Old tracks, new trail for aging rail line

By Anne O'Connor, aoconnor@nashobapub.com
POSTED: 01/09/2015 07:32:07 AM EST

GROTON/TOWNSEND -- Unused rail tracks run through town, from West Groton, into Townsend Harbor, through the center to West Townsend and right up to the state line.

East of Townsend center, most of the track closely parallels the Squannacook River.

Soon after the rail bed crosses into New Hampshire, it becomes the Mason Railroad Trail. Seven miles of rails and ties were removed to create the unpaved trail that ends just outside the center of Greenville.

Portions of the Groton and Townsend remnants of the Peterborough and Shirley Railroad are slated to become the Squannacook River Rail Trail. Organizers are working on securing a lease for the right-of-way and funding to build the trail.

The local railroad branch served the communities along its route for over a century. The P&S never went to either Peterborough or Shirley, but did provide passenger and freight service from Greenville through Groton and on into the depot for the Fitchburg line in Ayer.

Place names have changed since the mid-1800s. In 1845, when the P&S was chartered, there was no Ayer or Greenville. Ayer was still part of Groton, and Greenville was still part of Mason, N.H.

The line holds a firm place in history. The Roosevelt family sometimes used it to get to Groton School when their boys were enrolled in the boarding school, according to an undated article by Rudy Bixby in the Townsend Historical Society archives.

At the other end of the line in Greenville, a trestle first built in 1851 was the highest structure of its kind in New England, according to "Train to run no more over Greenville trestle," in the Nov. 1, 1984, Peterborough Transcript.

Bronson Potter, from Mason, gained local notoriety when he flew his single-engine aircraft with a wingspan of 35 feet through the 75-foot-wide opening over Route 31.

After the escapade, Potter was fined and lost his flying privileges for a time, the article said.

Most of the activity along the line was more workaday.

Kids from Mason took the train to Townsend to attend high school, the Transcript article says.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Cornelius Keefe walked to the center each evening to work at the telephone office. In the morning he hopped on the train and returned to the harbor. His mother would give him some food and he then continued on to Boston for school, according to his son, Donald Keefe, a retired teacher from the North Middlesex Regional School District. He tells the story in the documentary "It all means Townsend," available at the Townsend Historical Society.

When the P&S first arrived in Townsend in 1845, there was little industry. Townspeople did some piecework during the winter, making barrels and palm-leaf hats to sell in far-flung communities.

Industry boomed following the arrival of the rail. In 1875 hundreds of thousands of barrels, kegs and tubs were made in Townsend and the leatherboard industry had begun, according to statistics in "History of the Town of Townsend," written by Ithamar B. Sawtelle and published in 1878.

Even though the Civil War had come and gone and slavery was no more, the town still produced palm-hats, valued at $6,000 that year. The hats were once sold for the use of slaves.

Catherine Wilson, a Townsend historian who grew up in the harbor, said the railroad was used for agricultural purposes, too. Potatoes were shipped in and milk was sent out.

In a document she prepared for the Townsend Historical Society, she said there were 15 freight and passenger trains coming through town daily.

The train sometimes carried a more somber burden. During the Spanish Influenza epidemic in 1918, the train, at least in the Ayer station, was stacked with coffins containing the flu victims, according to Bixby.

Devens was the local center of the international pandemic that killed at least 21 million people. The often fatal disease was spread by soldiers moving in and out of the post.

"Camp Devens was a nightmare of rasping blue death," Jim Duffy wrote in the fall 2004 issue of the "Magazine of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health." http://magazine.jhsph.edu/2004/fall/prologues/

The P&S, by this time a local branch of the Boston and Maine Railroad, was also dying.

Passenger service on the "Greenville Branch" continued to 1933, according to a draft of a guidebook to historical industrial and engineering sites prepared by the Massachusetts Historical Commission in 1983 that is part of the Townsend Historical Society's collection.

The last freight train came through town in 1981.

If the Squannacook Greenways succeeds in building a rail trail, traffic of a different type will once again coast along beside the peaceful river.


Read more: http://www.nashobapublishing.com/community_news/ci_27288580/old-tracks-new-trail#ixzz3OXWbqmOQ