The country's 500th rail-trail continues to grow in popularity. The 10-mile Minuteman Commuter Bikeway is one of the most heavily used trails in the United States, according to the national Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.
The Minuteman Bikeway was built in 1992 over the "rail-banked" Lexington Branch railroad corridor between Bedford and West Cambridge, Massachusetts, which passes through suburban Lexington and Arlington long the way. The trail received its name from the fact that it closely follows the path of the colonial Minutemen during the Battle of 1775.
The Minuteman Bikeway is paved with asphalt and is 12 feet wide. Permitted uses include walking, cycling and inline skating. During winter months, the corridor is often traversed by cross-country skiers.
Are you interested in a guide to rail-trails in Bedford and vicinity? Do you need travel directions to the Bedford terminus?
Local planners first envisioned the bikeway during the mid-1970s. Soon after the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) stopped running passenger trains over the Lexington Branch in 1977, and the Boston & Maine Railroad embargoed the line in 1981, the pace quickened to build a "commuter bikeway" over the roadbed. Click here to view photos of the conversion process in 1992.
Design and construction money was earmarked for the project by the State Legislature in the 1980s. It was not until 1991, however, that the Federal Surface Transportation Board formally rail-banked the line and allowed the contractor to begin work. Starting in early 1992, vegetation was cleared, tracks were pulled up, the roadbed was graded, asphalt and striping were laid down, gates were installed at grade crossings, and new trees and shrubs were planted at places along the route.
Bedford ceremonially opened the Minuteman Bikeway on November 20, 1993. It has been an asset to the region ever since.
The bikeway's appeal is broad. A stroll or bike ride on the Minuteman will introduce you to virtually every imaginable demographic group. Families on bikes, teens on inline skates, middle-aged men out for a jog, moms pushing baby carriages, senior citizens "power walking" for exercise -- they all find the trail a valuable local resource in their lives. The bikeway's patronage is not strictly local; some people travel significant distances to have a fun day on the Minuteman. The Town of Bedford offers complimentary visitor parking in its Railroad Avenue lot.
This trail has retained several features from its railroad past. Visit Depot Park at the Bedford terminus to see a rail car that once operated on the branch. Also, Bedford Freight House and the adjacent Budd RDC have many old photographs and artifacts on display -- in addition to refreshing drinks and snacks!
July 2014 update: A consultant working for the Towns of Arlington, Lexington and Bedford has completed a study about current conditions along the 10-mile Minuteman Bikeway. Various amenities and other improvements are recommended. Read the report here. (It is a 52 mb PDF. Please allow time for the file to load in your web browser.)
Arlington's Bikeway Committee has a web site dedicated to the Minuteman Bikeway: www.MinutemanBikeway.org
The Narrow-Gauge Rail-Trail
The Minuteman Bikeway terminus on South Road in Bedford is near the entrance to the Narrow-Gauge Rail-Trail. Once the Bedford DPW completes a planned intersection improvement project, a new 10-foot-wide sidewalk will connect the two rail-trails.
The Narrow-Gauge Rail-Trail uses the roadbed of the country's first two-foot-gauge common-carrier railway, the Billerica & Bedford Railroad. It extends northward three miles from Loomis Street to the Bedford-Billerica town line. Beyond the town line (marked by gates in the woods) is private property. The trail segment between Loomis Street and The Great Road is paved with asphalt; the remainder has a stone-dust surface. Hybrid and mountain-type bicycles are recommended.
The Town of Billerica hopes to build a trail over its five miles of the abandoned railroad right-of-way. It is to be called the Yankee Doodle Bikeway.
One of the attractions the Narrow-Gauge Rail-Trail passes is Fawn Lake (a.k.a. Hayden Pond). A famous resort once stood there, the Hotel Sweetwater. Its springs were thought to have medicinal benefits, and people travelled to the resort by train to bath in them. Today, Fawn Lake offers a place to pull off the roadbed and relax amid the natural beauty. A marked walking path circles the pond.
See an interpretive replica of the B&B's two-foot-gauge track at the Loomis Street end of the right-of-way.
Click here to download a guide to the NGRT. (784 kb, PDF file format, 8.5" by 14")
Reminders of the railroad era still exist along the Reformatory Branch Trail, such as old ties in the ground.
This trail follows the roadbed of the Boston & Maine's old Reformatory Branch between Railroad Avenue in Bedford and Lowell Road in Concord. It is four miles long and passes through scenic wooded areas. This roadbed is unimproved (not surfaced with stone-dust or asphalt), so hybrid and mountain-type bicycles are suggested. Since the Reformatory Branch is not frequently traversed by cyclists, it tends to be a nice setting for a peaceful walk or jog.
A journey on the Reformatory will offer several interesting sights. In Concord, the railroad bed passes alongside Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. (We understand that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service does not permit bicycles within the refuge.) Although the last train rumbled over this branch line in 1962, keen observers will discover several railroad artifacts scattered along the route.
Originally, the Reformatory Branch extended another 2.5 miles to Reformatory Station in Concord, across the street from the existing State Prison on Route 2. But since the old B&M bridge across the Sudbury River is long gone, today's journey will end at Lowell Road near Concord Center. This is an ideal opportunity to make a side trip to Old North Bridge.
- Take a "virtual tour" of the Reformatory Branch between Concord Road and Railroad Avenue in Bedford.
- Update on March 23, 2010: Bedford's Annual Town Meeting appropriated $210,000 in Community Preservation funds to prepare 25% design plans to surface the Reformatory Branch Trail with asphalt. Construction money is to be sought from the Federal and/or state governments.
- Update on June 9, 2014: Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc., Bedford's engineering consultant, has identified four possible options to link the Minuteman Bikeway with the Reformatory Branch Trail via Railroad Avenue. See VHB's study here.
Click here to download a guide to the RBRT. (832 kb, PDF file format, 8.5" by 14")