Norwottuck Rail-Trail (Francis P. Ryan Section)


At a Glance

Name: Norwottuck Rail-Trail (Francis P. Ryan Section)
Length: 4.9 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Inline Skating, Wheelchair Accessible, Walking
Counties: Hampshire
Surfaces: Asphalt
State: Massachusetts

A Brief History

The Norwottuck Rail-Trail comprises two different sections of rights-of-way originally owned by two railroads. The segment east of Northampton (known as the Mass Central Section) is roughly 10 miles, and for many years was owned by the Boston & Maine. It was originally built, however, by a predecessor during the late 19th century. The other segment runs west of Northampton (known as the Francis P. Ryan Section) and follows about 5 miles of a former New York, New Haven & Hartford branch. Neither corridor saw particularly heavy use (passenger service on both ended particularly early), and each was abandoned between the 1930s and 1970s.

The western Francis P. Ryan Section of the trail was the first to be completed. This corridor had a long history well before the line ever reached the Northampton area. It began as the New Haven & Northampton (NH&N), a railroad chartered in 1846 to build north of New Haven, Connecticut, next to the Farmington Canal. As a result, it gained the moniker “Canal Line.” Most of this former NH&N right-of-way across the state is today’s Farmington Canal Heritage Trail. In 1848, the NH&N opened its first section between New Haven and Plainville. It continued pushing north over the next 20 years and reached Northampton, Massachusetts, by 1858. Later it extended to Shelburne Falls and Turners Falls. There were a handful of other notable branches radiating from the main line, serving Westfield (via Holyoke), New Hartford (via Farmington), and Williamsburg (via Northampton). The Francis P. Ryan Section follows about 5 miles of the latter, first opened for rail traffic on February 1, 1868.

On May 14, 1887, the growing New York, New Haven & Hartford formally leased the NH&N, which became known as its Northampton Division and was later referred to as the Air-Line-Northampton Division. The New Haven became one of southern New England’s most important systems for its high-speed, partially electrified route between Boston and New York (the famed “Shore Line”). It became a necessary means of travel for commuters, and during the region’s industrial years, moved a wide variety of freight as well.

Through the early 20th century, such was the case with the Northampton line, which also offered an interchange point at Northampton with the Boston & Maine. However, traffic drifted away considerably after World War II, and the New Haven found itself in an increasingly precarious financial position into the 1960s. Following its 1961, bankruptcy the company began abandoning its Williamsburg Branch, first from Williamsburg to Florence in 1962 and the rest of the line between Northampton and Florence in 1969, when New Haven was included in the Penn Central merger. Today, almost nothing remains of the entire Northampton Division.

The Mass Central Section of the Norwottuck Rail-Trail was once part of the Boston & Maine. Its history begins as the Wayland & Sudbury Railroad, incorporated in 1868 by the state legislature to build from Stony Brook near Boston (and a connection with the Fitchburg Railroad) to Sudbury. In May 1869, it was renamed as the Massachusetts Central Railroad, and the company had ambitious plans to push the line west across the state from Boston to Northampton, perhaps even to the Hudson River (which it never reached). Unfortunately, from the start it was beset with issues ranging from natural disasters to financial problems. As a result, construction was slow. In 1881, Boston and Hudson were linked, a distance of 28 miles, opening October 1 that year. By 1882, westward expansion had reached Jefferson (48 miles), although bankruptcy befell the company in 1883; it was reorganized later that year as the Central Massachusetts Railroad (CMRR).

In December 1886, the property was leased to the Boston & Lowell Railroad (B&L) with the stipulation that the route to Northampton be completed. Four months later, the B&L itself was leased to the growing Boston & Maine (which formally took control during 1901), but construction nevertheless proceeded quickly and was completed by December that same year. For a brief time, the CMRR was B&M’s primarily link to the west until the latter leased the Fitchburg Railroad in 1900. This new Fitchburg Division operated a more efficient, northerly route across the state, connecting Boston with Greenfield via Fitchburg.

For some time during the early 20th century, however, the former CMRR property did well under the B&M banner, seeing strong patronage and dozens of through-trains daily. Business remained this way through the 1920s, but the Great Depression hit the line hard. Automobiles and trucks also took away both freight and passenger traffic. In 1932, the last passenger through-train left Boston for Northampton and it seems even Mother Nature wanted rid of the line. The 1938 New England Hurricane severely damaged central portions of the route, leading to its abandonment in 1939 between Hardwick and West Boylston. This left two large eastern and western branches. The former survived for commuter service but was slowly cut back starting in the 1950s; it had largely been removed by the early 1970s. The latter became known as the Wheelwright Branch and suffered the same fate; large sections were abandoned by the 1970s, including what is now the Mass Central Section of the Norwottuck Rail-Trail.

Railroad attractions across the state of Massachusetts include the Berkshire Scenic Railway in Lenox; Cape Cod Central Railroad in Hyannis; Chatham Railroad Museum in Chatham; Edaville USA attraction and train rides in South Carver; Old Colony & Fall River Railroad Museum in Fall River; Shelburne Falls Trolley Museum in Shelburne Falls; and the Walker Transportation Collection and Beverly Historical Society & Museum in Beverly.

Do you have Historical Photos of the Norwottuck Rail-Trail (Francis P. Ryan Section)?
Share with TrailLink!

Nearby Trails

Mass Central Rail Trail

Massachusetts - 31.9 miles

A 104-mile rail line was shattered by hurricane in 1938. Today, the corridor is being developed as the Mass Central Rail Trail to be enjoyed by...

Manhan Rail Trail

Massachusetts - 9 miles

The Manhan Rail Trail wends its way between Easthampton and Northampton, with a spur trail leading out The Oxbow near Mt. Tom. Easthampton is a...

Mass Central Rail Trail (Norwottuck Branch)

Massachusetts - 10 miles

Stretching east from Northampton, the 10-mile Norwottuck Branch of the Mass Central Rail Trail connects the towns of Northampton, Hadley, and Amherst....


Chicopee River Canal Rail Trail

Massachusetts - 0.21 miles

The Chicopee Center Canal Walk offers a short pleasant route in Chicopee, a small city on the outskirts of Springfield in southern Massachusetts. The...

Connecticut Riverwalk and Bikeway

Massachusetts - 5.4 miles

The Connecticut River Walk and Bikeway, which will one day run 21 miles along the river, currently has two open segments. The longest stretches 3.7...

Columbia Greenway Rail Trail

Massachusetts - 2 miles

Columbia Greenway Rail Trail offers 2 miles of paved, tree-lined pathway through Westfield in southwestern Massachusetts, from Main st, across the...

Canalside Trail

Massachusetts - 3.3 miles

Canalside Trail begins at McClelland Farm Road and heads north on the former NYNH&H Railroad, crossing the Connecticut River near its confluence with...

Southwick Rail Trail

Massachusetts - 7.1 miles

The Southwick Rail Trail is now complete from the Massachusetts–Connecticut state line, where it continues south as the Farmington Canal Heritage...

Redstone Rail Trail

Massachusetts - 1.4 miles

The Redstone Rail Trail is built on the former New York, New Haven & Hartford Armory Branch, which in turn is a former branch line of the New York &...

Bridge of Flowers

Massachusetts - 0.08 miles

The Bridge of Flowers is a 400-foot-long former trolley line bridge that has been converted into a garden pathway. Open from April 1 to October 31,...

Windsor Locks Canal State Park Trail

Connecticut - 4.5 miles

Note: Per the State of Connecticut's website, the trail is open from dawn to dusk March 1–November 30. The 4.5-mile Windsor Locks Canal Trail...

Farmington Canal Heritage Trail

Connecticut - 40 miles

Running north from the Yale University campus in New Haven through the heart of Connecticut, the multi-use Farmington Canal Heritage Trail, when...

Explore by City

Explore by City

Explore by Activity

Explore by Activity

Log in to your account to:

  • View trail paths on the map
  • Save trails to your account
  • Add trails, edit descriptions
  • Share photos
  • Add reviews

Register for free!

Join TrailLink (a non-profit) to view more than 30,000 miles of trail maps and more!