by Willem Lange
EAST MONTPELIER – Among the unforgettable sounds of my infancy and early childhood are the steam whistles of trains down in the Albany railyards. We lived probably a mile away, up on the hill near the state capitol; so on quiet nights the toots and crashes of trains being made up in the switchyards filled the dark hours. Now and then a train, fully composed, took off north toward Montreal or south toward New York City, puffing and straining and slowly gathering speed until it disappeared from hearing.
On the occasions we visited the station downtown, escaping steam obscured the platform. The steel driving wheels of the locomotives stood taller than I. When everything was ready – after the fireman had circled the engine with his long-necked oil can and the conductor had called all aboard – the whistle blew a warning, the giant connecting rods somehow started all those huge wheels turning, and the behemoth began gaining speed. The sight never failed to make me wonder how long, running, I could keep up if I tried.
That was a long time ago, of course, before the war, but the sight of railroad tracks or trains has always caught my attention. I’m sure I’m not alone in that; railroad tracks leading into the unseen distance call almost irresistibly to our imaginations. I wish it were still possible to hop on a train for Boston or Albany or Bangor. But those days appear to be gone forever. Still, crossing tracks on the highway, I always check the rails to see if they’re shiny. Sadly, not many are anymore. More and more lines are being abandoned.
This abandonment has been a bonanza for recreation. Old rights-of-way, properly cleared and prepared, are ideal for walking, cycling, skiing – even, in some cases, for ATVs, OHRVs, and snow machines. This past week, however, I got to visit one abandoned rail line that’s kept its rails and is still busy.
It appears to have been the brainchild of Gary LeBlanc, an IT guy with obvious gifts of imagination, engineering, entrepreneurship, and mechanical ability. When he came across an apparently abandoned rail line beside the Merrimack River in the City of Concord, N.H., he saw an opportunity that had nothing to do with rails-to-trails. Built circa 1845 by the Northern Railroad Company, it once carried freight and passengers from Concord to West Lebanon, and later, after merging with the Boston and Maine, much farther afield. But in the early twentieth century, sections of track began to fall into disuse. The section from Concord to Boscawen, owned by Pan Am Railways, had been abandoned in 2017. A couple of years later Gary, doing business as Scenic RailRiders, managed to secure a lease to the tracks.
Gary and his family labored long and hard to clear the way. Brush and small trees had overgrown the tracks, and large trees had fallen across it. But the tracks were essentially sound – at least for lightweight vehicles. The family built a “train station” for storage of its cars, cleared a parking lot, and installed Porta-Potties. At each end of the line they built a turntable, a work of rustic art that, like the turntables on full-size railroads, rotates the cars to begin their return to the station.
The cars – they’re called rail-bikes – are masterpieces of imagination, beautifully built of aluminum and stainless steel and powered by pedaling. The wheels, which roll effortlessly and silently, are shod in poured, molded urethane. We’ve all seen the silent movies featuring Buster Keaton on an old trolley-bike with the up-and-down pump handles being pursued down the main line by a steam locomotive. These are nothing like that. The two-seater (ideal for honeymooning while surreptitiously checking out your new spouse’s strength) looks like the frame of a sports car. There are two- and four-seaters, and a way to fasten two or more together into a mini-train for larger parties.
Each rider has a pair of bicycle pedals in front of them, adjustable for leg length. Each seat has a seat belt, which turned out to be a boon in my case. Pedaling in a semi-recumbent position with one leg that can no longer hold itself up, I kept losing the left pedal, which threw me and my partner seriously off stride. The videographer, however, solved the problem with a couple of feet of strong sticky tape.
We pedaled along, the Merrimack glistening just a few rods away, past the site of what was once the world’s largest cribwork dam, past the site of a train wreck caused by mischief at a switch, and finally the memorial to Hannah Duston (its nose shot off by either vandals or protesters), the colonial woman who slew and scalped her Native American captors in 1697. Then it was time to rotate the rail-bikes again and pedal back, past grazing cows and open fields, into a beautiful tunnel of autumn leaves, across a highway, to the ticket office of this fantastic brainstorm wrestled, by unstinting effort, into a fantastic experience.