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Take a ride with Silver Lake Railroad through Madison Chain of Ponds



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July 22, 2010
For a short way, the ride takes the passengers through the woods, with tall pines towering on either side of the track, but mostly the trip is by and through the Madison Chain of Ponds, an absolutely beautiful area of wetlands with beaver dams and tranquil water dotted with thousands of lily pads. In mid-July the lily pads are flowering, dotting the ponds with hundreds of white blooms.

The Silver Lake Railroad is only minutes from Conway on Route 113, the depot located in the back half of the Silver Lake Post Office across from the lake, but it feels much farther away. Three large birds fly up from the water as the train nears, circling up into the air and arcing to the east, too far away to be easily identified. Railroad owner Neil Underwood later says that great blue herons frequent these waters, but these birds don't have the long bodies and legs characteristic of herons. Neither do their wings beat in the quick flap of ducks. Soon they are out of sight, and their identification will have to wait for another day.

Nutrient rich, the ponds teem with wildlife. Looking down from the train car, it's easy to see on the surface of a pond the v-shaped wakes of water-skating insects. The ponds and wetlands attract larger life forms, too. Operations manager/train engineer Bruce Stuart recounts an encounter with a moose on a recent work trip on the line. "We had to stop because he came right in front of us," he says. Besides moose, bear have been seen along the line.

During the Saturday ride two-year-old Riley Lord of Madison leans against the passenger car's open side to get a better look at the scenery while his mother, Liz Kittridge keeps a protective arm around his waist. Across the car Bill Lord holds six-month-old Ella upright against his chest so that she can get a good view, too. The length of the ride is perfect for small children, and easy on the pocketbook. There is no set ticket rate, though donations are accepted.

Before Underwood opened the SLRR on July 7, 2007 to the public, the rail line had lain dormant for nearly three decades. The Madison Station was part of the Boston and Maine Railroad, the line abandoned in the early 1970s. It's part of the line that used to bring skiers up to North Conway from Boston, and could still if tracks around the Ossipee area were restored.

"I want to put life back into this," Underwood recounted his thinking when he drove by the old depot seven years ago. He's done more than that. The depot has been restored, with some of the original signage tacked to the outside. A sign over the door announces that it is seven miles to Conway, 126.2 miles to Boston. Among the items inside the depot, now the Silver Lake Railroad Museum, is a pre-1900 wooden rail bike. Nearer to the tracks is the old freight building, built in the late 1800s to serve as the Madison Station Underwood's interest in restoration is not limited to railroad-related items. In a garage on the property he's got a Model T, a Model A, and an Auburn. Retired for 15 years, Underwood, who splits his time between his residences in Silver Lake and Greenland, enjoys bringing old things back to their original conditions.

Out by Route 113 a little 0-4-0 Porter steam locomotive sits on a short set of tracks. According to Will Scopa, SLRR volunteer, it's a scratch built replica. "Neil is very handy like that," Scopa comments on the SLRR website, which he maintains.

The little train isn't alone, other display pieces beckon the passer-by to stop and take a look. Scopa says the trains are from the Beaver Brook Museum, and that some of them were originally from the Wolfeboro Rail Road and the Edaville Rail Road.

This year there's a new reason to stop at the station. A beautifully restored 1941 Sterling Diner parked in the back of the post office and railroad depot features black and white tiled table tops and a 1946 juke box, with the diner crew serving up ice cream, frappes, chili dogs and more. Underwood acquired the diner four years ago, moving it from Lynn, Mass., where it was the Riley Bros. Diner. The diner is open on weekends from 12 to 8 p.m., weekdays 6 to 8 p.m.

The SLRR runs on Saturday and Sundays through Labor Day Weekend. Trains depart at 12, 1, 2, and 3 p.m. A number of special events are scheduled, including a Halloween train and foliage rides. Scopa has posted a number of videos on the website, so you can even take a ride on the train while you sit at your computer. Still, nothing substitutes for being there. For current information check www.silverlakerailroad.com.

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