Hands Across the Merrimack (and Manchester)

It took a whole lot of people, headed by Helen Closson, to make a pedestrian bridge out of the abandoned rail bridge across the Merrimack River in Manchester, NH. Closson called the project “Hands Across the Merrimack” while it was underway, and whatever name the pedestrian bridge may be given officially, that’s the name I’ll remember.

I’ve been on the bridge before, just for the fun of crossing over the Merrimack on foot. Today, after some business in town, I took advantage of the sunny afternoon to walk the rail trail clear across Manchester’s West Side. This is Manchester we’re talking about, so “clear across” means about two miles.

Starting from the baseball stadium where the Fisher Cats play on the river’s east side, a paved walkway runs parallel to the Merrimack and shortly comes to a fork. Going right would have brought me under the rail trail and onto some private property. Going left brought me around a sweeping curve to the approach of the Hands Across the Merrimack bridge.

I was a bit startled to find a sculpture of a steer just short of the bridge. The plaque mounted nearby noted that the statue was a tribute to workers & entrepreneurs like the ones from the former JacPac meat processing plant located nearby, now the site of a hospital expansion.

Vandalism has become an issue along the trail, judging from some news reports I’ve read. It looked good today, though. I’m sure that’s an ongoing effort by people who care. The trail is paved its entire length, and the pavement’s in good shape.

The bridge is at the southeast end of a trail that parallels the Piscataquog River. For now, the northwest end of the trail is near what I call the Kelley Street bridge (Nazaire Biron Bridge on my map) that links the West Side with the Pinardville neighborhood. There’s a very hazardous crosswalk on Main Street, but the few other road crossings are in quiet neighborhoods. The trail, like the rail line before it, goes on a bridge over Second Street, avoiding a road that’s just as busy as Main Street.

The Piscataquog snuck up on me. I cleared Main Street & followed the trail behind a house where there was a cheerfully noisy party going on. As the music from the party faded behind me, I became conscious of the river’s sound, and there it was on my left. A few weeks ago, we had heavy rains, and this river was particularly pesky for the people living along it. Today, though, it was a tame & pretty thing. Several dirt trails ran steeply from the trail down to the river. I stayed on the pavement, worried that I’d twist an ankle trying to negotiate the slope in my sneakers. Other people had no problem.

Eventually, I came to some ball fields, where a softball game was just wrapping up. Soon I was in sight of the ugly red bulk of West Side Arena. The building’s homely appearance belies its worth as an athletic facility for what seems like every kid on the West Side. Soon I passed under the Kelley Street Bridge and reached what is now the end of the trail.

Once upon a time, this rail line crossed the Piscataquog near Kelley Street, and then paralleled the river (on its north side now) through Goffstown & into New Boston. Patches of the line have been developed into trails. I’ve been on one segment in New Boston near where the middle & south branches of the Piscataquog converge — a beautiful spot. In Goffstown, determined residents have turned part of the old railbed into a trail, and they continue to try to finish the link between New Boston & Manchester.

For now, though, all I saw after crossing under Kelley Street was a fenced-off trestle hung with well-justified “Keep Off” signs. I suspect that tight municipal budgets and concerns about liability will keep that trestle from ever being turned into a pedestrian bridge. Of course, that’s what I used to think about the bridge across the Merrimack.

This is not a path I would take after dark, except maybe for a stroll on the bridge after a Fisher Cats game. This is what passes in NH for a big city, with all the mischief that entails. A weekend afternoon in broad daylight, however, is another story. Today was fine.