every bend?
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