Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Bay Circuit Trail: The Reformatory Branch, Bedford MA.



Bedford Depot.


The Bay Circuit ‘hub’  in the  urban core has a number of trail  ‘spokes’ in addition to those formed by the public transit system. Of these, the most prominent is easily the Minuteman Bikeway, a paved marvel along the old railway line through Arlington and Lexington to Bedford. I’ve pedaled its 11 miles on a few occasions, weekdays are often the least crowded. 


Once at the Bedford Depot, one has the option of running the old Narrow Gauge line to its eventual dissolution in Billerica or heading west along the Reformatory Branch to Great Meadows in Concord.





The Narrow Guage is probably better prepared for biking while the Reformatory Branch is more rustic. It is a significant part of the Bay Circuit Trail and allows a look at the headwaters of the Shawsheen and the Concord River on the same day hike or dog walk.

“The Boston & Maine Railroad’s Reformatory Branch was built in 1873 to Lowell Road in Concord and in 1879 it was continued 2.5 miles further west to Reformatory Station (across from the State Prison).


There were four passenger stations on the line: Shady Hill, West Bedford, Concord and Reformatory. The branch was abandoned in 1962, and the right-of-way was purchased by Bedford and Concord.”

Friends of Bedford Depot Park.

It is the nearest Bay Circuit access point from Cambridge and one can take the 62 bus line to the trail head. The return trip out of Concord can have some interesting commuter rail and bus combinations as well. I gave them a test run on July 3rd while many were heading into the holiday.

I got the 6:40am bus out of Alewife T station. It puts you there at around 7:10am. I lived in the area between October 2006 and February 2008 so I was looking forward to getting a sense of how it is doing.





The Elm Brook Conservation Area is the first parcel one encounters along the hike when approaching from the east. It is the birth zone for the Shawsheen watershed with a 19th century stone work culvert to carry Mungo Brook beneath the railbed.




The trail then goes through a fairly mundane stretch of white pine stage reclamation forest before meeting the old Shady Hill Station area. A number of trail side rail relics remain. 






The Mary Putnam Webber Conservation Area soon follows.


"This 20-acre parcel was given to the Town in 1990 for the purpose of protecting uplands and sensitive wetlands from proposed development as a state landfill. Although the landfill was not constructed, the Town recognized the importance of this area to the conservation of natural resources and neighborhood character. The land supports both mature oak forest and white pine groves, surrounding a certified vernal pool containing wood frog habitat. Located adjacent to the east-west railroad bed/bikepath, the land is accessible from either Concord or Hartwell Road.  Management goals include control of brush dumping and off-road vehicles."     TM Bedford Conservation Commission.


My return to the place was interesting. It seems to have been put on a back burner, probably due to the Recession and a shortage of trail volunteers. It is also moving to a stage of succession where alder shrub thickets form in the old meadows so the scarce meadow ecotone spaces are shrinking. It is still part of a fairly robust mix of habitats along the northern margin of Hanscom Field.


The Route 62 parking lot is just a bit further along and marks the point where the trail turns south toward Concord and Great Meadows.


There has been considerable interest since 2007, at least, in making the trail an extension of the Minuteman Bikeway and $210,000.00 was applied by the town of Bedford for a study to estimate the cost of applying pavement to the specs determined by the Commonwealth.


This, in turn, has occasioned opposing outlooks from those who would keep the relative quiet of the walk as it is with some dread evinced over expansion of the robust multi mode torrent of users found on the existing run of the Minuteman.


I find myself in some middle ground. Much as I like lo-fi trail systems and walking, this particular rail bed is about as well located and as suitable as it gets for any further expansion of bicycle arterials. For now, it seems as though the lingering economic sluggishness has worked to keep the whole scheme on ice. 


That side of Bedford also has a fairly quiet secondary road net that works well for bicycles and lacks the terrifying traffic messes one finds along Great Road south of the Center where half of the southbound route 3 traffic seems to insist on a 'shortcut' through Bedford for a slightly better exit position on 128.


Maybe the near term outcome will be to let it be as it is. This will probably appeal to 'Bear' and his human.