Loving the Rail Trail

Five years, ago, we moved into our house in Bolton, Connecticut. A couple of years before that, we purchased the land on which our house is built near the Hop River Linear Park, commonly known as the rail trail. At the time, we lived at a condo in Vernon, which was on another spur of the same rail trail. Before that, I lived with my parents in Vernon near a different part of the same rail trail. It all started before that, also with my parents at their first house, right next to the rail trail near the Vernon/Manchester line. So, with the exception of college, my bedroom has been within 500 feet of the rail trail  my entire life. You would think that I like the rail trail. Well, I love it. It has become an integral part of what we do. Debbie and I use it for commuting and for exercise. We love exploring other rail trails too.

Earlier today, I read a great update from Gwen Marrion, the President of the Bolton Land Trust. I’m sure that she wouldn’t mind me reposting her entire update. I wish for everyone to have a rail trail near your home. Get out there and use it.

Here is Gwen’s story:

On the first delightful 70-degree Sunday here about 3 weeks ago, my husband and I rode our bicycles north on the Hop River State Park Linear Trail, the former railroad bed, to Lake Street in Vernon. As we passed under the railroad tunnel at Bolton Notch we were startled to see a packed parking lot next to Bolton Notch Pond. I have never seen more than five cars in this lot but that day the cars extended up the access road. By the time we arrived at Lake Street I had counted 130 trail users – runners, walkers, elderly, infants, toddlers, bicyclists in fancy gear, bicyclists with training wheels and a myriad of dogs.

Was that day a fluke? Were people out only because it was the first spring-like day of the season? No. Tom and I rode the same route last Sunday and my unofficial people count was 118. More reliable count information comes from the Windham Region Council of Governments which placed counters in trees near Steeles Crossing Road and Bolton Notch Pond during week-long periods from August through November, 2009. Daily averages at the Steeles Crossing counter ranged from a low of 66 people on Friday to a high of 265 trail users on Sunday. The Bolton Notch Pond counter recorded a low of 27 on Thursday and 120 on Sunday.

The trail’s new role is only 15 years old. Until the mid-1950’s the corridor was the rail line for the Hartford, New Haven and Fishkill railroad. When the trains stopped operating the corridor lay quiet until the mid-1990’s, when the transformation into its new role began.

In 1994 local trail advocates approached the National Guard unit based in Rockville about improving the trail as a training project. In the summer of 1995 Bravo Company of the 242nd Combat Engineer Battalion arrived with motor graders, bulldozers, loaders, 5-ton trucks, a fuel tanker truck and excavators. Soldiers set up camp and spent two weeks re-routing the drainage to the sides of the rail bed, removing debris, reinforcing walls, cleaning out culverts, fixing areas that were completely washed out and grading the surface. The project was named “Route Sapper” after the nickname given to Army combat engineers because their activities sapped the strength of the enemy.  That summer the sappers finished about two and a half miles of the trail from Vernon to Bolton Notch, and the next summer continued to the Rhode Island border with state funding for the well-received project.

The surface material on the rail bed was ‘trap rock’, or 3- to 4-inch angular rocks, which is not a comfortable material to bicycle or run on. Stone dust, a fine, well-drained, smooth material was planned to be put down the next year, but funding for the stone dust didn’t come through.

Pam Sawyer, our state representative, Bolton Land Trust director and long-time trail supporter, recognized the importance of making the trail usable by everyone. In Pam’s words, “It took a bit of doing”, but she secured the funding for the stone dust and that was applied by our town highway department, led by Lance Dimock, in the late 1990s. Since then the trail’s popularity continues to grow. In 1997 when I began to walk the trail regularly it was rare to pass another person. Now it is unusual not to pass someone enjoying the trail.

Bolton’s highway department does an excellent job maintaining the trail. Recently they added stone dust near the Steeles Crossing Road entrance and at the connection with the Rose Trail and they are quick to fix areas eroded by heavy rains. We are lucky to have a highway department that appreciates and takes such good care of the trail.

One more important step in the metamorphosis of the rail trail is in the works: connecting the Hop River State Park Trail to the Charter Oak Greenway in Manchester. Because there is no railroad bed in that direction, this 1-mile section will be built from scratch. Preliminary design work is underway, made possible with $96,000 of grants from the Connecticut DEP and the SBM Charitable Foundation. When finished, Bolton residents will be able to peddle, run, walk or ski to Charter Oak Park, Manchester Community College, Rentschler Field and downtown Hartford, and another piece of the nationally recognized East Coast Greenway will be in place.

Many people had a hand in the trail’s transformation, and many more will benefit from those efforts. If you haven’t experienced the trail yet, I recommend that you get out your walking shoes or bicycle and explore.

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