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Historian tells about how railroads built Woodsville

HAVERHILL — It’s hard for most who live these days at the southern edge of the White Mountains to imagine that there was a time when downtown Woodsville had no streets and few automobiles.

It was one big rail yard, “spectacularly huge,” Jay Barrett called it, capable of accommodating 1,400 freight cars. At its height around 1925, trains were coming to Woodsville from all directions — Boston, Montreal, Montpelier, Vt. — and almost everyone living here derived at least some of their income from the Boston & Maine, which by 1900 had swallowed up all the smaller rail lines.

Where familiar stores stand now in Haverhill’s business district was the site of a railroad roundhouse so big it could hold eight locomotives.

In fact, Haverhill’s precinct of Woodsville grew and expanded around the rail industry, according to Barrett, an architect and railroad historian who spent two hours Sunday presenting that history to a rapt audience of 50.

He reviewed the railroads of New Hampshire and Vermont with a focus on Woodsville and its neighbor across the Connecticut River, the Wells River village in Newbury, Vt.

The two Upper Valley communities, perpetually linked, have shared in the celebration of their combined 250th anniversary this year. The Haverhill Historical Society brought Barrett from across the river in Fairlee, Vt., as part of that effort.

Nothing to do with North America’s railroads has ever gone smoothly from the time the first spike was driven, and that held true at the local level.

“There are days when things just don’t go right, and here’s one of ’em,” said Barrett, displaying a photograph of a rockslide around 1900 on Ingalls Hill that closed off a section of track south of Wells River.

Last collision

And this month marks the 65th anniversary of the horrendous head-on collision in Newbury, Vt., between Boston & Maine and Canadian Pacific locomotives that claimed the engine crews of both trains. One train was supposed to have been on a siding at the time, but both were on the main line, coming at each other.

“There was thick, thick fog. It was 2:30 on a Saturday morning. That was the last collision between steam-powered locomotives anywhere in New England,” Barrett said.

Barrett first touched on the history of transportation in New England, starting with the flat-bottom boats that hauled freight on its lakes and rivers.

Then came the rails: Boston to Concord in 1846; Concord to Laconia in 1848; Laconia to Plymouth in 1851; and Woodsville to Groveton in 1853.

It was a long, rich history over 100 years, but by the mid-1950s it was all but over in New Hampshire and America. Cars, trucks and highways steadily assumed prominence.

“By the late 1950s, the Boston & Maine was just hemorrhaging red ink,” Barrett said.