By Brian Messenger
---- — METHUEN — Volunteers say the Methuen Rail Trail is gaining popularity among walkers, runners, bicyclists and others looking for a quick outdoor retreat just minutes from the heart of downtown.
Across the region, local officials and community groups are working to transform abandoned railroad lines into recreational trails. In addition to Methuen, rail trails have been built in Haverhill, Derry, N.H., and Windham, N.H.
In the year and a half since it opened to the public, Methuen Rail Trail Alliance President Tim Vermette said more and more people are using the 2.4-mile trail, which several years ago was left clogged with thick weeds and litter.
“It’s a 180-degree turn, really,” said Vermette. “It’s usable. It’s clear. We’re happy with the work we’ve done, where we’re at now. We’re just looking at the next level.”
It will likely take some time to get to that next level, Vermette said. Rail trail volunteers eventually hope to replace the current crushed asphalt path with a more even and durable asphalt surface, among other improvements.
But that could cost upwards of $1.5 million, according to Methuen Rail Trail advocate Joyce Godsey. A frequent attendee at City Council meetings, Godsey has openly criticized city officials for failing to take the lead.
“This needs to be tackled as a grown-up project,” said Godsey. “I would like to see them be a part of our group instead of the opposition.”
The Methuen Rail Trail begins near the Manchester Street Park in Lawrence and extends northward to Hampshire Road, just off Broadway (Route 28) in Salem, N.H. The rail bed was originally part of the Manchester-to-Lawrence branch of the defunct B&M Railroad, and was used by the Hood dairy company as far back as the 1800s.
The trail features access to the 18-acre Nevins Bird Sanctuary and great views of the Spicket River.
Parking areas and access points are located at the old Methuen train depot on Railroad Street, at the end of Pine Street, which is located off Lowell Street, and near the IHOP restaurant in Salem.
Railroad ties and rails were cleared from the trail beginning in 2011 by the Nevada-based non-profit Iron Horse Preservation Society. The group funds its work by selling the tracks to restore historic railroads lines.
With plans in place to expand the rail trail into Lawrence, Salem and further north, volunteers like Vermette and Godsey are hopeful the Methuen trail can one day serve as a link on a larger chain extending all the way to Lebanon, N.H.
The towns of Derry and Windham currently boast roughly eight miles of paved rail trail — the longest continuous abandoned rail bed trail in New Hampshire. In neighboring Londonderry, Town Meeting voters in March elected to spend $227,000 to pave just over one mile of trail in town. That work is expected to take place this year. In Salem, N.H., selectmen this summer approved a $170,000 grant to help construct a 2.8-mile stretch of the trail.
All together, stakeholders envision a 115-mile Granite State Rail Trail stretching from the Methuen-Salem line to Lebanon.
In Haverhill, the city purchased an old rail bed several years ago on the south side of the Merrimack River and transformed it into the Bradford Rail Trail — the final piece of a walking and biking loop around the center of the city that includes the downtown and Basiliere and Comeau bridges.
Ultimately, organizers of the Bradford Rail Trail project plan to install a more permanent surface than the current crushed asphalt, as well as other amenities like lighting, seating and a half dozen sculptures along the length of the trail.
In Methuen, like in other cities and towns, Vermette said the majority of rail trail maintenance is performed by volunteers. One man pushes a lawnmower a collective four miles to trim the grass growing along the sides of the trail. Other residents looking to chip in help remove garbage or have built flower boxes and a rock garden, Vermette said.
“Compared to what we had it’s fantastic,” said Vermette.