Shortly after parking my car near the railroad tracks in Manchester, I heard the sound of a train whistle. And I knew in an instant it wasn't a train as I saw Susan Barlow wearing an engineer's hat and blowing into a wooden whistle.
I had arrived at the northern terminus of the Manchester Land Conservation Trust's Cheney Rail Trail, a path that runs along the abandoned bed of the South Manchester Railroad.
Barlow, a member of the trust, would be my tour guide as we walked the rail line the Cheney brothers built to transport imported silk and finished products to and from Cheneyville. The railroad was billed as the shortest, privately owned passenger and freight line in the country.
These days the trail transports hikers and bicyclists along half the length of the line, from still-active tracks in the north end of town down to West Middle Turnpike. The town owns the right-of-way from the turnpike down to an old trestle across Center Street, with the remainder of the line to the south privately owned.
Walking along the trail is lot easier these days. With the town teaming up with volunteers from the trust, processed stone has replaced ruts and an extensive drainage system has removed much of the standing water.
Doug MacGillvary, vice president of the trust and chairman of the stewardship committee, accompanied us on the walk. He said the work was a team effort, with donations from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving's H. Louise Ruddell Charitable Trust and the Rails to Trails Conservancy.
Now the trail, which passes by overgrown railroad tracks, broken utility poles and even an old whistle post that alerted the engineer to blow the whistle as the train approached a crossing, is easier for everyone to navigate. Boy Scout Greg Cowles completed a sort of miniature park located south of Hilliard Street by building a bicycle rack and widening the trail to 8 feet. There are also picnic tables and a kiosk describing the history of the line.
While the improvements show the potential of the trail along the first mile, the land trust is hoping to eventually bring the path down to the historic silk mill. A few years ago, the town purchased the right-of-way from West Middle Turnpike south to the trestle over Center Street. Barlow pointed out that, with the railroad grade rising above the surrounding area, it provides a different look at the town.
Along the way, we saw Center Springs Park, the town's geographic center, filled with birds. We looked down Bigelow Brook and out across the now-demolished Parkade shopping center and we passed by forests owned by Manchester Hospital.
"This could connect with existing trails and make it a 15-mile loop trail," MacGillvary said. "A lot of this is close. But getting people off-street and all trail will take years. It will be worth it in the end."
According to historian John Sutherland, the railroad was nicknamed "Cheney's Goat." And now the town has a chance to turn the shortest line in America into a shining example of how a community can work together and connect recreational paths.
The trailhead is behind Farr's Sporting Goods, 2 Main St. Park at the nearby CVS shopping plaza and cross over the tracks. There also is a small parking area along Hilliard Street. A guided hike will take place Feb. 23 at 1 p.m.