17.4-mile link in a route stretching 93 miles
by Andrew Martin
It’s here! After 20 years of waiting, the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail is open.
One of the open sections is right here in Lamoille County — 17.42 miles between Tenney Bridge in Morrisville and Cambridge Junction.
“It’s better than anything we could have imagined,” said state Sen. Rich Westman, R-Cambridge.
Westman has already made the trip from Cambridge to Lost Nation Brewery in Morrisville three times this year on his bicycle.
PHOTO BY ANDREW MARTIN
Bicyclists on the local stretch of the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail
cross a former railroad bridge in Johnson.
It’s hard not to feel some excitement — or maybe relief — that the trail is becoming a reality after nearly two decades of planning, searching for funds, and question upon question.
Ceremonial ribbon-cuttings were held last Thursday at trailheads in Morrisville, Hyde Park, Johnson and Cambridge.
Actually, both local residents and tourists jumped the gun. People were already using the local section of rail-trail last year, while work was still going on, and it opened for public use this spring.
Earlier, a 15.35-mile stretch between Danville and St. Johnsbury had opened.
“We are very excited to see these two sections, which are about one-third of the entire trail, done and open,” said Cindy Locke, executive director of the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers. Locke’s organization is overseeing work on the trail, which in winter is used by snowmobilers, cross-country skiers, snowshoers and dog mushers.
Right now, it’s being used by bicyclists, walkers, horseback riders — lots of uses that don’t involve motors.
Rail trails are great ways to get into unseen country. The trail, built on a former railroad line, runs along stretches of the Lamoille River, through forests, on the edges of towns — and it’s really flat, with a fine-gravel surface, so any bicyclist can go for miles.
The route involves more than 50 bridges and runs through more than 900 wetland areas, great places to see birds and other wildlife.
Eventually, the rail trail will stretch 93 miles across the top of Vermont, from St. Johnsbury to Swanton, running through 18 towns in five counties.
It will be the longest rail trail in New England, and is expected to be a great boon for recreation — and for tourists.
“Everyone is struck by the number of users” on the Danville-St. Johnsbury stretch, evidence of how popular the trail is likely to be, said Jane Kitchel, a state senator from Caledonia County.
Communities along the trail are mobilizing to cater to the tourists who are expected to come.
The trail follows the route of the Lamoille Valley Rail Road, founded in 1877 and shut down in 1994. It was a scenic train ride, dubbed “The Covered Bridge Line,” and leaf-peeper excursions for fall foliage viewing ran into the 1970s.
The state government saw the potential value of transforming the former rail line into a year-round recreation trail, and in 1997 VAST stepped forward to lead the effort. The railroad tracks have long since been ripped up.
While years went into planning, the actual work of making the trail a real thing began in 2014 and has moved along faster than expected.
There were a few troublesome spots — mostly the bridges, cattle passes and old stone box culverts on the trail. Over the last 150 years, those structures have been replaced at different times with different materials and techniques, and “some of them required more work than was initially anticipated,” said Shane Prisby, rail trail project manager.
Another setback occurred just east of Morrisville: A section of completed trail was washed out by a landslide. However, workers were able to make repairs quickly and take steps to prevent similar problems in the future.
One of the next big projects involves the Cambridge Junction railroad bridge across the Lamoille River. Repairs had been planned on the bridge, then an ice floe this winter damaged one of the piers. The Vermont Agency of Transportation took emergency action to keep the bridge from falling into the river, and VAST plans to repair the bridge and replace the wooden piers with steel ones.
All that work should be done this year. It’s likely to chew up all the remaining federal money earmarked for the trail, but other funding is available.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., helped to land $5.2 million in federal money for the rail trail. Part of his pitch was that the rail trail will create jobs in a part of Vermont that badly needs them.
VAST has promised to cover 20 percent of the rail trail’s cost, and persuaded the federal government to allow in-kind donation — volunteer labor and materials, for instance — to count as local contributions to the project.
Sens. Westman and Kitchel worked together on a bill passed last month that will provide up to $1.4 million in matching money from the state for trail work.
That money will help finish the Cambridge Junction Bridge project and to work on an 11-mile stretch from Sheldon west to Swanton. In Swanton, a 1-mile stretch of the trail has been open for about three years — a tantalizing taste of what’s to come.
VAST is about to launch a fund drive to raise the money needed to match the $1.4 million state allocation. How fast the rest of the rail trail is completed depends on how quickly permits can be obtained and how well fundraising goes.
“The only way this project will be successful is with the support of the community,” Prisby said. “Please donate to this amazing trail.”
Other segments of the trail in Lamoille County run from Tenney Bridge east into Wolcott, and from Cambridge Junction west toward Sheldon. Another phase, in East Hardwick and Greensboro Bend, will link the eastern and western portions of the trail.
Locke estimates it will take between $10 million and $12 million more to complete the 93-mile trail. VAST is working on state and federal sources of money, as well as private donations.
VAST is also looking for volunteers to maintain trail sections that have already been completed. The Friends of the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail has volunteered for some of that work. Volunteers can do small things, such as pick up trash along the trail, or bigger things, such as joining organized workdays.
“There are many opportunities to help out at different levels of commitment to fit into anyone’s busy schedule,” Prisby said. Anyone interested in volunteering or donating can contact Prisby at email@example.com.