Eleven years building the Northern Rail Trail
By Lindy Heim, FNRT-MC


Friends of the Northern Rail Trail in Merrimack County (FNRT-MC) President Bob Ward reminisces about his eleven year stint leading the rail trail group from its initial vision to trail completion.
Bob Ward steps down this month after 11 years leading the Friends of the Northern Rail Trail – Merrimack County. The past 10 of those years were spent overseeing conversion of the Northern Rail Line railbed into a four-season recreational trail from Boscawen to Danbury.
Photo: Lindy Heim
Bob Ward has contributed hugely to making the Northern Rail Trail the success story it is today. He was kind enough to share his recollections of the successful efforts of the “rail trail group” known as the Friends of the Northern Rail Trail in Merrimack County (FNRT-MC) with me one day this summer. He began by noting how he became involved with the organization in the first place.
Andover residents, Alex Bernhard and Myra Mayman, harbored a vision of turning the old Northern Railroad rail bed into a four season recreational trail. Early in 2004, they decided to recruit Bob Ward to run with their idea, recognizing his outstanding networking and leadership skills.


Bob admits he was hooked from the start and committed to staying the course until the full 34 miles of rail trail were constructed in the Fall of 2014. “I kind of made an unspoken commitment to myself to see this through to completion.”  This month marks his 11th year leading the charge for the Friends of the Northern Rail Trail and the 10th anniversary of the start of rail trail construction. Bob plans to retire as President of FNRT-MC in September.


Looking back, Bob’s first efforts were devoted to fleshing out the organizing committee. He recruited Andover bike shop owner Ed Dansereau, Andover Conservation Committee member Peter Southworth, Andover Recreation Committee member Tom Frantz, and Proctor Academy Environmental Science teacher Nelson Lebo. Together they held informational and promotional meetings in Danbury and Andover. There was a lot of interest among the leaders and residents in both towns spurring the committee to move forward towards incorporating.
FNRT-MC was officially incorporated as a non-profit entity in December 2004. The group got busy holding meetings in Andover to set their objectives, often meeting in Ed’s bike shop. They settled on using a volunteer work base, choosing hard pack over pavement for the trail surface and seeking funding from the state’s Recreational Trails Program (RTP).


In the Summer of 2005, FNRT-MC filed for 501(c)3 status with the IRS.  In December of 2005, the friends group was approved as a public charity, thereby able to receive tax deductible contributions. Also in 2005, Bob, Alex, and Myra applied for and won FNRT-MC’s first RTP grant feverishly making required copies of their application at the Concord Staples Store and wringing their hands while waiting to hear back.


Trail building began in earnest with the first couple of miles of stone dust being laid between Blackwater Park on Lawrence Street and the Potter Place Station in Andover. Salisbury Road Agent Chris Bentley, donated a grader and the group rented a vibratory roller. R.D. Edmunds and Son of Franklin supplied the stone dust, as they have on every inch of the Northern Rail Trail in Merrimack County.


About 100 people turned out to celebrate the completion of the first section. The celebration involved remarks by Bob at the entrance to the Lawrence Street tunnel at Blackwater Park. He introduced FNRT-MC’s board of directors to the community, officiated the ribbon cutting by local boy scouts, and walked the 2 miles with the other celebrants to Potter Place to enjoy refreshments served in the Andover Historical Society’s freight building.


A little known detail came out during this interview. Upon completing an early stage of building the first section of rail trail in Andover Bob, Myra. and Alex christened the rail trail with a libation of wine in a private “we did it” celebration of their own. Can’t blame them for expressing their pride and joy in the moment.


From 2005 to 2010, six sections of the  rail trail were built doubling up in 2010 with two projects being completed in the same year. One project included 8 1/2 miles of rail trail construction that was funded by a hard won Transportation Enhancement (TE) grant through N.H. DOT, the largest single grant FNRT-MC has been awarded to date.


The TE grants applications are reviewed by New Hampshire’s Regional Planning Commissions of which there are nine in the state. At the time, Bob was the governor’s designee on the GACIT commission which advises the governor on all statewide Transportation Enhancement program funding awards. He remembers offering to recuse himself because of his involvement with the FNRT-MC but was asked to stay on instead. The amount of funding requested by the many applicants greatly exceeded the amount of TE funding available making FNRT-MC’s application and eventual award that much more precious.


In 2011 FNRT-MC reached the Grafton County section of the Northern Rail Trail connecting the two rail trails for the first time. A July 31 celebration was planned in Danbury and named for the historic Golden Spike ceremony commemorating the completion of the transcontinental railroad project of 1869. Bob orchestrated the entire event that day, awarding our honored golden spikes to heads of state agencies and other special guests including Ray Burton from the Governor’s Council.
Four more RTP grants and generous gifts of time and energy by rail trail volunteers culminated in the most recent ceremony, the Finish Line Celebration in Boscawen on October 4, 2014. Again, Bob took charge of inviting guests and organizing a memorable event around finishing construction of the Northern Rail Trail in Merrimack County. Though it was a soggy day, a good crowd braved the weather and enjoyed the festivities. Listing those who couldn’t make it there that day, Bob quipped that Daniel Webster sent his regrets for not being able to attend, bringing a chuckle to all who attended.


Asked about what he sees in store for the friends group after his term ends in September, he envisions the focus of the board of directors shifting towards maintenance and that that responsibility should be shared.


Bob further comments, “As soon as construction of the rail trail was done, my goal was accomplished. It’s time now to address the new challenges that lie ahead. This has been a great group to work with, very lively, energetic and dynamic. Everyone on the board of directors plus innumerable other volunteers have contributed to this effort in his/her own way.”
FNRT’s board of directors gave Bob a spontaneous and resounding round of applause at the conclusion of its August monthly meeting knowing that it was his last and that he will be missed immeasurably.