The Fitchburg Railroad was chartered in 1842 to run between Fitchburg and Boston in northern Massachusetts. The Peterborough and Shirley Railroad was incorporated in 1845, built between Ayer and West Townsend by 1848 and continuing to Mason, NH in 1849 and Mason Village, later to become Greenville in 1850.
The Fitchburg and it’s branches fell under the control of the Boston and Maine Railroad in 1900. The original line from Boston to Fitchburg was purchased by the MBTA in 1976 and supports a modern commuter rail service to this day. Guilford Transportation took over the remaining active Boston and Maine trackage in 1983.
The Boston and Maine ran it’s last regularly scheduled passenger train to Greenville on July 8th. 1933 but freight service remained until 1972, the year washouts on the New Hampshire portion of the line and loss of revenue from business in Greenville led to it’s abandonment. The railroad still exists as the Mason Rail Trail which runs for 7 miles between the state line and the site of the Greenville Trestle.
Amazing to me is the age of these railroads, every one of which was constructed 10 years before the Civil War in the adolescence of the industrial revolution. Built by men and horses, they are temples to the ingenuity and perseverance of the men who built them.
Greenville, formerly Mason Village, is one of the state’s newest and smallest towns, having been chartered in 1872 when, for some reason, the Town of Mason gave up it’s north west corner and manufacturing center. Located on the “high falls” of the Soughegan River, the village was attractive to the burgeoning industry in textiles. The Columbian Manufacturing Company was established in 1826. They built large brick mills in Mason Village and upstream in New Ipswich where there was also a sizable drop in the river ready to power a textile mill. These were going concerns whose business was valuable enough to the railroad to make worthwhile the tortuous and expensive line through the hills of south west New Hampshire. The Depot in Greenville center still stands now doing business as a popular Chinese restaurant.
The railroad followed an ingenious route to get to the mill town buried deep in the hills and down in the valley of the Soughegan River culminating in the need to cross that river gorge just north of the lines final destination. The result was the first Greenville Trestle. Built between 1850 and 1851 the original bridge was a covered wooden deck truss. An upside down bridge, if you will, where the train ran on top of wooden trusses with the whole structure sheathed in wood. It was 97 feet high and 611 feet long and when completed was the tallest and longest bridge in New Hampshire.
The bridge was supported by two tall cut granite piers that were quarried a few miles south in Mason proper. This meant the original wooden trusses supported spans of about two hundred feet. This massive wooden structure was said to have cost 20,000 to erect, a tremendous amount of money for 1850.
Being constructed entirely of wood and built to carry wood or coal burning steam locomotives the risk of fire to these structures was enormous. This particular bridge had two big wooden barrels full of water perched on the side of the bridge deck and may or may not have had a bridge tender responsible for dealing with any embers or coals which fell from the locomotive’s smoke stack or firebox. On the cold winter evening of December 9, 1907 the preventative measures failed and hot coals from a locomotive’s firebox landed on the untended bridge and it burned to the ground.
Work commenced immediately on the second bridge as the railroad had revenue from the mills in Greenville and all the children in Greenville and Mason attended high school in Townsend and took the train to get there and back. The new bridge, constructed of steel, was completed in 1908. New steel piers were constructed between the original granite supports bringing the average span of the girders down to less than 100 feet. The second bridge cost $50,000 to build.
In 1971 a special excursion arranged by Railroad Enthusiasts Inc. of Boston carried 450 railroad enthusiasts in 6 Bud Cars up from Townsend and across the trestle into and out of Greenville. The bridge carried it’s last freight traffic in 1972 and remained unused till it’s removal in 1984.
Though it was abandoned the bridge was a landmark in the tiny town. It’s image is said to have been on the town seal and stationary. The bridge was unused but it’s interesting life had a last exciting chapter in July 1979.
It would not be a stretch to say that Bronson Potter was an eccentric gentleman. He graduated from Harvard University and also attended the Sorbonne in Paris. While working in the young field of technology he was a successful inventor who sued the Polaroid Corporation for stealing his patent on a key part of the famous instant camera. He won and it’s said the royalties helped pay for the 500 hundred acres of land he purchased in Mason NH and bequeathed to the town upon his death.
He came to Mason in the 1960’s and passed away there and was buried in the Prospect Hill Cemetery in 2004 at the age of 74. But for the purposes of our story it’s Bronson Potter’s connection to the Greenville Trestle that brings us here.
On the Fourth of July in 1979 he flew his small single engine airplane down into the gorge of the Soughegan River and under the 97 foot high Greenville Trestle. The plane had a wing span of between 35 and 40 feet and he flew between two piers only 74 feet apart ! The FAA took away Potter’s pilot’s license but judging by his gravestone the incident was a memorable part of his distinguished life.
Aerial images of the remains shot 12/23/18