The dream took a big step toward becoming a reality yesterday.
Ian Bowles, state secretary of energy and environmental affairs, arrived with news the state is pitching in with $400,000 to help Haverhill purchase a soon-to-be abandoned railroad bed on the Bradford side of the river. The 1.1-mile railroad bed runs from the Comeau Bridge at the western end of downtown to the Haverhill Paperboard company just east of the Basiliere Bridge.
The city hopes to replace the dilapidated railroad bed with a recreational trail and eventually connect it to boardwalks and pathways on the downtown side of the river. The 2.5-mile loop would be connected on both ends of the downtown at the Basiliere and Comeau bridges, forming a continuous loop.
The city is negotiating to buy the unused railroad bed from Pan Am Railways, Mayor James Fiorentini said. The railway is part of the old "Georgetown Branch" line, which was built in 1851. It has not been used in three decades.
Haverhill is counting on the rail trail and several other projects, including a boardwalk along Washington Street, to revitalize downtown and take advantage of the river as a tourist attraction. The idea is that the proposed pathway will increase foot traffic in the business district, giving a boost to shops and restaurants and creating a lively atmosphere.
The railway land is expected to cost more than $400,000, but the city has secured private donations to pay for the remainder, Fiorentini said. The Greater Haverhill Foundation has committed an unspecified donation and the Crescent Yacht Club has donated $20,000, city officials said.
State Reps. Brian Dempsey, D-Haverhill, Barbara L'Italien, D-Andover, and state Sen. Steven Baddour, D-Methuen, pushed hard for the state money, Bowles said.
Each of the lawmakers attended yesterday's press conference at the Crescent Yacht Club, which is next to the eastern-most point of the proposed rail trail. The city plans to build a park next to the club where people who want to use the rail trail can leave their automobiles, the mayor said.
Bowles said the rail trail project fits in with several state-supported initiatives in Haverhill, including $2 million for the proposed downtown boardwalk, between the river and Washington Street.
The next step is for the city to find the money to build the trail, the mayor said. He was unable to estimate that cost.
"There is a lot of federal, state and foundation money out there to build rail trails, but not a lot of money to acquire the land," Fiorentini said. "That's why the state's help on this was critical."
The company that owns the railroad bed, Pan Am Railways, recently struck a deal with National Grid to sell off the transportation corridor to the highest bidder, Dempsey said. An agreement from 1926 would have given the line back to the electric company once abandoned by the railroad.
But the city got federal transportation officials to prevent Pan Am from selling any part of the railroad bed on the open market until Feb. 4, Dempsey said. The company can sell parts of the corridor to any buyer after that date, he said. Someone else buying the property would effectively kill the recreational trail, city officials said.
Baddour credited Dempsey's relationship with Bowles, as well as the Greater Haverhill Chamber of Commerce's efforts on behalf of the project, as the main reasons the city was able to secure the state money so quickly. Dempsey, who is chairman of the House Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, works closely with Bowles on legislation and policy matters.
The state rail trail money was also the result of a public planning and visioning meeting last year in which residents, business owners and city officials laid out their hopes and wishes for downtown, Fiorentini said. Related projects include the boardwalk, expanding the city's public boat docks and relocating the downtown post office and replacing it with a riverfront park.
The downtown rail trail could also eventually be part of a regional, 30-mile continuous recreational pathway that is being planned along the Merrimack River from Amesbury to Lowell.
Hiking and biking an old rail line
Rail line: Part of the long dormant Georgetown Branch
Length: 1.1 miles
Location: Along the Merrimack River from Comeau Bridge to Crescent Yacht Club
Owner: Pan Am Railways
City's plan: Turn it into a walking trail and link with paved pathway on downtown side of river
State contribution: $400,000 to purchase the railway