SWANZEY — For several miles south of Keene, the Ashuelot Rail Trail is a smooth dirt-and-crushed-stone path through the woods. Then, somewhere around West Swanzey, the trail gets rougher. In some stretches, rocks, grass or sand make for a jarring bike ride.
But it won’t be that way forever.
Earlier this year, Swanzey received a six-figure grant to improve that part of the Ashuelot Rail Trail, as well as the section of the Cheshire Rail Trail that passes through town.
The project will convert almost seven miles of unimproved trail in Swanzey to groomed paths that will be easier for cyclists and pedestrians to use. A cyclist will then be able to travel on improved bike paths from the center of Keene through Swanzey to the Marlborough or Winchester town line.
“We think they’re important recreational and transportation assets in the town and the region,” Swanzey Town Administrator Michael T. Branley said of the two trails.
The town’s next step is to hire an engineering consultant to begin design work, Branley said. Construction is scheduled to begin around 2025, due to how the grant funding mechanism works, but Branley said it might be possible to start sooner if the town is ready before that.
The trails hearken back to the area’s railroad history. Eleven separate railroads once crisscrossed the Monadnock Region, and Keene was a railroad hub, with hundreds employed in the industry.
Two of those lines were the Ashuelot Railroad and the Cheshire Railroad. Their tracks are gone, but the corridors remain as rail trails.
The 21½-mile Ashuelot Rail Trail runs along the river of the same name, starting in Keene, meandering southwest through Swanzey and Winchester, and then swooping over to end in Hinsdale.
The Cheshire Rail Trail cuts diagonally through the county. Its 33-mile length connects Walpole in the northwest to Fitzwilliam in the southeast, and includes stretches in Keene and Swanzey.
Both trails have miles of unimproved sections in Swanzey and other communities. Though passable, they are often “little better than an overgrown path through the woods” and may deter users who don’t have mountain bikes or lack the skills to navigate the bumpier terrain, according to Swanzey’s 2018 grant application for the improvement project.
“Making these upgrades will allow enhanced pedestrian and bicycle traffic to use both of these trails for commuting and recreation,” the town wrote in the application.
The application notes that the Swanzey section of the Cheshire Rail Trail follows Route 12, and could become a viable way for people to travel between Marlborough and Keene without cars. An improved Ashuelot Rail Trail, according to the application, could better connect the Stratton Free Library, Cutler Elementary School, certain businesses on Route 10 and various housing units.
The grant money comes from the Transportation Alternatives Program — federal funding administered by state governments. The N.H. Department of Transportation announced in January that it would award Swanzey $600,000, to be combined with a $150,000 local contribution for a total estimated project cost of $750,000.
Branley said the actual contributions from both the state and the town will be somewhat higher, to reflect inflation between now and the construction date. He put the expected budget at $815,000.
The town is working on fundraising to help offset the cost of the project, Branley said. A volunteer Rail Trails Advisory Committee is assisting town officials in those efforts.
The proposed work involves removing brush and vegetation to improve safety and widen the trails; addressing drainage issues; and replacing the surface with crushed stone, similar to the improved portion of the Ashuelot Rail Trail south of Keene. That surface would be firmer and more consistent than the existing dirt and grass tracks.
“The trail we have now is great in a lot of ways,” said Henry Underwood, a planner and GIS specialist with the Southwest Regional Planning Commission in Keene. “But if you think about, I don’t know, maybe wanting to pass two abreast, or for people who don’t have a mountain bike, folks who can’t get around that well, it’s not adequate in a lot of ways.”
Underwood is working on a separate planning effort called Plan for Ashuelot Rail Trail. Its advisory committee includes representatives from communities along the trail and other local organizations. He said the goal is to coordinate with various stakeholders and develop a vision for the trail, including priorities for improvements and resources to achieve that.
The Swanzey project is its own thing. But Branley hopes it will spur further improvements to the trails. The grant application says the Swanzey project would “build momentum” for improvements in other towns.
“We think that’s more likely if we’ve got it improved up to their borders,” Branley said.