Bicycle travels: Nashua River Rail Trail

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Harnessing the power of the river

This story begins almost two centuries ago, when the mills came to New England. They built great cities; Waltham and Lowell were but the first. And these cities sat on rivers, for the mills needed water power to run their great machines, and to dump the chemical wastes from their production. And so men made money producing clothing for the many, while the local rivers ran brown and yellow and green from the mills’ wastes.

Next came the railroads, the iron horses that made transportation cheap and reliable. They required routes that neither rose nor fell too steeply, nor took very sharp curves. So the governments granted them rights-of-way by eminent domain, and the railroad construction crews cut through mountains and bridged rivers to blaze a trail for the freight and passenger trains to come. And just as with the factories, towns and cities grew up along the railroads, and those towns bypassed by the rails declined in importance. Truly it was a matter of life or death to a community where the trains should run.

Downtown Ayer today

Downtown Ayer today

Rising in north central Massachusetts, the Nashua River flows north until its waters reach the mighty Merrimack in Nashua, New Hampshire. Mills grew up along its course, making cities out of Fitchburg and Leominster, and scattering smaller mill towns throughout its basin. And the river stank and turned colors with the dyes the mills used. The railroads reached out from Boston, and to service the mills a great rail junction arose in the southern part of the town of Groton. So rich and populous was the new village of South Groton that it overshadowed the old Groton Center to the north, and ultimately broke away and became the town of Ayer in 1871.

All that's left of one mill; I remember when this wall still stood a few stories tall.

All that’s left of one mill; I remember when this wall still stood a few stories tall.

Nothing lasts forever. The automobile ended the heyday of the railroads. Passenger traffic fell off, and even much of the freight was lost to trucks. Worse, the mill owners found cheaper labor in the South, and the mills of New England closed one by one. By the 1960s, many of the mills on the Nashua were gone, some simply closed, others lost to fires and other disasters. Yet the river still stank from over a century of pollution, which had not yet ended. It was one of the ten most polluted rivers in the United States. And the railroads were doing no better. The old line that ran parallel to the Nashua River from Ayer to Nashua no longer carried passengers, and would soon stop even carrying freight.

A view of the river from the rail trail in Pepperell

A view of the river from the rail trail in Pepperell

Then came Marion Stoddart and the Nashua River Watershed Association. Before ecology became trendy, they campaigned to clean up the Nashua, getting laws passed and making the polluters clean up their act. You wouldn’t know to look at it today how bad it once was. I don’t think you can drink from it yet, but at least it looks like a natural river now, not an open sewer. And one of the places you can see it is from the Nashua River Rail Trail. The state took over the old rail line after it shut down, and rebuilt it as an asphalt path for bikers, hikers, horses, and mothers pushing carriages.

Broadmeadow isn't a meadow anymore: it was once a swamp that was drained in colonial times, and has reverted back to sampland

Broadmeadow isn’t a meadow anymore: it was once a swamp that was drained in colonial times, and has reverted back to swampland

This last Thursday and Friday I rode along the rail trail from its beginning at the old rail junction in Ayer to where it passes by the dam and mills at East Pepperell. It’s not quite peak foliage season, but I did see some nice colors. I also made a side trip into downtown Groton, which is adjacent to the rail trail, for a look around and for two cookies from a local bakery. The Nashua River itself isn’t visible from the trail until the last mile or two upstream from the dam in East Pepperell. But there are other smaller bodies of water, including the Groton School Pond and the pools of Broadmeadow.

I grew up in the area, and we could always see the distant mountains Monadnock and Wachusett on the horizon

I grew up in the area, and we could always see the distant mountains Monadnock and Wachusett on the horizon

I traveled the trail in late morning. By that time, the hardcore bikers and joggers have already been out for a while, so what wildlife I saw was limited to the birds, gray squirrels, and chipmunks that darted across the path. Oh, and the humans. I was surprised at how many women with carriages or strollers were walking or even jogging along the southern part of the trail in Ayer.

If you’re thinking of duplicating my trip, especially now that the foliage should be reaching its peak, bear in mind it should only take an hour or so to travel the same segment I covered, if you’re on a bicycle. I actually took over two hours, but I stopped often to take pictures. And you can pick up food and drink in Ayer, Groton, or East Pepperell. Just remember: yield to horses!

About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
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5 Responses to Bicycle travels: Nashua River Rail Trail

  1. suzy beal says:

    I’ve often wondered about the area in which you grew up. Thanks for the history, trail ride, and beautiful scenery.

  2. crimsonprose says:

    The railways came and tore up the countryside, and I’m sure more than one person objected. Yet, now, those very same tracks provide rich green corridors, and entice city-dwellers into the fresher air. In many ways our forefathers’ ideas of progress are finally finding fruition. (Like the photos!)

    • Brian Bixby says:

      Coincidentally, as a sequel to reading those Victorian ghost stories, I’ve been reading a collection of supernatural stories by Gertrude Atherton, one of which features dead people complaining about the noisy railroad running right by the cemetery in which they are buried. So your point is well taken.

      I’ll probably put up some more photos on Google+ tomorrow.

  3. E. J. Barnes says:

    Do you mean “They builT great cities…”?

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