Forgotten railbed would be remade for bikers and hikers

Posted: Monday, July 21, 2014 12:05 am

By Keith Eddings

CARL RUSSO/Staff photo

LAWRENCE — Under the weeds and litter and the rusted rail that runs from the Merrimack River to the Methuen line, Mayor Daniel Rivera sees an engine of growth like the one that brought people and goods to the city along the rail line for 145 years.

The Boston & Maine Railroad began carrying passengers and freight on the tracks from Lawrence to Manchester, N.H., in 1848, as the Merrimack Valley was building its mills and the nation was turning from rivers to rails to get around.

The rails themselves eventually gave way to the interstate highway system. The last passenger disembarked a B&M train in the 1950s. The freight trains stopped in 1993, except for a few random deliveries.

From Lawrence to Manchester, the rails rusted, weeds sprouted and drug users, vandals, midnight dumpers and graffiti artists arrived, including one artist named Enso whose blocky oversized tag marks nearly every structure along the mile and a half of the trail in Lawrence.

That process began reversing as the nationwide rails-to-trails movement demonstrated the recreational value of abandoned rail beds, causing municipalities along the former B&M line to take another look at theirs.

Among them, Methuen converted its 1.5 mile segment of the rail line to a hiking and biking trail two or three years ago. Similar work is underway just over the state line in Salem, N.H., as part of a larger plan that would connect the Merrimack Valley rail beds to the Granite State Rail Trail, which would run 115 miles to Lebanon in the center of the state.

Similar work has lagged in Lawrence, even after Groundwork Lawrence in 2011 produced a 90-page feasibility study outlining how the trail could be developed in both Lawrence and Methuen (where the effort was underway as the report was released).

On July 2, Rivera attempted to put the effort in Lawrence on track with a letter to the state Department of Transportation, which owns the section of the rail bed within the state.

“This land and rail line appear to be abandoned and have been a source of blight and a hindrance to the economic development in this part of the city for decades,” Rivera wrote to DOT Secretary Richard Davey. “The city would like to open up a dialogue with the MBTA to properly abandon this line and to redevelop the property in a manner which will help spur economic development in this long-neglected neighborhood.”

The MBTA, or Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, is a division of the DOT.

Rivera made another appeal for the project to the DOT’s board of directors on Wednesday, when the board held one of its regular meetings at the central office of the Lawrence School Department on Essex Street.

DOT spokesman Michael Versecke said Friday that the agency would be “reaching out to the city soon to have that conversation.”

Lawrence could provide a key link in the region’s growing system of rail trails because its rail bed crosses the Merrimack River to what had been the end of the line for the B&M, beside the former Merrimac Paper mill in South Lawrence. There, the trail could pick up the proposed Riverwalk trail, which would connect to other trail systems in Massachusetts.

The river crossing also would provide one of the most dramatic views for hikers and bikers anywhere in the state. The rail bed crosses the Merrimack a few feet east of the Great Dam — a National Historic landmark — although the view is partially obstructed by the Broadway bridge.

“It’s a pretty cool opportunity,” said Brad Buscher, project director for Groundwork Lawrence, which was a partner in the construction of the $2.6 million, 3-mile Spicket River Greenway that opened last year. “The Lawrence corridor is 80 to 100 feet wide — seven and a half acres of land in a pretty dense community.”

That land slipped from the city’s consciousness after the trains stopped running, when it disappeared behind the industrial buildings that back onto it and behind the chain link fences and ragged rows of aggressive invasive plants that line the rest of its length.

Where it crosses city streets, including Lowell and Haverhill streets, the overgrowth and litter make the trail look more foreboding than inviting.

A recent check of the trail revealed small swarms of yellow jackets and other biting insects; patches of thick, chest-high weeds, some with thorns; mountains of trash and wide ruts of standing water that looked black and bottomless.

The next day, Rivera stood on the bridge over the trail on Lowell Street and pointed toward the grubby wet mess below, describing how he would remake another relic of the city’s industrial past.

“We can have a nice trail down the center of our city that people can access for recreation,” Rivera said, accompanied by Business Development Director Abel Vargas, who is leading the effort. “This is a basic project that we should do because, with all the parties looking at each other trying to figure out what to do, the least we can do is say what we don’t want is what’s there now.”

Rivera said building the trail could pay for itself by selling the rail for scrap. He also emphasized that the state’s approval should not be taken for granted.

In Methuen, the state legislature recently approved a $150,000 grant to pave the gravel section of its trail running south of downtown to the Lawrence line.

“There was a real groundswell” of support for the 1.5 mile trail when it was proposed, Methuen Mayor Stephen Zanni said. “People really wanted it.”

He said the YMCA sponsors Wednesday evening walks along the trail, volunteers organize regular clean-ups and a few downtown buildings beside the trail are considering opening restaurants.

Walking along Broadway at the south end of the rail line in Lawrence with his partner and newborn son, 18-year-old Brian Rosario said he already uses the rail bed as a shortcut. But he said he wouldn’t take his wife and son in it.

“It’s all beat up,” Rosario said, looking north to where the rail bed disappears into the weeds. “I walk through it when I’m alone. With my baby? No.”

“I’ve lived here all my life,” Rosario said. “It’s always been like that.”