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Blazing the trail

Volunteers turn ‘36 miles of trouble’ into a trail for bikers, pedestrians

BRATTLEBORO—Last fall, the nonprofit group Friends of the West River Trail acquired ownership of the former West River Railroad right of way that runs between the Marina Restaurant off Putney Road and Rice Farm Road in West Dummerston.

Now, the Lower West River Trail Committee is in the process of raising $200,000 to convert these six miles of long-abandoned railbed into a public trail for walkers and cyclists.

On Monday, more than 100 people came to the Marina to participate in a combined celebration and information session.

“People are learning about this trail and are starting to get excited about it,” said committee chair Jason Cooper. “This is an incredible asset for this community.”

The old West River Railroad, known by its patrons as “36 miles of trouble,” was a winding, narrow-gauge route that saw many derailments, washouts, and accidents, and it was an economic failure almost from the moment it opened in 1879.

It was abandoned in 1936.

Parts of the right of way in Newfane and Townshend eventually became today’s Route 30, but much of the former railroad’s original route remains intact.

The Friends of the West River Trail has long sought to make a bicycle and walking path that would use as much of the former railbed as possible.

An 18-mile section between South Londonderry and Townshend has been developed into a trail, but the southern half of the route has been tougher to pull together.

For more than 15 years, volunteers have investigated the potential for turning the Brattleboro-to-Dummerston section into a trail. Now, with the Friends having acquired this section, volunteers are working to fix it up for use.

Cooper said the group needs about $50,000 for immediate improvements to the trail, and another $150,000 to buy nearby property and take on long-term trail projects.

Walkers and bicyclists have already been using this trail for years, and Cooper said the current goal is to upgrade it with appropriate drainage, hard-pack (not paved) surfacing, and bridges to enable access by all visitors. Parking, signage, and visitor facilities will welcome school groups as well as recreational users.

Orly Munzing, one of the volunteer fundraisers for the committee, said Monday that the group has received a matching grant of $10,000 from the Thompson Trust, a donation that requires raising $35,000 as the matching funds.

According to committee member Judy Davidson, about $1,800 was raised on Monday night, bringing the total amount the group has on hand to match the grant to around $9,000.

The Lower Section of the West River Trail will eventually link to a network of regional trails, including the Wantastiquet Mountain trails in Chesterfield and Hinsdale, N.H. and the Retreat Trails in Brattleboro.

Cooper, who described efforts to linking the trail as one of the most exciting parts of this project, envisions extending the West River Trail along the New England Central Railroad’s right of way to connect with the new town park at Union Station and to the Ashuelot Rail Trail between Hinsdale and Keene, N.H. He also sees a foot bridge over the West River to connect the town’s new West River Park on Route 30 with the West River Trail.

Volunteer work has played a big role so far in getting the trail usable, Cooper said. After three work parties last fall and two more this spring, the trail is now marked with signs, fallen trees have been cleared, and drainage has been improved.

Another work session is scheduled for Saturday, June 30, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Donations may be sent to Friends of the West River Trail, 138 Elliot St., Suite 3, Brattleboro, VT 05301, or visit www.westrivertrail.org.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #157 (Wednesday, June 20, 2012).

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