All aboard the wood train
New England's lost backcountry transit corridors
Picture this: You walk to the nearest train station, you hand some coins to a clerk with a Wilford Brimley-style mustache, and you climb aboard a gleaming passenger rail car whose rustier undercarriage indicates that the train has seen some action. As you rumble away from the center of town, the blur of apartment buildings and warehouses is slowly overtaken by trees, boulders, and streams. And then, suddenly, the screech of the brake shoes shakes you from your trance, the conductor announces your stop, and you disembark. You are now standing in the middle of the forest, watching as the train resumes its journey and slowly disappears down a long wooded corridor of track.
The idea of a train that collects and jettisons passengers in the forest may sound like something from a Hayao Miyazaki film, but in fact, this used to be strikingly common in New England. In the late 1800s, Massachusetts alone boasted over 3,500 miles of active railroad tracks. (Today, nearly 50% of those railroads have been abandoned.) In New Hampshire, you could take a train to a little hut in the middle of the Pondicherry Wildlife Refuge—a vast glacial basin in the North Presidential range where you’ll find two kick-ass ponds and a section of the Cohos Trail. When the railroads came online, they were embraced as a passage to pretty much anywhere, including the outdoors. The difference between most of Europe and the United States, however, is that when the automobile arrived, America started abandoning passenger rail routes, while countries like the United Kingdom and Norway maintained and even expanded their passenger rail offerings. In Scotland, you can take a train to Corrour Station, in the middle of the highlands, and you can hike from the station to a loch or a mountain.
It’s very hard to do anything like this in America these days, let alone in New England. But in certain parts of the northeast, old transit corridors have been repurposed into bonafide hiking trails. Not paved rail trails that accommodate bikes first and hikers second, but dirt-based, root-festooned paths that feel like a passage through time.