NEWBURYPORT AND SALISBURY — Sunday's dedication of the new rail trail will celebrate the region's newest attraction, but all along the route, the bones of its 170-year-long former life will be honored as well.
Remnants of old rail buildings and signal stations, rusting bridges, old granite barriers and stonework laid more than a century ago leave clues that this was once the region's major connection to the outside world.
In its heyday, the "Old Eastern Line" was the scene of dramatic train accidents and explosions, near misses, a stump speech by one of the nation's most colorful presidents, and even a Wild West-style train holdup.
"This has been a long struggle," said Tom Horth, a Newburyport resident who first became involved in the rail trail over a decade ago when it was not much more than a pipe dream. "It's great to see it finally coming to fruition."
As Salisbury and Newburyport prepare to officially dedicate the already widely used biking and walking trail, much homage will be paid to the rail line's original purpose. Interpretive panels have been placed along the route, and local history enthusiasts, like Horth, will be on hand Sunday to explain not only where to find the parking lots, but also where to find the scene of the 1873 train wreck.
Horth has written several historical pieces on Newburyport's old transportation network, among them a detailed history of the rail lines, which he shared with The Daily News.
According to Horth's research, the first train to Boston arrived at Newburyport in 1840, on the right-of-way that the rail trail follows now, with a station where Washington Street crosses it. But competition and demand were fierce, and 16 years later, another rail company had built a competing rail line to Boston, with a station located where the CVS on Pond Street stands now. The bed of that line, which runs through Byfield and Georgetown, is being eyed for a new rail trail that would connect Newburyport to Danvers.
The train link to Salisbury and points north required a major bit of engineering — the construction of a bridge over the Merrimack River and an elevated railway through the marshes. Those were completed just a few years after the Newburyport station opened, and not long after that, a spur line was built to Amesbury — part of which was used for Amesbury's popular Riverwalk and Salisbury's Ghost Train trail.
Railroading was dangerous business. In 1865, a train boiler exploded near Washington Street, killing the fireman whose job it was to shovel coal into the massive steam engine's firebox. Eight years later, Newburyport's most photographed train wreck took place, Horth said.
On May 23, a slow-moving freight train was accidentally switched onto a side track that ended just before the Merrimac Street bridge. The engineer reversed the engine, but it was too late. He and the fireman jumped before the engine took the 15-foot plunge down the embankment, crashing into Merrimac Street.
No one was injured, but everyone wanted their photo taken with it, Horth said.
"I think I've seen five or six different versions of that photo," he said.
The 34-ton train was lifted back onto the tracks two days later.
A few hundred yards down the track, another disaster occurred March 24, 1908, on the Merrimack River steel railroad bridge that still stands in place today. The swing bridge had been opened to allow a ship to pass through, but the engineer throttled ahead anyway and burst through the gates. The engine of the 100-passenger train plunged into the Merrimack, but fortunately the passenger cars stopped short.
Once again, no one was seriously injured, but the task of fishing the 62-ton train out of the river proved daunting. It was eventually found, raised and repaired.
The train line, and the ornate station that once stood on Washington Street, was a hub of activity. It drew Teddy Roosevelt in 1912, by then a former two-term president who was now running against President William Taft. Newburyporters gave him a "rousing reception," The Daily News wrote at the time. But Roosevelt's third try was not a charm; he lost in a three-person race to Woodrow Wilson.
More famous than Roosevelt's visit was the brazen action of two thieves who held up a payroll train at gunpoint as it chugged along the Amesbury spur line in 1926. They made off with $65,000 in what The Daily News called a "Wild West Type of Hold-Up." Police scoured the region, but the crooks got away with the help of an accomplice in a car. Government agents eventually caught them.
Horth said local train lines reached their heyday around the turn of the century, with 17 arriving and departing daily. But as more cars appeared on roadways, trains saw their passenger rolls decline. A few days after Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, the train line that ended at the CVS was shut down. The Daily News reported that line had become "the butt of jokes because of its 'one horse' slowness and faulty connections with the B&M."
The B&M line straggled on for a few more decades, slowly decreasing its service. In 1965, service through Salisbury and northward was stopped, and the train bridge over the Merrimack River was opened for the last time. It still remains in that position today.
In 1968, only one train was arriving daily in Newburyport, and the shuttered train station on Washington Street burned to the ground that year. In 1976, the last train left Newburyport, filled with many enthusiasts — unusual for a train that was normally almost empty.
But that wasn't the end of the story.
In the mid-1990s, work began to extend the Boston-bound commuter line to Newburyport, and a new station was opened near the Route 1 traffic circle. There was talk of extending the old line northward and repairing the Merrimack River bridge, but it was deemed too expensive.
In its place, the old B&M line was eyed for a new use, as the Clipper City Rail Trail and the Old Eastern Marsh Trail.
Horth is proud of that trail and thinks it will spur a movement to build more rail trails.
"It's just incredibly beautiful," he said. "I hope this will inspire people to do the rest of the trail network."
Rail Trail Celebration
Where: Two different locations
In Newburyport, Clipper City Rail Trail (parking at MBTA station on Route 1; Cashman Park on Merrimac Street; Cushing Park on Kent Street)
In Salisbury, Old Eastern Marsh Trail (parking off Friedenfels Street, across Route 1 from Stripers Restaurant).
When: Sunday, noon to 4 p.m.
What you will find: Free food, displays, music, guides, all along the 2.5 mile paved trails. Ferry service across the Merrimack River will connect the two sections of the rail trail.
More info: Look for the fold-out map in today's Daily News, and coverage on page 9.