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Walk the Trail, by land and sea

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‘An Island as beautiful as Bermuda cries out to be explored; there is no finer way to do this than to travel, in your own time, along the right of way which once carried the Bermuda Railway' — Colin A Pomeroy, 1993

Aside from a wonderful article on Bermuda's first adventure in the world of global Olympics in last Saturday's newspaper, there appeared notice of an important development in another heritage arena, or rather pathway, namely on the roadbed of the railway of bygone days.

One should hasten to add to which train-way one is referring, as there were in the end (which ended with the advent of general access to motor cars in the late 1940s) three railways in Bermuda, one in the west, another in the east, and the main line connecting many points from Mangrove Bay in ‘God's Country' to Tiger Bay in the lowest of the Lower Parishes, viz., St George's.

That in the west was the oldest and connected the main wharf at Dockyard with a number of the buildings in the area, terminating in the western storehouse of the Victualling Yard, having the ability to drive right through the eastern storehouse, both to the rear of what is now the popular ‘Frog and Onion Pub'.

The Dockyard railway was probably completed by 1860 and provided the means to move some goods about the 18-acre site, excluding the munitions depot in the Keep Yard, now part of the National Museum.

The youngest railway was the private one at the western end of St George's Island, found on the estate of Vincent Astor after 1934.

It was built by Vincent with the help of Harold Kitchen, the Chief Engineer of The Bermuda Railway Company Ltd and ‘many a time these two pillars of commerce and society could be seen relaxing from the various stresses of life by “playing trains”, wearing the appropriate livery and engine driver caps'.

The train ran from the main line on the north coast of St George's to Astor's home, facing the idyllic Castle Harbour, the tracks being yet visible on parts of the property owned today by the Bierman family.

The building of Kindley Field in 1941 destroyed that setting and a disappointed Vincent left Bermuda for good.

In the old days (and often today), new ideas take time to percolate through the Bermuda limestone of our mindsets and the concept of having a local railway was no exception.

The great age of railways began in Britain after 1830, an outcome of the invention of the steam engine, and within 20 years most towns there were connected by trains, which constituted the first mass transport (excluding shipping of course).

So you see it took upwards of a century for Bermuda to join the rush to be connected by train, from Somerset Island to St George's Town, via the City of Hamilton.

Unfortunately, due to untreated timbers in trestles and bridges and the necessity of travelling over water where land could not be purchased, the Bermuda Railway lasted but a mere 17 years, being opened in late 1931 and sold to British Guiana in 1948.

Having been taken over by the Bermuda Government, the bed of the tracks eventually became in 1985, the ‘Railway Trail', minus the gaps over water represented in a number of places by concrete pillars in the sea.

The Railway Trail was appropriately placed under the Parks Department, as part of the National Parks system in 2001.

In 2003, a modest project was undertaken to improve the Trail between Flatts Village and Shelly Bay, including placing some bridges in the gaps on land to connect the Trail, an improvement that dramatically increased daily use.

In 2012, a small private-sector family foundation completed an extensive study (originally recommended in 2006 by a well-known US leader in the field of “Rails to Trails”) to define in detail what needed to be done in Bermuda to make our national heritage Railway Trail a more usable and appreciated public resource.

They then joined with Parks Department of the Bermuda Government to experiment with and implement simple low-cost improvements (at their own expense for the public good), mostly on the western sector of the Trail from Trimingham Hill to Somerset Bridge, to increase usage, cleanliness, and bench sites, and instil pride in the resource and make it function better for pedal bikes, pedestrians and horse riders.

An example of the detail that has been turned into reality appears in the photo of a ‘distance marker' on the Trail in Somerset, its inscriptions restored to the original forest green colour.

Public reaction has been positive and there has been a noticeable increase in usage, particularly in the Paget and Warwick areas, which naturally brings more safety with more people on the Trail.

The South Road crossing near the old Harmony Hall, one of the sites identified as needing to be safer, appears to be well on its way to the completion of desired improvements.

The Parks Department has also recorded a marked increase in phone calls addressing both interest and concern to maintain the quality of the areas that have been improved.

As it is a free resource for all Bermudians, residents and tourists alike to enjoy in a healthful natural setting at a time when our health costs are skyrocketing and quiet open space is less that it once was, we hope the public will join the efforts on what has been started, as the ideas for the restoration of all facets of the Railway Trail become a reality.

One of the best ideas to come out of the study, which may now see fruition in the near future, is the concept of bridging the water gaps of the Railway Trail, reusing the old pylons of the original train bridges and trestles.

It is hoped that the first new bridge, for pedestrians and pushbikes, will be erected across Bailey's Bay and would result in bringing almost four kilometres of uninterrupted trail online.

That may set an example for other like works, perhaps at Somerset Bridge, which was one of the major above-water structures of the original railway.

The marvellous thing about recent developments on this island-wide heritage feature, which is such a unique combination of natural and cultural heritage, is the difference that a few dedicated people, who love this place, can make, by example, to inspire others to care. For many such souls, it is not about the glory, but about saving the guts, the essential heritage of Bermuda, which, in the end, is essential for our sense of place, belonging and well-being.

So dump the junk food and get walking the Trail: good for your body and food for your soul.

Edward Cecil Harris, MBE, JP, PHD, FSA is Director of the National Museum at Dockyard. Comments may be made to director@bmm.bm or 704-5480.

At Ferry Reach Park stands the shed for Vincent Astor's little steam train that connected his property overlooking Castle Harbour with the ‘main line' Bermuda Railway: this was a private stop for his guests, family and staff.
By coast and inland paths, the Railway Trail passes through some of the most scenic areas of Bermuda, places that can only be seen from the old bed for the train tracks of the Bermuda Railway, since they are off the beaten track of the motor car and other modern transportation modes.
Men are seen working on the tracks on the southern approach to Somerset Bridge, that is the train one, not the ‘smallest drawbridge in the world' one nearby. The bridge rose 40 feet over sea level to allow small sailing boats to pass through to the original one.
An original milestone of the Bermuda Railway has been repainted by a volunteer, in cooperation with the Parks Department of the Bermuda Government, in its original livery of dark green: the position near Scaur Hill Fort, is nine miles from Paget and one mile to the terminus of the tracks near Mangrove Bay.

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Published September 21, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated September 20, 2013 at 1:36 pm)

Walk the Trail, by land and sea

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