By Ethan Forman
DANVERS — A Nevada nonprofit may accomplish in a matter of weeks what some residents have hoped for and others have fought for decades: a 4.3-mile rail trail running from Peabody to Wenham.
The Iron Horse Preservation Society, a small organization in Reno, Nev., is building the rail trail at no cost to the town in exchange for the abandoned rails and ties.
Iron Horse considers it a trade. It gets the rail material at no cost while it turns an abandoned rail line into a recreational trail. Its efforts also preserve the railroad right of way, albeit without the worn-out tracks.
The work in Danvers is the first job for Iron Horse in New England, which also plans to rip up rails in Wenham and Topsfield, creating a connection among the communities.
"I think it's fantastic. It's manna from heaven. It's being done at no cost, which critics of the trail said couldn't be done," said Selectman Bill Clark, the board's liaison to the Rail Trail Advisory Committee and a longtime advocate. "I can't wait to ride on it."
Earlier this year, as a test run, Iron Horse removed 1,200 feet of rails in the Pine Street area under contract by the Danvers Electric Division.
Iron Horse's work began in earnest April 1 to remove the rest of the rails and ties, said Ingrid Barry, president of the Danvers Bi-Peds, a local group that has been advocating for the trail for seven years. She is also a member of the Rail Trail Advisory Committee, and it was Barry who found Iron Horse online.
"She's the catalyst," said Joe Hattrup, Iron Horse's chief operating officer and co-founder with his brother Jim Hattrup, the company's president. Jim Hattrup is also a graduate of MIT, the company's Web site says.
Selectmen were brought up to speed on rail-trail efforts during a presentation Tuesday by Rail Trail Advisory Committee Chairman Charlie Lincicum. He said Iron Horse has won all necessary approvals from the town and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. An automated call will go out to residents to let them know the work has begun.
Ripping out the tracks
Yesterday on Prince Street, in an out-of-the-way industrial part of town, a small crew of three plus Ryan Hattrup, the son of Joe Hattrup, were busy using large loaders to rip the rails from their ties. They then used the machines to scoop the wooden ties from the ground.
Once the rails and ties are removed, Iron Horse will compact the ground to form the trail. It will also remove the rail from road crossings and fill in the grooves with asphalt. Iron Horse will make sure people can walk on a rail bridge that has gaps in the deck.
The idea of a Danvers rail trail is not new, only the recent flurry of activity is.
The concept has been batted around for years, and it's had its share of detractors. The project gained steam with Danvers signing a long-term lease two years ago with the MBTA, and the creation of a rail-trail committee, which has been working alongside Barry's Bi-Peds.
Barry said the rail trail used to be part of the Newburyport branch that operated as far north as Pine Street well into the 1980s.
Along the way, sunken ties and rusted, buckled rails must be removed before Iron Horse can build the trail.
Given the town was not going to pay for the work, rail-trail advocates would probably have sought grants to build it one stretch at a time, until Barry stumbled upon an e-mail that mentioned the work of Iron Horse. The organization has built rail trails in California, Utah, Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Nebraska, Ryan Hattrup said.
"The rails-to-trails idea out West is coming along, but out here it's huge," he said.
Trail work all over the country
Iron Horse says it is an educational and a historical organization dedicated to preserving the nation's rail heritage. Its work includes the restoration of 1914 Pullman passenger cars and supplying rails for historic track restorations. Besides creating trails, the company prefers to hire veterans, and it has helped bolster national security.
In 2007, Iron Horse was tapped for its know-how by the California National Guard and the U.S. Border Patrol as part of Operation Jump Start and Task Force Vista, which needed anti-vehicle rail barriers for the U.S. southern border to prevent illegal drug traffic. Much of the rail materials came from closed military bases, but that effort has since been put on the back burner, Joe Hattrup said.
Cost is one thing that keeps trail projects from happening, so having Iron Horse do the work for free allowed Danvers to overcome a major hurdle.
Joe Hattrup did not say how much Iron Horse gets for the scrap rails and ties or how much the Danvers project might cost, but said experience has taught the company how to be efficient on such projects. The company also knows how to move rails intelligently, and how to dispose of worn ties properly. The market for scrap steel is better than it was several years ago.
Because Iron Horse is a nonprofit, what it makes is not taxed, but goes right back into the trail for such things as signs or other amenities. Iron Horse also keeps its overhead down, doesn't pay "huge salaries" and is not hampered by bureaucracy or expensive design costs. The company did have to buy pollution liability insurance from the MBTA, the first time it has had to do so in the nearly 300 miles of tracks it has worked on, Joe Hattrup said.
Still, he said it will all be worth it.
"You will be surprised when it's through," he said.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
Where is the rail trail?
It starts at Interstate 95 and crosses Route 114 and Prince, Collins, Pine, Holten and Pickering streets as it parallels Hobart Street. It then crosses Charter Street as it heads through downtown. It crosses busy Maple Street then heads north across Oak, Poplar and Chestnut streets before paralleling Cabot Road. It runs behind the new electric substation adjacent to the main parking lot at Danvers High, then follows Locust Street (Route 35) on its way toward Wenham and Topsfield.