Nashua River Rail Trail History

Massachusetts, New Hampshire

At a Glance

Name: Nashua River Rail Trail
Length: 12.4 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Inline Skating, Fishing, Wheelchair Accessible, Horseback Riding, Walking, Cross Country Skiing
Counties: Hillsborough, Middlesex
Surfaces: Asphalt
State: Massachusetts, New Hampshire

A Brief History

The Boston & Maine (B&M) was one of the New England’s largest and most expansive systems, with a network stretching across much of the region. Generally speaking, its routes radiated from Boston, and when shown on a map looked like giant tentacles reaching into the surrounding states of Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and New York. While the New York, New Haven & Hartford had dominance in southern New England, the B&M controlled much of the rail service in the northern areas, working alongside smaller carriers like the Rutland, Central Vermont, Maine Central, and Bangor & Aroostook. Today’s Nashua River Rail Trail follows a short stretch of a former B&M corridor, which once connected Worcester, Massachusetts, with Portland, Maine. Abandoned as a through-line before World War II, the section that is now a trail witnessed its final trains in the early 1980s; the trail opened to the public in 2002.

During the 19th century, New England was riddled with dozens of small railroads all vying to link the region’s many cities and head west into the interior. The latter prospect was made difficult by formidable natural obstacles, notably the White and Green Mountains (the latter of which was scaled via the Hoosac Tunnel, opened by a B&M predecessor in early 1875). The Boston & Maine’s history began on June 27, 1835, when the Boston & Lowell opened a 25-mile route between its namesake cities. A great deal of the B&M’s network was comprised by absorbing, leasing, or acquiring smaller systems, and such was the case with its original main line between Boston and Portland. However, for much of the 19th century, the B&M remained a relatively small railroad. According to Mike Schafer’s book “Classic American Railroads,” it operated just over 200 route-miles as late as 1883. As the industrial and manufacturing revolution continued to gain momentum across New England during the latter 19th century, a related flurry of railroad construction ensued. To meet growing demand, the Boston & Maine began prodigiously expanding by the end of the decade.

A great deal of this growth came by acquiring other carriers, such as the Fitchburg Railroad (Boston to Troy, New York), the aforementioned Boston & Lowell, and the Worcester, Nashua & Rochester. By the turn of the 20th century, B&M operated a network spanning more than 2,300 miles, its lines radiating west and north out of Boston to such points as Portland (ME), Greenfield and Springfield (MA), Concord (NH),and Wells River (VT). Its concentration of lines in and around Boston made the B&M an ideal commuter railroad, although such operations proved a drain on the company’s bottom line in later years. According to Bruce Heald’s book “A History Of The Boston & Maine Railroad,” the B&M controlled 47 railroads of various size by the early 20th century and actually owned only 519 miles of its own track!

The right-of-way used by the Nashua River Trail was originally built by Worcester & Nashua Railroad, a system organized in 1845. It opened service between its namesake cities by late 1848 and was soon opened farther to the northeast via the Nashua & Rochester Railroad; the latter eventually reached Rochester, New Hampshire. The N&R was leased by the W&N in 1874, and the two, along with the Portland & Rochester, later merged to form the Worcester, Nashua & Rochester Railroad in 1883, offering through-service from Worcester to Portland. In 1886, the B&M acquired control of the WN&R and renamed it the Worcester, Nashua & Portland Division (WN&P Division). A 1918 timetable notes the line was 146.9 miles long with several stations.

The Boston & Maine would boast three routes to Portland by the turn of the 20th century, a setup that proved satisfactory when demand was strong and rail service was the only fast and reliable means of transportation. The WN&P Division witnessed the typical traffic one might expect across New England, handling a variety of freight (agriculture, general merchandise, less-than-carload movements, etc.) and passenger trains. By World War I, the B&M implemented the division’s first downgrades when many passenger trains were rerouted onto other lines. The first abandonments took place in 1932 when sections in New Hampshire were let go, including between Hudson and Fremont as well as between Epping and Gonic.

By the 1950s, there were predominantly only two large sections still in operation west of Portland as well as between Worcester and Hollis. Additionally, a few smaller segments remained between those points. Everything remaining north of Ayer provided only freight service. As the years passed, other segments were abandoned when customers were lost. The 11.6 miles of trackage between Ayer and Hollis remained in use until 1981 to serve remaining paper mills. After that business dried up, the line was abandoned and tracks soon removed.

Railroad attractions near the trail in New Hampshire include the Andover Historical Society in Andover; Ashland Railroad Station Museum in Ashland; Café Lafayette Dinner Train in North Woodstock; Conway Scenic Railroad in Conway; Gorham Rail Station Museum in Gorham; Hobo Railroad in Invervale; Mount Washington Cog Railway in Bretton Woods; Sandown Depot Museum in Sandown; White Mountain Central Railroad in Lincoln; and the Winnipesaukee Scenic Railroad in Meredith. In Massachusetts you can visit the Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum in Lenox; Cape Cod Central Railroad in Hyannis; Chatham Railroad Museum in Chatham; Edaville USA in South Carver; Old Colony & Fall River Railroad Museum in Fall River; Shelburne Falls Trolley Museum in Shelburne Falls; and the Walker Transportation Collection in Beverly.

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