Many long-time PLC members know that the organization was known for many years as the Piscataquog Watershed Association, or PWA. But not all remember how the organization got started back in 1970, when a dedicated group of people came together to protect a ribbon of land that we know today as the New Boston Rail Trail. Here’s the story:
In the early 1960’s, the small town of New Boston, New Hampshire was just starting to emerge from a 30-year period of declining population. Quite a few of the houses in town were vacant, having been purchased by financier Roger Babson to house his staff in case the Cold War should become an atomic holocaust (now there’s a topic for an article). All the approximately 900 residents of New Boston knew each other, and many were related to each other over several generations. Home-grown activities included the Grange, cracker-jack Mountain League baseball teams, veterans’ organizations and the annual Fourth of July celebration. The school system was housed in a four-room brick Elementary School, two one-room White Buildings for 5th and 6th graders, and the High School located across the street from the Town Hall. There were two competing grocery stores, the Whipple Free Library, the Firehouse, a drug store, and a Post Office housed in Dodge’s Store. Proud residents enjoyed and appreciated their Town’s rural nature and scenic features including the Piscataquog River.
But as the 1960s progressed, and the construction of interstate highways linked southern New Hampshire to the greater Boston area, a trickle of new residents became a flood. By the end of the decade, the population of New Boston had grown by 50% in just ten years. While all the newcomers helped revitalize New Boston and many other towns in our area, they also woke people up to the fact that the rural landscape that we -- natives and newcomers alike -- loved could no longer be taken for granted. Across the state, an awareness of the need to preserve and protect natural features and open space for future generations was gathering support in many rural New Hampshire towns. New Boston was no exception, forming its first Conservation Committee, later the Conservation Commission, in April 1969. Members included Randy Parker and Carolyn Todd. In early 1970, Diana Sterling of the Goffstown Conservation Commission informed the New Boston Conservation Commission (NBCC) that the old railroad right-of-way and land along the Piscataquog River owned by the Boston and Maine Railroad was going up for sale. Having recognized the value of this 6-1/2 mile strip as a conservation asset, the New Boston Conservation Commission immediately began to plan how to acquire the property for the town.
The New Boston branch of the Boston and Maine Railroad had opened to much fanfare in June 1893. Financier J. Reed Whipple of New Boston was the primary investor in the railroad and used it to transport dairy, meat and produce from the Whipple Farm to supply his Boston hotels, including the still elegant Parker House. Weekend and summer visitors from the City traveled to Town and could stay in the New Boston Hotel and various boarding houses on High Street. A daily train left the Depot early with passengers and freight, followed the track along the South Branch of the Piscataquog through Goffstown and Manchester, and ended its run in Boston, then returned in the evening. The train service lasted 40 years until superseded by the automobile. The branch line was closed in 1935.
Once the news broke that the old rail bed was going to be sold off, it soon became apparent that the Town would not be able to move quickly enough to buy the land. In February 1970 the NBCC sent out a letter to interested persons in New Boston and surrounding towns proposing the formation of an independent nonprofit conservation organization. The association would hold lands and conservation easements in the watershed of the Piscataquog River, including all or parts of the towns of Bedford, Deering, Dunbarton, Francestown, Goffstown, Greenfield, Henniker, Lyndeborough, Manchester, Mont Vernon, New Boston and Weare.
Interest in such a conservation organization was high, and three months later, on May 8, 1970, formal Articles of Agreement creating the Piscataquog Watershed Association (PWA) were filed with the State of New Hampshire and the New Boston Town Clerk. A young attorney from Weare named David Souter helped with the articles and with getting PWA its tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service. With PWA up and running, Randy Parker and Bob Todd were appointed to conduct negotiations with E.J. Marrs of the Boston and Maine Railroad. Over the course of the next five years both parties faced a number of challenges. For one, the railroad land had already been broken up into parcels, and some sections had already been sold to the New Boston 4H, the Playground Association, and the owner of Gregg Mill Farm. During negotiations the B&M went through two bankruptcies. A gravel company wanted to reactivate the Parker Station end of the line to haul gravel for use on Logan Airport expansion. NH State Route 114 was constructed across the eastern end of the New Boston spur line.
Meanwhile, the PWA enthusiastically carried on fundraising activities for the land purchase. For years, the Canoe Section of the Appalachian Mountain Club had used the river in New Boston for a canoe instruction weekend, which included a spaghetti supper provided by New Boston Ladies Club and sleeping-bag space in the Town Hall. The PWA took over this activity and incorporated it with their early annual meetings. Direct mailings and personal solicitations brought in significant funds that were augmented by other fund-raising activities. Iron spikes were retrieved from the railroad bed and sold for $25. Other donors were given certificates showing they had contributed to 10-foot lengths of abandoned rail bed. There were bake sales, ham and bean suppers, income from the concession stand at the 4-H Fairgrounds, square dances, and a very successful Winter Sports Raffle.
The purchase of the four B&M right-of-way parcels (total 3.4 miles of trail, 68 acres) by the PWA for $14,625 was finalized in 1976. In 1979, the Town of New Boston received a Federal Land and Water Conservation Fund grant that enabled the Conservation Commission to acquire the railroad parcels from the PWA. The grant stipulated that the property “cannot be converted to other than public outdoor recreation use without the written approval of the Secretary of the US Department of the Interior.” The PWA deeded the property to the New Boston Conservation Commission on May 19, 1979, thereby completing the PWA’s first conservation project, the value of which is now priceless.
The scenic railroad right-or-way attracted walkers and bicyclists as soon as the railroad track was torn up and has increased in popularity over the decades. A major refurbishment by the Conservation Commission was finished in 2015, and the path was officially named the New Boston Rail Trail. The PWA, later renamed the Piscataquog Land Conservancy, moved on to other projects, and 46 years later is still going strong!
By Gail Parker
Gail Parker is a resident of New Boston. She and her husband Randy were founding members of the Piscataquog Watershed Association (later PLC), and both have served the organization in many capacities over the years.