On a bright, sunshine-filled June day, with the temperature in the 70s and a pleasant breeze, my good friend Curtis Carroll and I decided to hike a 3-mile segment of the Ashuelot Rail Trail.
Usually when Curtis and I go hiking, we like to poke around in the woods for traces of the past — old foundations, stone walls and cellar holes — and this section of the trail along the Ashuelot River in Winchester and the village of Ashuelot with its abandoned mill ruins more than fit the bill.
Earlier in the month, we had biked the trail from Keene to Winchester but today we decided to go on shank’s mare (our own walking legs) for an up-close-and personal view.
We started in Winchester at a metal gate trailhead on the south side of Route 119, 0.3 miles west of the four-way intersection of Routes 10/78 and 119. The first part of the trail was easy walking on high level dry ground.
Within minutes we crossed a dirt driveway and heard the whinnying of horses in a field and a paddocked area to left. Ten minutes into the hike, we reached a secluded, rusted metal trestle bridge which crossed the Ashuelot River, at this point a wide, slow moving stretch of water.
After walking across the bridge, gurgling noises issuing up from the river below, we crossed Ashuelot Back Road and followed the trail into the woods. Soon the lazy river came back into view.
A short while later, Curtis found our first clue to the past: an old railroad tie embedded in the trail.
Later, Curtis would uncover a rusty railroad spike, part of a moss-covered telegraph pole and lots of “clinkers,” or rough chunks of coal residue.
Clinkers are made up of elements and minerals found in coal which are noncombustible. When burnt, they melt and fuse together, forming lumpy ashes.
After crossing Back Ashuelot Road one more time, we reached (about a half-hour from the start) a clearing at the Gunn Mountain Road intersection in the village of Ashuelot. Here we found the restored Ashuelot Railroad Station depot and Sheridan House, a restored Victorian home that houses a collection of Winchester memorabilia for the Winchester Historical Society.
Here, too, we found the Ashuelot Covered Bridge, which was built to transport wood across the river to fuel the burners of the railroad’s steam engines. The Ashuelot Railroad — later the Boston and Maine took over — operated from 1851-1983, bringing raw materials to the mills and carrying their products to market.
At one time the village of Ashuelot was a thriving manufacturing community and home to the Ashuelot Manufacturing Company, which produced felted beaver fur hats. A little farther down river were a woolen factory, cotton, lumber and paper mills.
Winchester was also known for its paper mills and tannery, which started out with cowhides, and then sheepskins. The wooden container industry in Winchester one time employed hundreds of people who produced kegs, boxes, buckets, pails and barrels.
From the Gunn Road crossing, the trail continued into the woods. The river began to pick up steam, riffling its way over boulders as rapids replaced the calm water. Approximately 15 minutes from the Ashuelot Covered Bridge, we came to jumbled piles of red clay bricks, many of them embossed with the word “pray.”
At first, Curtis thought the bricks might have something to do with a religious fanatic, but these bricks were from the Robert E. Pray Brickyard out of Greenfield, Mass., which was founded in the 1840s.
Poking through the rubble, we wondered what type of mill building or factory once existed here.
Continuing on the trail, in 15 minutes we came to an interconnected tangle of old mill buildings. This was the site of the Paper Service Ltd. Mill, which was active for more than 100 years producing tissue paper for garment and gift wrapping. At its height the mill employed 120 people.
At first, rags from the cutting rooms and garment trade in New York City were used to make paper. Later the mill transitioned to using recycled paper to produce tissue paper products and continued to use only recycled materials.
Some of the mill’s customers included companies like S.S. Pierce, Christmas Tree Shops, Bed Bath & Beyond and Yankee Candle. Over the years, Paper Services Ltd. made many changes and innovations to keep up with the environmental and marketing challenges.
But on Oct. 9, 2005, everything came to an abrupt and tragic end when the Ashuelot River burst through a small hydroelectric dam during tropical storm Tammy. For more than two months the river coursed through the boiler room causing sections of the building to collapse and washing out ramps leading to loading docks, spelling the demise of one of New Hampshire’s last paper mills.
Today, there is only the feeling of vast silence and sadness evoked by the crumbling walls, brick towers with broken windowpanes and rusting box cars waiting with nowhere to go.
The Ashuelot Rail Trail is 21.5 miles in total, beginning in Keene and ending in Hinsdale, 2.6 miles south of town at a trailhead on Route 63. From there, it connects to the Fort Hill Rail Trail, a 10-mile gravel trail along the Connecticut River that heads toward Brattleboro.
Note: Use caution against ticks when hiking this trail. Wear long-sleeve shirts and long pants of light color. Tuck your shirt into your pants and tuck pants into socks. Consider treating clothing with pyrethrum and apply repellent containing 30 percent DEET to exposed skin. Check yourself thoroughly for ticks after your hike, especially armpits, hair, ears and behind knees.