Northern Rail Trail History

New Hampshire

At a Glance

Name: Northern Rail Trail
Length: 57.8 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Wheelchair Accessible, Horseback Riding, Mountain Biking, Snowmobiling, Walking, Cross Country Skiing
Counties: Grafton, Merrimack
Surfaces: Cinder, Crushed Stone
State: New Hampshire

A Brief History

The history of today’s Northern Rail Trail can be traced well back to the 19th century when the corridor was constructed by the Northern Railroad. This system was one of New Hampshire’s earliest behind such names the Nashua & Lowell and Nashua & Concord. Thanks to strong financial backing and solid traffic, the railroad was completed relatively quickly and proved profitable. During the late 19th century, it would come under control of the Boston & Maine (B&M), one of New England’s largest and best-remembered carriers. As the years passed, the Northern’s traffic slipped away, and passenger trains were dropped after World War II. During the 1980s, B&M itself was acquired by Guilford Transportation, which purchased many New England systems during that decade. In an effort to scale back what it deemed superfluous trackage, much of the former Northern Railroad was abandoned during the early 1990s.

The Boston & Maine was largely a collection of numerous smaller railroads acquired or absorbed over the years. It had humble beginnings on June 27, 1835, when a predecessor road, the Boston & Lowell, opened for service on a 25-mile corridor running between Boston and Lowell. While this road did not officially join the B&M until the late 1880s, a handful of small systems would compose the B&M’s original main line between Boston with Portland, Maine. For many decades throughout 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. The industrial and manufacturing revolution that hit New England during the mid-19th century witnessed a similar flurry of railroad construction to serve this growing economy. To meet demand, the Boston & Maine began prodigiously expanding by the end of the decade.

A great deal came by acquiring other carriers, such as the Fitchburg Railroad (Boston to Troy, New York), Boston & Lowell, and the Northern Railroad. By the turn of the 20th century, B&M operated a network spanning more than 2,300 miles, with lines radiating west and north out of Boston to such points as Portland, Greenfield (Massachusetts), Springfield (Massachusetts), Concord (New Hampshire), and Wells River (Vermont). 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 Northern Railroad was brought into the B&M family following its lease in 1889; however, its history far predates the takeover.

The company began in 1844 with its chartering by the New Hampshire Legislature to construct a line running from Concord to some point along the Connecticut River. That same year, work on the new railroad had already started, and three possible different alignments were surveyed: a northerly route would have used the Merrimack and Pemigewasset River valleys before terminating at Woodsville; a central corridor would run along the Merrimack to Franklin then head west toward Lebanon; and a southern line would follow the Contoocook and Warner River valleys to Lake Sunapee, head north toward Mascoma Lake, and run along the Mascoma River to Lebanon. After much deliberation, the central route was chosen for its easier grades.

Construction of the Northern proceeded quickly. On December 28, 1846, the line was open to Franklin and by November 17, 1847, was opened to Lebanon. After a few months of additional work, the bridge across the Connecticut River was completed and the route finished to White River Junction, Vermont. In total, the Northern Railroad stretched nearly 70 miles. The company’s sole branch was also acquired at this time when it leased, and eventually took control of, the small Franklin & Bristol in 1849. This little system ran from a connection at Franklin to Bristol, New Hampshire. From the outset, the Northern was a well-managed operation with a solid base of freight and passenger traffic. Freight was diverse and included textiles, various agricultural products, minerals, coal, lumber, general merchandise, and various less-than-carload movements.

On February 1, 1970, the railroad went bankrupt followed soon afterward by the mammoth Penn Central conglomerate. Eventually, most systems in New England were facing similar fates. It appeared the B&M would be included into the new Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail), launched during spring 1976 to save the industry in this region. However, management decided to remain independent thanks to new president and CEO Alan Dustin, who took control in 1974. Under his tenure the B&M became a highly efficient operation, with new locomotives, fresh sources of traffic, and upgraded rights-of-way. Alas, this lasted less than a decade. On June 30, 1983, the railroad was acquired by Guilford Transportation Industries (GTI) for $24 million, headed by Timothy Mellon. Unfortunately, Mellon had little understanding of railroad operations, abandoning or selling large sections of the B&M, eliminating jobs, and fighting with the unions. Deemed excess, the former Northern Railroad between Boscawen and Lebanon, just over 59 miles, was formally abandoned by Guilford in 1991 after many years of inactivity. The rails were removed in early 1992.

Railroad attractions near the Northern Rail Trail include several excursion rides in New Hampshire, including the Café Layette Dinner Train in North Woodstock, Conway Scenic Railroad in Conway, Hobo Railroad White Mountain Central Railroad in Lincoln, Mount Washington Cog Railway in Bretton Woods, and the Winnipesaukee Scenic Railroad in Meredith. Additionally, railroad museums include the Andover Historical Society in Andover, Ashland Railroad Station Museum in Ashland, Gorham Rail Station Museum in Gorham, Raymond Historical society in Raymond, and Sandown Depot Museum in Sandown.

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