West River Trail moves forward

Organization works on plans to improve the area, including trail design and river access

DUMMERSTON — Just like the former West River Railroad that once traveled from Brattleboro to its terminus at the South Londonderry Depot, the recreational trail that now lies on its railbed has seen its share of challenges. But, unlike the ill-fated railroad, progress on the trail keeps chugging along.

The West River Trail, developed and maintained by the Friends of the West River Trail (FWRT), is a publicly accessible system of paths meant for “educational, recreational, and alternative transportation purposes,” according to the FWRT's website.

Off-limits to cars, the trail is used year-round by hikers, bicyclists, picnickers, joggers, cross-country skiers, and snowshoers. It begins near the Marina Restaurant in Brattleboro and ends in South Londonderry.

Along its 36-mile journey, the trail is broken by Route 30, buildings, and some sections where the FWRT is still working on construction and securing access.

At the July 22 Dummerston regular Selectboard meeting, some members of the FWRT presented the board with an update on the group's progress building the trail.

Alex Wilson told the board the FWRT “has worked with the Vermont Nature Conservancy (VNC) to reroute the trail away from neighbors' backyards.” He said the FWRT is currently working with the VNC on a Memorandum of Understanding to “finalize plans to improve the area, including trail design and river access."

The portion of the trail the FWRT is working on lies along Dummerston's Rice Farm Road near the old Presby-Leland Quarry.

The ownership of this stretch is a current point of contention between the FWRT and a few of the neighbors whose land abuts the railbed. The issue lies at the intersection of property rights, conflicting documents, and what happens when public utilities and resources obtain a right-of-way but then cease to exist and change ownership.

Jason Cooper, also with the FWRT, told The Commons the story of the West River Railroad and how it relates to the current challenges in developing the trail system.

In the 1880s, the Vermont legislature approved the railroad that would later be known as “36 miles of trouble.” After a number of false starts and large and small debacles, the final owner who had worked hard with his wife to maintain the rails finally gave up. The railroad went bankrupt in 1936, and the assets were returned to the state.

But, the owners of the quarry in Dummerston needed the railroad to ship their granite to Brattleboro, so it could be sent “all over the world,” said Cooper. So, the quarry owners bought the railroad from “just north of the quarry to the center of Brattleboro,” Cooper said.

In 1938, a hurricane destroyed the bridge spanning the West River, and “the quarry gave up,” Cooper said. They sold the entire railroad to a New York salvage company. This included the rails, bridges, rolling stock, switches, and spikes - everything metal - which the salvage company stripped and sold into the lucrative steel market.

The salvage company also took ownership of the railbed itself, including the rights-of-way that allowed the old railroad to pass through private property.

As the warranty deed for the property of one of the trail's abutters says, “The premises are conveyed subject to such rights of way and easements as may exist upon or across the premises, of record or in fact, including but not limited to public utility easements, such rights, if any, as may be held by Vermont White Granite Quarries, Inc. or its successors, an [sic] the rights of the public in Town Highway #62."

In early 2011, Cooper contacted the Salzburg Company, the salvage company that, at that time, owned the railroad that was once owned by the quarry. On May 16, 2011, Cooper bought the railroad from the company, and then transferred the deed to the FWRT.

Sigrid Pickering, one of the neighbors whose property crosses the old railbed, told the Selectboard at the July 22 meeting she had been “assured” by an unnamed “top official” that in 1936, the railbed right-of-way on her property reverted “to her.” She told the board she “questions what Jason Cooper purchased."

(Pickering cancelled a scheduled interview with The Commons and declined further interviews.)

Wilson told the Dummerston Selectboard that the FWRT hired Eric Morse, of Morse Land Surveying, “to define ownership of the railbed.” Morse's findings, in a letter dated Jan. 8, 2015, state the FWRT has the right to use the trail.

As soon as the VNC gives the FWRT the go-ahead, clearing and maintaining the portion of the Rice Farm Road trail can begin.

Although a few neighbors seem displeased, Cooper said most of them “love it,” and he added some have donated land and money to help the FWRT's efforts.

None of the Friends have collected a dime for their work, Cooper said, noting some have spent upwards of $5,000 of their own funds to further the goal of establishing and maintaining a recreational and alternative-transportation trail along the West River.

Of the FWRT, Cooper said, “We're just a group of volunteers who feel this is an incredible resource to the community."

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