May 14, 2024

Footbridge over Route 20.


God Almighty Himself must have been hilarious when human beings so mingled iron and water and fire as to make a railroad train!

-Kurt Vonnegut


The first railroad in the US was built by the B&O in 1827.  The first passenger railroad was started by the South Carolina and Canal in 1830.  By the beginning of the Civil War, there were 200 railroads in the US, comprising some 30,000 miles of track.  21,000 miles of that track was laid in the North and the rest in the South.  During the Civil War, the advantages of railroads became obvious – troops and strategic material could be shipped so much faster by rail than by any other means then available.  In 1869, the transcontinental railroad was completed and a person could travel from Nebraska to California in 4 days.  Before that, it took 6 months by wagon or 25 days by stagecoach.  By 1916, the total length of track in the US grew to a peak of 254,000 miles (as a comparison, there are currently 157,724 miles of highway in the contental US).  Railroads sprouted everywhere.  All sizeable towns were connected by iron rails.

That rail travel spread so quickly and so ubiquitously is hardly surprising.  I live in Marlborough and if I want to go to Boston, I have to travel some 32 miles.  In the mid nineteenth century, my only travel options were by water (but there has to be a navigable waterway available – there isn’t) or overland, by foot or under some kind of animal power.  That trip would take the better part of a day, or longer.  By train, it would take something over an hour, depending how many stops there are in between.  With the railroad, a day trip to Boston is possible.  Without it, not so much.

So, in the late nineteenth to early twentieth century, there were railroads going everywhere.  This was particularly true in the Northeast where the population density was greatest.  Then along came the internal combustion engines, cars, trucks and highways.  Railroads withered on the vine.  Today, there are over 1,000 miles of abandoned railway lines in the state.  Their right-of-ways, roadbeds and, often, their iron rails and cross ties, still exist and are owned by various entities.  They lay fallow, doing little more than growing weeds, until people find other things to do with them.  There are several groups in this country who are trying to revive them into recreational paths for bicycles, walkers, dog owners, roller skaters and any other kind of nonmotorized mobility.  In 2023, in Massachusetts alone, there were at least 69 rail trails covering 347 miles.

Bruce Freeman was a Massachusetts State legislator who, in 1985 and 1986, proposed that a multi-use paved trail be laid down over a railroad be that runs from Lowell to Framingham.   He died of cancer in 1986, and in 1989, the proposal was signed into law.  The northern most part opened in 2018 and will be opened up to the Mass Central Rail Trail in Sudbury sometime in summer of this year.  There is another section that runs into Framingham, but when this will be reclaimed is uncertain.

Waldo and I (sometimes with Christine and/or Phyllis) have walked all but the piece that runs from South Acton to Sudbury.  I planned to walk that 9.2 mile stretch with Phyllis, but that’s been delayed.  I still have to walk Waldo every day, so I decided to walk it with just the two of us.  We can always do it again when Phyllis is ready.  Because Waldo and I have only one car, and a round trip of 18.4 miles is a bit much, we park our car in South Acton and head toward Sudbury.  The plan is to walk about 4.7 miles and then turn around.  We can do the other half on another day.

The skies are sunny and mostly clear.  The temperature is 70℉ and the winds are mostly light with occasional gusts to around 12 mph.  There are a lot of people out here, as one might expect there to be, because of the weather and the fact that it’s a holiday – Patriot’s Day. We don’t go a mile and we come across a footbridge that passes over Route 2, a four laned highway.  Shortly thereafter, we pass alongside the walls and under a guard tower of a medium security state prison.  Not much further, we pass by the West Concord commuter rail train station.  That train runs from Fitchburg to Boston and will not be a rail trail any time in the foreseeable future.  Thereafter, we are enveloped by pine forest that surrounds many a pond.  Not far from here is Waldon Pond, but we’ve already walked over thataway.  This part of the path is much more appealing than the part that runs from Sudbury to Framingham.

We turn around at North Road, which is almost exactly 4.7 miles from where we started, and head back to the car.  We passed dozens of walkers, a plethora of bikers and said hello to many a puppy.  It’s been an absolutely gorgeous day for a walk.  Traveling these rail trails is clearly a popular thing to do, and, if my experience is any judge, is becoming more and more popular since the lockdown.

Whoever first came up with the idea of reclaiming railroad right-of-ways for recreational use is a genius.


State prison wall and tower.

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