20201124-LOC-RailTrail

Walkers are shrouded under a canopy of trees on the rail trail near Whitcombs Mill Road in Keene in this November file photo.

As part of an ongoing project, the Southwest Region Planning Commission is asking for public input to help improve one of the region’s recreational trails.

The 43-mile Cheshire Rail Trail connects Walpole in the northwest to Fitzwilliam in the southeast, and includes stretches in Keene and Swanzey. And though it’s passable, the trail has miles of unimproved sections that make it difficult to use.

Mike Kowalczyk, chairman of the Swanzey Rail Trail Advisory Committee, said that by the project’s end, the goal is for the trail to be used by people of all ages and abilities.

“So a 6-year-old could be on a bike on the trail,” he said.

Area communities are responsible for maintaining their own rail-trail sections, Kowalczyk explained.

But to help municipalities in this effort, an informal group known as the Monadnock Region Rail Trails Collaborative was launched. The collaborative is made up of volunteers and community partners such as local parks and recreation departments, the Monadnock Conservancy and the Southwest Regional Planning Commission.

In 2019, for its part, the town of Swanzey was awarded a six-figure grant through the N.H. Department of Transportation to help address the Cheshire Rail Trail’s issues, as well as similar rough patches along the Ashuelot Rail Trail. The funding is broken into annual installments disbursed through 2025, Kowalczyk noted.

And as work continues on the trails, the Southwest Regional Planning Commission wants input from area residents on the changes they’d like to see. The short survey about the Cheshire Rail Trail was recently launched on the commission’s website, swrpc.org, to gather responses.

Several changes have already been made to both trails in different communities.

For the Cheshire Rail Trail, this includes new benches and a new trail surface (a mix of hard pack and pavement) for the 5-mile section that runs from Hurricane Road to Eastern Avenue in Keene, according to the project’s website, and a new crushed stone path for the 1.1-mile trail from Troy Depot to the center of Troy.

On the 21.5-mile Ashuelot Rail Trail — which runs along the river of the same name through Keene, Swanzey, Winchester and Hinsdale — a 5.5-mile portion from Emerald Street in Keene to Holbrook Avenue in Swanzey has been restored with a new trail surface of hard pack and pavement, the website says.

The Monadnock Conservancy has also been allotted a grant through the N.H. Division of Parks and Recreation to fix up a 2.5-mile stretch in southern Fitzwilliam on the Cheshire Rail Trail, Kowalczyk added.

These trails stem from the area’s railroad history. Eleven separate railroads once crisscrossed the Monadnock Region, with Keene being a railroad hub.

Two of those lines were the Ashuelot Railroad and the Cheshire Railroad. Though the tracks are now long gone, the corridors remain as rail trails.

This year, Kowalczyk said the committee plans to rent an excavator for a few months to clear out ditches on both trails in Swanzey and also to work on placing more signs in Swanzey and Keene to mark town lines and convey other information.

A section of the Cheshire Rail Trail from Hurricane Road to the Ami Brown Trail — which runs to Summit Ridge Drive — in Keene will also be restored in 2021, according to Kowalczyk.

Any remaining funding for the year, he added, will be used to complete the final designs for two small sections on both trails.

There is no set date for the completion of the project, Kowalczyk said.

Olivia Belanger can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1439, or obelanger@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @OBelangerKS.