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History of the Reformatory Branch Trail

Updated: Oct 25, 2022

The Railroad Years

The history of the Reformatory Branch Trail begins in 1873 with the extension of the Middlesex Central Railroad (a Boston & Lowell subsidiary) from Bedford to Concord. At the time of construction, the tracks mainly passed through farmland. The railroad bought land from the farmers, or in some cases it just received an easement from farmers who did not wish to sell. Some farmers insisted on cattle crossings being installed, either at-grade or passing below the tracks.

In the late 1870s Bedford got another railroad, the Billerica and Bedford, running from North Billerica to Bedford. This railroad was initially built at a 2-foot gauge to reduce costs. Even with the reduced costs, the Billerica and Bedford failed by 1879. It was bought by the Boston & Lowell railroad and rebuilt to standard gauge in 1885. The right-of-way of this railroad eventually became the Narrow Gauge Trail in Bedford, and is slated to become the Yankee Doodle Trail in Billerica.

These rail lines, which were eventually taken over by the Boston & Maine railroad, were major sources of commerce for Bedford. Farmers were able to get their products to market. People could take the train for day outings to Lexington Park (on the Bedford/Lexington line) and to take the waters at the Bedford Springs hotel. The line from Bedford to Concord was designated the Reformatory Branch, and the line from Bedford to Billerica was part of the Lexington Branch.

There was a station at the present Bedford depot as well as additional stations at Hartwell Road (called Shady Hill) and at Concord Road (called West Bedford.) The West Bedford station was near where the Bedford Children’s Center is today. A bridge carrying Concord Road over the railroad was built in 1901. This was done to allow the electric railway (streetcar) running in Concord Rd to cross over the (steam) railroad without a grade crossing. The bridge resulted in a bit of a hump in the road.

The Bedford Depot Friends site has a picture of the bridge.

In the early years of the 20th century, the railroad lines had increased competition, both from streetcars and the automobile. This competition caused the Boston & Maine to end passenger service on the Reformatory Branch in 1926 and on the Bedford-Billerica portion of the Lexington Branch in 1931. Both lines continued to be used for freight. The trains were pulled by coal-fired steam locomotives for most of their history, with diesel locomotives replacing steam in 1955.

Both the Reformatory Branch and the Bedford-Billerica portion of the Lexington Branch were abandoned by the Boston & Maine in 1962. The rails and ties were removed and recycled. The railroad’s interest in both rights-of-way was offered to the town. The town voted to pay $16,000 for these rights in the 1963 annual town meeting. (This is approximately $150,000 in 2022 dollars.) In 1967, the Concord Road bridge over the railroad right-of-way was removed, allowing Concord Road to be leveled and straightened.

The Trail Years

There were discussions in town about how to make use of the railroad rights-of-way in the years following the purchase. Both trails were soon used for walking, bicycling, horseback riding, snowmobiling, and motorbiking. In 1971, a set of Town Meeting articles were developed by 5th-grade students to improve the trails. One article called for what today is the Reformatory Branch Trail to be cleared, graded, and rolled to a width of 10 ft. The connection from the railbed to Railroad Ave was created as a result of this article. Another article addressed what today is the Narrow Gauge Trail. These articles resulted in most remaining railroad artifacts (rails, ties) being removed. (A few ties and whistle posts are still present today.)

The railroad right-of-way began to be used for utilities with the construction of the West Bedford sewer. This project, which was under consideration throughout the 1970s, was finally built between 1980 and 1982. The sewer line today runs from Railroad Ave to the Hartwell Rd water plant. Shortly after the sewer construction, the town opened a wellfield off of Hartwell Rd. This resulted in the construction of the Hartwell Rd water facility and the installation of a water main under the trail for the same distance. There are also now fire hydrants at several points along this stretch.

The final major utility work happened in 2016. At that time, the town laid fiber-optic communications between the Winchester Drive connection and Lavender Lane. This connection allowed the town to reduce its cost for monitoring several sewer pumping stations in town. As part of this work, the path was significantly leveled between Hartwell Rd and Concord Rd. The abutments of an old cattle crossing were removed about 100 yards from Concord Rd. (This formerly had been an obstacle.) Finally, a large boulder was removed near Railroad Ave, which made the path easier to enter on a bicycle.

The Bedford Depot Friends has a picture of how the cattle crossing looked before it was removed.

The Bedford Depot Friends photos came from a walking tour done in 2014. The whole tour is here.

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