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LSS240: 2018 Student Guide: Railroads and Rail Trails

Created by students in LSS240 - Spring 2018

From Railroads to Rail-Trails

An image of an old railroad underpass moving westward toward Hadley on the Norwottuck Rail Trail. Jess McKnight, 2018

Cool Facts!

Smith College students were the Boston & Maine's biggest customers -- the railroad would often sell upwards of 75% of its tickets to Smithies, who were "well-mannered and pleasant." The ticket sales showed the student's preference for Yale, as the majority of the tickets were to New Haven, Connecticut. (1)


William F. Pratt was the architect for both of the old railroad stations in Northampton, that were torn down and consolidated into Union Station. (2)


The railroad bridge across downtown Northampton has claimed the tops of many trucks, peeling them like a can-opener. (3)


Biking on the Norwottuck Rail Trail

Norwottuck Trail History

The old rail bed, where the rail-trail currently operates, opened in 1887 under the control of the Central Massachusetts Railroad, and shortly after its completion it was acquired by the Boston & Maine Railroad and called the Central Massachusetts Branch. Three round trip passenger trains were run in the 1920s, as well as numerous freight trains but competition from the interstate highway system caused a decrease in train interest leading to passenger service being discontinued in 1932. Freight service continued for another 42 years, primarily to deliver goods to a farmer's supply warehouse in Amherst. The old rail lines were acquired by the State of Massachusetts in 1985 and was then developed into a rail-trail in 1993 from support of the Rails to Trails Conservancy under its current name, the Norwottuck Rail Trail. The name of "Norwottuck" was the result of a suggestion by the Hadley Historical Commission, who believed that the name corresponded to the local Native American tribe, the Norwottucks.

Railroad History in Northampton

The Connecticut River Railroad (CRRR) was established in 1845 and was the result of a merger of two unfinished railroads: the Northampton & Springfield Railroad; and, the Greenfield & Northampton Railroad. It was the first railroad company to offer passenger service between Springfield and Northampton in late 1845, and soon began offering both local and long-distance passenger service, including fright stops. In 1849, it grew further North with the joining of the Brattleboro line of the Vermont & Massachusetts Railroad, allowing continuous CRRR service between Springfield, Massachusetts and Brattleboro, Vermont. This service continued for the next 50 years until Boston & Maine Railroad acquired CRRR in 1893.

Service continued to decline until October 1966 when long-distance passenger service ended out of Northampton, but local service continued between Springfield, Massachusetts and Brattleboro, Vermont for a few more months. By 1975, the Boston & Main line going eastward from Northampton to Boston was slowly being shut down due to disrepair as only freight traveled the route. In 1997, the Rails to Trails Conservency began to put more pressure on Massachusetts state to refurbish the worn-out railroad line as a "linear park." By 2007, the old Central Massachusetts Branch had become the Norwottuck Rail Trail and work is still being done to fully complete the 104-mile trail connecting Eastern and Western Massachusetts.

Today, the old railroad lines now function as linear parks connecting communities through outdoor activities, similar to how the railroads did in their prime years. The rail-trails provide an interesting view of history, as one can traverse the paths the old steam-powered engines once did, moving both passengers and cargo along steel veins through the Massachusetts landscape - every route has a living history.


Progression of Rails to Trails from 1920-2007

This shows how the Boston & Maine Railroad connected Northampton and Boston, circa 1920. Sourced from Mass Central Rail Trail.

This shows how the Boston & Maine Railroad had begun to disintegrate, circa 1975. Sourced from Mass Central Rail Trail.

This shows the beginning of the Rails to Trails movement where the once dilapidated Boston & Maine Railroad was becoming useable space, circa 1997. Sourced from Mass Central Rail Trail.

This shows the evolution of the Rails to Trails movement where the once dilapidated Boston & Maine Railroad was slowly becoming the Norwottuck Rail Trail, circa 2007. Sourced from Mass Central Rail Trail.

Union Station

Union Station, located in Northampton, Massachusetts, was built in 1896 and served the Connecticut River mainline, Central Massachusetts Railroad, the New Haven & Northampton Railroad, and the NH&H’s Williamstown Branch. It was part of a larger project to raise the railroad crossing in downtown Northampton, as dozens of pedestrians in Northampton thought they could quickly get over the tracks as the trains were approaching, however many were killed in the process. Raising the railroad tracks was quite a feat, as they could only raise the railroad to an extent since they would have to compile masses of earth on either side of the road’s underpass, which is why you experience a dip in the road when traveling from Northampton toward Hadley on Route 9. As mentioned previously, they could only raise the rail lines so much, so they had to lower the road slightly as there needed to be enough head room for the horses to pull the buggies. If they had not lowered the street level, their other option was to lower the railroad and place the lines in a tunnel with the street running above it. This, however, was much more involved as they would need to create a ramp large enough to go over the railroad tunnel. To create enough clearance, the incline would have needed to start around Center Street, and would have drastically affected pre-existing downtown buildings, so they decided on the first option. If you pass underneath the bridge you can still see where the old street level used to be.

Union Railroad Station, Northampton, Mass. Historic Northampton, undated.

Now, Union Station is not a railroad station, instead, it is a privately owned building holding several different businesses. The Tunnel Bar, located off of Strong Avenue, is below the old station and you can see just how much earth needed to be added to raise the railway. In Union Station is: The Deck, a seasonal bar near the buiding’s front by the parking lot; Union Station Banquets, a 200-seat banquet facility which takes full advantage of the interior architecture of the old station; and, Platform Sports Bar, where the main entrance is just off the Norwottuck Bike Path.​

"Union Station - The Deck Bar." Platform Sports Bar, Northampton, MA., 2013.

Rails to Trails!

“We've helped craft rural trails that spool out over a hundred miles of open prairie, snake through mountain passes, span canyons, and hug riverbanks, offering views of the countryside often unknown to the highway traveler.” (1)


The Rails to Trails Conservancy is not only promoting the reinvigoration of forgotten rail lines, they are also exploring trails being established along active rail lines, reflecting how transportation is evolving in the 21st century.


"When we show respect and fondness for the old times, we can also celebrate on this marvelous place, the new times as well." (2)



Railroad History in Northampton

Progression of Rails to Trails

Union Station

  • "Union Station.Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System, Massachusetts Historical Commission

Cool Facts

(1) "College Gals B & M's Best Customers Here." Daily Hampshire Gazette. 

(2) "Railroad Bridge Wins Another Tight Squeeze." Daily Hampshire Gazette, 30 July 1981.

(3) "Railroad Bridge Wins Another Tight Squeeze." Daily Hampshire Gazette, 30 July 1981.

Norwottuck Trail History

Rails to Trails!

(1) Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, "About Us." Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, 2018.

(2) Kopec, Ellen C. "Before Rail Trail There Were Trains." Daily Hapshire Gazette, 8 Oct. 1993, p. 35.

YOU are the Railroad

A railroad underpass along the Norwottuck Rail Trail (left), and the rail-trail adjacent to the current rail lines (right), Northampton, MA. Jess McKnight, 2018.


While riding on the rail-trails, it is quite interesting to imagine yourself as a train, speeding along the tracks to your next destination – it’s not hard to do, especially when you are pedaling at a decent quip. Going up and down hills, around bends, over rivers and underneath roads – the rail-trails function like the railroads did at their peak, providing connections to other communities through vibrant corridors and changing the way we think of transportation. The rail-trails create powerful opportunities for physical activity via active transportation, improving one’s health and well-being while also providing a safe connection for people of all ages and capabilities.


The rail-trails have transformed transportation in the 21st century by transporting those who use the trail into the past, allowing people to experience what it was like traveling along the rail corridor as passengers did in the 1800’s. It is an interesting way to view and experience history, but these linear parks provide users with great interactions and experiences they cannot get elsewhere.