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Sanford Rail Trail

A transportation corridor evolves from railroad to multipurpose trail to linear park 

Once upon a time, there was a railroad connecting Sanford and Rochester, New Hampshire. It was started around 1870 and was called the Portland and Rochester Railroad Company. It carried both passengers and freight. There is a great story about one of the cars sinking into soft ground near Deering Pond in Springvale until it completely disappeared. You can find a picture and more information about this story in a display along the side of the trail close to where the car still rests.  

Over the years, the railroad changed names several times ending up in 1949 as the Sanford and Eastern. In 1952, service on the line was discontinued and in 1961, it was shut down completely. Some residents remember the abandoned line being a trail for dirt bikes and there are stories of Nasson College students driving cars along certain stretches.  

In 1988, Hazen Carpenter organized an effort with the Kiwanis Club to develop a system of town trails that became known as the Mousam Way Trail, which eventually was adopted by the town in 1999 as a linear park system. At that same time, the Board of Selectmen appointed a Sanford Trails Development Committee which realized that quick action was necessary. The State of Maine had obtained ownership of the abandoned railroad bed and two private persons had purchased small sections of it. Ownership of most of the remaining six miles was rapidly secured for the town and added to the Sanford Trails system.  

The new focus was to develop a multipurpose trail open to all types of users, and extensive regrading was done, fences installed, and funding obtained through a series of grants. A local snowmobile club was formed in 1994 and became involved with the Rail Trail, helping with trail maintenance and the construction of a bridge at Carpenters Crossing over the Little River. Snowmobile use on the Rail Trail is beneficial because the snow machines and groomers pack the snow making it easier for cross country skiers and snowshoers. 

Over the years, ATV use on the Rail Trail increased and some problems developed including damage to the trail itself from the aggressive action of the ATV wheels on the bed, creation of dust and noise, and occasional ATVers traveling at excessive speed. In 2018, the Trails Committee and the City threatened to close the trail to ATVs unless the ATV community took some action. A large meeting was held at City Hall with many ATVers, Trails Committee members, a couple of game wardens, and the head of the State’s ATV unit in Augusta. The result was formation of the Sanford Maine ATV Club which began active self-policing to deal with unsafe riders and which applied for grants to repair some sections of trail. 

Problems and issues persisted, and in 2021, Sanford’s Mayor appointed a Task Force to examine the ATV and Rail Trail situation, but not to recommend whether ATVs should be banned from the Rail Trail. The Task Force included representatives from the ATV community, snowmobilers, bicyclists, property owners adjacent to the Rail Trail, hikers, and Trails Committee members. The Task Force met throughout the summer and in September 2021, presented its report and recommendations in an attempt to allow ATV and other users to coexist on the Rail Trail. Some of these recommendations were adopted while others were not. One of the major recommendations was that the city and the City Council be more involved and responsible for oversight of the Rail Trail.  

The newly appointed Parks and Recreation Director was charged with taking the report and developing a Rail Trail Policy which he did, and it was adopted. The first item of policy was that the City Council will make the final determination on whether ATV use will continue on the Rail Trail or whether ATVs will be prohibited. 

On November 15, 2022, at a regular City Council meeting, by a vote of 4 to 3, the Rail Trail from Pleasant Street to the Lebanon line was closed to motorized use. A motion was then made to revisit the issue of motorized use on an annual basis. This motion passed 7 to 0. 

Then, on December 20, 2022, a motion was made to change the prior decision and allow ATVs, but this failed 4 to 2. A motion was then made to close the Rail Trail specifically to ATVs as defined in State Statute, which also includes dirt bikes. This passed 6 to 0. Another motion was made to specifically allow snowmobile use on the Rail Trail from Pleasant Street to the Lebanon line from December 1 to April 1 of each year. This motion passed 6 to 0.  

Finally, at its recent June 6, 2023 meeting, the City Council entertained a motion to make the Rail Trail a linear park subject to the rules and regulations of the Parks and Recreation Department for City Parks. This motion passed 5 to 1. During discussion it was pointed out that parks’ rules prohibit all motorized vehicles, and a future amendment or accommodation would have to be made to allow snowmobile use to continue. The Trails Committee and the Parks and Recreation director will be working on issues of signage, physical barriers and policies to govern the Rail Trail keeping it one of the major parts of the city’s trails system. 

– Lawrence Furbish, chair of Sanford Trails Committee 

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