TOWNSEND — As the crisp autumn air now becomes the daily expectation across Massachusetts and picturesque foliage takes hold, a newly opened rail trail in Townsend could be a local destination to appreciate both.
Saturday saw Squannacook Greenways, Inc., officially open the first phase of the Squannacook River Rail Trail, which will run between Townsend and West Groton. Phase one spans 1.1 miles between Depot Street and Old Meeting House Road. However, the final project will be about 3.7 miles in total.
Squannacook Greenways President Peter Cunningham said the opening of phase one was “incredibly gratifying,” and noted to reach the point of opening the trail was a challenging process, requiring about 18 years of dedication on the part of all involved.
“I think it’s unfortunate that it’s so difficult to build rail trails,” Cunningham said. “Once they’re built everybody loves them to death, but trying to get them built, trying to get adequate funding to make sure it happens, sometimes is a real struggle. And then once they’re built, maintaining them can also be a struggle.”
Members of Squannacook Greenways breathed an initial sigh of relief in 2015 when the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority put a 99 year lease out to bid for the right of way the trail is being constructed on. Only one bid came on the lease, giving it to Squannacook Greenways.
Before the MBTA lease was signed, it appeared the project may never come to fruition. During the opening ceremony, Treasurer Bill Rideout recounted Squannacook Greenways had been trying to work with the state Department of Conservation and Recreation. DCR would lease the land from the MBTA and sublease to them. However, DCR regulations dating back to the 1960’s prohibited them from allowing a lease of more than five years.
“The MBTA had never done this before, lease to a nonprofit. But something about the support we had from our state reps, our town administrator, DCR, and the fact that Community Foundation grant proved we had the ability to fundraise, made the MBTA take a leap of faith on us,” Rideout said.
The challenges Squannacook Greenways overcame were not exclusive to them, Cunningham expressed. He highlighted the ongoing Bruce Freeman Rail Trail project and the length of time that project has taken. In his view, the state could do a better job using transportation funds for these projects.
Once the lease was approved, Squannacook Greenways then sought funding from DCR and the local community. Donors who stepped up were honored during the opening ceremony and honored with bricks at the Depot Street trailhead, as well as on a memorial from Townsend Memorial.
The trail is being constructed where trains once passed through. Townsend based Shepherd’s was contracted to construct the new trail, while JMG Metals and Keystone Rail Recovery removed the old railroad tracks.
With phase one now completed and open for bicyclists and pedestrians, Squannacook Greenways is shifting focus to phase two. The next phase will continue from Old Meeting House Road and continue to the Townsend Harbor Church.
Cunningham said the goal now will be to continue working with legislative partners like U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan and the state legislators to find funding for the project.
Cunningham, who also serves as a member of the Groton Select Board, noted the level of collaboration between the neighboring communities. Although the faces of both town’s leadership have changed over the past 18 years, support for the rail trail was not something that wavered once residents in both towns were on board.
On its first official day, it was already a popular attraction for local residents. Some taking a leisurely bike ride, some out for a walk, some enjoying the new resource with members of their family.
“It’s brilliant,” Tim Palmer of Townsend said. “It’s brilliant to see this sort of vision come to life.”
Palmer, a member of Squannacook Greenways, was walking the trail with his daughter and added: “What’s just amazed me has been the support from the community. So many people are behind one thing.”