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.