A Titanic effort; Trail will span from Franklin to Palmer.
Most transportation routes are developed in a linear fashion, starting at Point A and proceeding to Point B.
A trail system across the southern midsection of the state, which about four years ago was named the Titanic Rail Trail, is progressing in a different fashion, with multiple groups working simultaneously on eastern, middle and western segments. Trail advocates hope the pieces will eventually come together in a 66-mile, multi-use trail for nonmotorized recreation from Franklin to Palmer.
The Titanic Rail Trail's name commemorates the ocean liner that sank with Charles M. Hays, president of the Grand Trunk Railway - the backbone of the rail trail - on board.
Unlike the namesake ship, efforts to forge ahead on the Titanic Rail Trail are proving to be unsinkable. After setbacks from tornadoes and snowstorms, and the challenges of working with three different counties and regional planning agencies, 15 towns and multiple state agency divisions, progress is gaining momentum along the whole route.
Federal and state grants have recently boosted collaboration and work on the eastern 22 miles of the trail, the Southern New England Trunkline Trail running from Franklin to Douglas. Volunteer organizations, including the Franklin and Bellingham Rail Trail Committee, Bay State Trail Riders Association, Grand Trunk Trail Blazers and the coordinating Friends of the SNETT, have spearheaded those efforts with government agencies.
Now the western end, in Brimfield, is marking a milestone.
On June 1, National Trails Day and the two-year anniversary of the tornadoes that ripped through the region, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the volunteer Grand Trunk Trail Blazers will dedicate the trailhead parking lot and restored 2.8-mile Grand Trunk Brimfield Trail from Route 20 to the Quinebaug River.
Users can also traverse two miles of accessible side loop trails and connect to the Lake Siog pass, which links the Grand Trunk Trail with Lake Siog (Holland Pond) 1.5 miles to the south.
Park Ranger Thomas A. Chamberland of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns the land, said, "We were slowly starting to reclaim the trail and were starting construction on the parking lot when the tornado hit. Everything had to be put on hold."
"The trail was directly in line with the tornado for about half a mile in length," he said. "It was impassable. It was a lot of hard work to get the trail open. Using volunteers and a little contract labor it took six months, at least, to clear enough to get a pickup truck through."
The Halloween 2011 snowstorm brought more damage, felling trees that had been damaged in the tornado.
Hampden County provided a workforce development grant that could be used in Brimfield but not Sturbridge, because that's in Worcester County. Crews were put to work clearing the 16-to-20-foot-wide swath.
Mr. Chamberland said that last year the Corps provided emergency funds so the remaining steps could be taken to restore the segment to a functional trail system. Crews finished the trail surface, which is made of crushed, screened stone that compacts firmly enough for skinny-tire bikes and wheelchairs but stays soft enough for equestrian use.
Robert W. Mahlert, chairman of the Brimfield Trail Committee, president of the newly formed nonprofit Brimfield Trail Association and vice president of the Grand Trunk Trail Blazers, said that when the tornadoes hit, "We already knew how bad it was (from helping with damaged homes). When they say `matchsticks,' about the (fallen) trees, yeah - we just knew we had a lot of work ahead of us. We took it one day at a time."
Grand Trunk Trail Blazers President Patrick F. McGarrah, of Sturbridge, said, "There's not many trails around where you can ride your bike through a tornado area."
He said it took crews of four to six people, working five days a week, 11 months to restore the trail after the storms. Major work was completed last September.
While trail advocates have surmounted the obstacles from natural disasters, the vision of a continuous Franklin to Palmer trail is also stymied by two other factors: land acquisition and bridges.
Mr. Chamberland said the Titanic Trail system is fortunate to have 80 percent of its 66 miles in protected property, owned by towns, state or federal government. But there are some property issues, including how to get around Old Sturbridge Village.
The trail ends in Brimfield, too, shy of the Palmer line. The hurdle is land owned by ExxonMobil Corp. for 6-inch pipelines between Springfield and Providence.
"For whatever their corporate reason is, they don't want to grant a trail easement," Mr. Chamberland said.
Mr. Mahlert and Mr. Chamberland said the trail groups had had some contact with ExxonMobil and were told the oil company would discuss an agreement if the advocates could get them a statewide exemption to the Wetlands Protection Act so they wouldn't have to talk to each town's conservation commission.
"Every year we approach them," Mr. Mahlert said. "They were going to have an internal meeting, but (Superstorm) Sandy hit."
A representative from ExxonMobil did not return calls for comment.
Bridgework over waterways and highways is also starting to inch forward slowly.
Mr. Chamberland said the state Department of Conservation and Recreation awarded a $10,000 grant to Brimfield to hire an engineer to develop a set of bridge plans to span the Quinebaug River.
Federal and state funding for the Blackstone River Bikeway is bridging some gaps in the eastern SNETT segment in Millville and Blackstone.
Despite the challenges and setbacks, trail advocates are hopeful their dream of a continuous trail will come to fruition within the next 10 years.
"What's key is to make sure that every section along this trail has a group advocating for it," said Mr. McGarrah.
The owner of two bicycle shops, Mr. McGarrah said, "You could get on a train in Boston to Franklin and take a day trip (bicycling) to Sturbridge (or beyond). That, from an economic development point of view, could be really good for Sturbridge."
He said, "It's worth people coming out here. You can really do some nice rides."
Contact Susan Spencer at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @SusanSpencerTG.
ART: PHOTO; MAP
PHOTOG: (P) T&G Staff/TOM RETTIG; (M) T&G Staff/STACEY ARSENAULT
CUTLINE: (1) Park Ranger Thomas A. Chamberland of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, left, and trail advocate Robert W. Mahlert of Brimfield stand at the end of the Grand Trunk Trail in Brimfield, part of the Titanic Rail Trail system, which, when completed, will run from Franklin to Palmer. (2) Palmer-Franklin Titanic Rail Trail system
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|Title Annotation:||LOCAL NEWS|
|Publication:||Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)|
|Date:||Apr 6, 2013|
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