Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, notorious outlaws of the Old West, were known for their daring train robbery stick-ups. To the great annoyance of the Union Pacific Railroad owners, Butch and Sundance rode down their trains, hopped aboard, held up the passengers, and relieved the train’s safe of valuables. Today, I’m riding with the Butch and Sundance gang, but I’m also working for the owners of the rail line. How did I get into this quandary?
I was driving down Sewalls Falls Road, near the division line between Concord and Penacook, when a traffic guard stopped me at the old abandoned railroad crossing. A moment later, I watched a train of pedal-powered rail-riding carts scoot across the road in front of me. Impulsively, I pulled into the parking lot and started asking questions. It was suggested that I come back on a different day, lend a hand, and learn more about this unique rail-riding adventure.
Scenic RailRiders is a family-owned business opened in 2019 after two years of research, investigation, planning and development. They had to find railroad track that was scenic and interesting, accessible off a main road, and not too steep for pedal power. It was a challenge just to find abandoned railroad line that still had rails in place as rails are routinely removed on abandoned lines. Scenic RailRiders found this last remaining section of old Northern Railroad track, constructed in 1846, and successfully negotiated a lease for the use of it.
A lot of physical labor then went into getting the old rails ready to ride. Tracks had to be cleared of encroaching overgrowth, in places trees had grown up between the rails. After beating back the vegetation and repairing the track, Scenic RailRiders obtained licenses, permits and insurance; developed facilities for customer parking, restrooms, storage, and ticket sales; and designed and custom built the pedal-power rail carts.
To resist corrosion, the carts are constructed of aluminum and stainless steel, and are designed to be both rugged and comfortable. Depending on whether the cart is a two-seater or four-seater, it weighs 300-400 hundred pounds and has a low center of gravity making it very stable. Carts don’t tip on the curves or bounce and derail at bumpy spots. Each seat is adjustable, so the longest-legged person and the shortest child can be comfortable reaching the pedals. The gears are freewheeling, meaning you can pedal and get a workout, or coast and let someone else do twice the work. One adult controls the brakes, and steering is not necessary as the wheels are pinned between the rails. Seatbelts are provided and mandatory. Each cart has a basket to keep cell phones, car keys, purses and other valuables safe … unless Butch and Sundance holdup the train.
Rather than distinguish amongst the carts by serial number, each cart is given a nickname that it proudly displays on a license plate-type sign. Hence, the names, “Butch” and “Sundance” for the gang I’m riding with now. We grease the fittings and oil the sprockets on “Bert” and “Ernie,” then pull 400-pound Thelma out of her overnight bedroom and wrestle her onto the railroad tracks. We hook Thelma up with Louise so that a gang of eight can ride with the ladies. Multiple two-seaters and four-seaters can be linked interchangeably to make up any train length necessary to accommodate a family outing or group of companions.
I hop aboard Sundance and we head out at 5 to 8 miles per hour following the Merrimack River and seeing areas of Concord most people will never see. We pump our way south to the old Sewalls Falls hydroelectric dam that once provided electricity for much of the Concord area. Sadly now, the dam and powerhouse are in ruins.
Near the end of the line, I hop off to take photos of the rail riders chasing Butch and Sundance. Carts roll past me, and everyone is smiling and waving. Moe, Larry and Curly go by with a wild bunch of passengers holding their hands in the air as if they are in a stick-up, but they are just having fun demonstrating a “look, mom, no hands!” show of bravado. When the caboose cart bringing up the rear arrives, the carts are loaded one at a time onto a turntable and spun around 180 degrees for the return trip. The last shall become first, so Thomas, Percy, Gordon and Clarabel will bring up the rear on the ride back while Bonnie and Clyde lead the gang.
I climb aboard Bonnie and we pedal north into Penacook through Morrill Farm Dairy where a herd of Holsteins come out to greet us and pose for some iconic New Hampshire scenery photos. Continuing north, we cross over the Contoocook River, one of the few rivers in New Hampshire that flows northward, dispelling the myth the rivers can only flow from north to south. The old iron railroad bridge spanning the Contoocook has seen better days and is covered with graffiti but is still rugged enough for us, even if not up to freight train standards anymore. We ride off the bridge and onto the Hannah Duston Island in Boscawen. The controversial statue of Duston holding scalps in one hand and a tomahawk in the other greets us as we pedal by.
This is the end of the line, so at another turntable we spin the carts around for the return trip back to homebase. The total distance we’ll cover today is about six and a half miles, and it takes about two hours depending on how fast you pedal. This is a scenic ride not a race, and it’s impossible to pass the cart in front of you, so it only makes sense to take your time and enjoy the autumn foliage colors the cud-chewing cows, and the tranquil woods and river scenery.
Romeo and Juliet will now lead the train back to the depot station. I’ll be bringing up the rear with Bonnie and Clyde. This means I started my day riding with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid but ended it running with the Bonnie and Clyde gang. Maybe I need to add “outlaw” to my resume?