Last revised: June 4, 2023
By: Adam Burns
Despite its small size at just 9,350 square miles, ranking it 46th out of 50 states, New Hampshire carries a long, fascinating history with railroads.
Thanks to its location in the heart of New England, the birthplace of railroading, the Granite State's first can be traced back to 1835.
In the modern era (20th century) it was predominantly served by the Boston & Maine, one of the region's preeminent and far-reaching systems.
However, the Central Vermont Railway (a Canadian National subsidiary) and the Maine Central also provided limited coverage. Because of its rich heritage, many museums and excursions are available to the public today.
Depending upon your particular interest(s), six different organizations offer some sort of trip by rail including the Cafe Lafayette Dinner Train, Conway Scenic Railroad, Hobo Railroad, Mount Washington Cog Railway, White Mountain Central Railroad, and the Winnipesaukee Scenic Railroad.
Please note! The guide here pertains only to New Hampshire scenic train rides related to vacation and tourism destinations. If you are interested in intercity/long distance rail travel please visit Amtrak's website.
The first railroad in America is credited to the Granite Railway of Massachusetts.
This system was established on March 4, 1826, envisioned to more easily transport granite between Quincy and the Neponset River at Milton. It officially opened for business on October 7, 1826.
At the time, a great debate raged across the country concerning whether railroads or canals were the more efficient and practical means of transportation.
While the former had caught on in England, Americans had yet to embrace the new technology.
However, in some locations, such as the previously mentioned Granite Railway as well as the Baltimore & Ohio in Maryland and South Carolina Canal & Rail Road Company in Charleston, business leaders were taking a chance on this newfangled contraption.
Back in Massachusetts, Francis B.C. Bradlee notes in his book, "The Boston And Lowell Railroad, The Nashua And Lowell Railroad, And The Salem And Lowell Railroad," the Boston & Lowell Railroad was granted a charter by the state legislature on June 5, 1830.
Thanks to the region's rapid population and manufacturing growth it was intended to link its namesake cities and compete against the Middlesex Canal which connected the Merrimack River with Boston.
After five years of work the Boston & Lowell opened for business on June 24, 1835.
Following a brief discourse regarding what sort of propulsion should be used, a steam locomotive was eventually chosen, the first of which arrived aboard the ship Choctaw on November 17, 1832.
This little machine, carrying an 0-4-0 wheel arrangement, was the work of Robert Stephenson of Newcastle-on-Tyne, England in 1832.
It weighed just 7 tons and was originally named the Stephenson. To complement the B&L and extend its reach, the Nashua & Lowell Railroad was incorporated in Massachusetts on April 16, 1836 and chartered in New Hampshire on June 26, 1835.
Its intentions, according to the B&L, was to act as:
"...the second link (of which the Boston & Lowell is the first), in a great chain of communication connecting the Seaboard and the lakes - passing through the interior of New Hampshire and Vermont in one direction to Albany, and in the other to Burlington and Ogdensburg."
After only a few years of work the Nashua & Lowell was initially opened to just outside Nashua on October 8, 1838.
After a bridge was completed over the Nashua River on December 23rd, a through route was in service into downtown Nashua at a depot situated near Main Street.
In the end, the B&L never completed its own link to the lakes but did act as a bridge route in such as part of the Boston & Maine Railroad.
To read more about the B&M please click here. According to the book, "The Routledge Historical Atlas Of The American Railroads," by John Stover New Hampshire's mileage peaked at more than 1,200 during the 1920's, most of which was under the B&M's control.
Unfortunately, with the loss of manufacturing and industry much of this has disappeared. The Association of American Railroads notes that only 489 miles remain in active use today.
This organization has preserved the original Northern Railroad depot in Andover, constructed in the Victorian design that opened in 1874.
This system was chartered in 1844 by the state legislature to "construct a line running from Concord to some point along the Connecticut River."
In total, the Northern Railroad stretched nearly 70 miles, running from Concord to White River Junction, Vermont it opened for service in 1847 and was acquired by the Boston & Lowell in 1884.
The latter became an important interchange point with the Central Vermont during the Boston & Maine era (one of three key junction points along the Connecticut River, with others being Bellows Falls and Wells River).
The town's freight depot is also preserved. Along with historic displays inside the station there is also a small collection of rolling stock located outside, along with a handful of other historic buildings. To learn more about this museum please click here.
This museum is located inside the small Boston, Concord & Montreal Railroad depot completed in 1869.
The BC&M was incorporated in 1844 and eventually opened between Concord and Wells River, Vermont on May 10, 1853 (this later became a connection point with the Canadian Pacific and Barre & Chelsea).
The Boston & Maine first acquired control of the BC&M in 1887 but soon spun-off the railroad to form the Concord & Montreal on July 24, 1889.
The C&M was a consolidation of the BC&M and Concord Railroad, remaining independent for only a few more years. It later rejoined the B&M network in 1895.
The preserved building houses a collection of historic artifacts and documents. It is only open to the public during July and August of each year.
However, the little single story building, which still sits at its original location (next to the active tracks of the Hobo Railroad) offers free admission to the public.
Based in North Woodstock, New Hampshire the Cafe Lafayette Dinner Train offers only trips where meals are served on-board.
The 20-mile trip operates southward to Thornton over a section of what was formerly a Boston & Maine branch.
The upscale attraction (which has been featured in TripAdvisor and even the Wall Street Journal) began in the spring of 1989 and currently utilizes three cars:
This excursions largely operate four days a week, including weekends. You can also book the train for special events or large groups. To learn more please visit their website.
The Conway Scenic Railroad, based in North Conway, New Hampshire is one of New England's most popular scenic train rides, offering first-class dining services through beautiful New England in the Mt. Washington Valley.
They also offer standard excursions as well as numerous seasonal trains and special events such as "A Day Out With Thomas" the tank engine.
The attraction's first train departed on August 4, 1974 when Bill Levy and Carroll Reed acquired a 7-mile segment of Boston & Maine's Conway Branch from Conway to Intervale.
To lead the trains former Canadian National 0-6-0 #7470 (Class O-18a, manufactured by the Grand Trunk Railway in 1921) was also acquired.
The operation was extended through Crawford Notch in late 1994 following Maine Central's abandonment of its fabled Mountain Division in 1984. This trackage is currently owned by the state of New Hampshire.
The original owners sold out to Russ and Dot Seybold in 1999, who subsequently sold their interest to the Profile Mountain Holdings Corporation in early 2018.
This museum, located in Gorham, is located within the town's restored Grand Trunk Railway (Canadian National) stone depot constructed in 1907.
The tracks next to the building are still active, operated by the St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railroad, a division of Genesee & Wyoming.
It is maintained by the Gorham Historical Society featuring a collection of artifacts and displays inside.
They also house a model railroad inside a boxcar, featuring a small collection of rolling stock on the premises, including a preserved steam locomotive; dressed for the Grand Trunk it was actually built for the New England Gas & Coke Company.
The little switcher carries an 0-6-0 wheel arrangement and was built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1911. For many years it was located at the original Steamtown attraction in Bellows Falls, Vermont. For more information please visit the society's website.
The Hobo Railroad, based in Lincoln, New Hampshire offers train excursions along the Pemigewasset River with trains boarding from the local town depot.
The railroad also features dinner trains and special excursions throughout the year. The attraction began in 1986 as the Plymouth & Lincoln Railroad, owned by husband and wife team, Edward and Brenda Clark.
It ran a total of 7 miles from Woodstock to Lincoln over the same trackage (ex-Boston & Maine) currently used by the Café Lafayette Dinner Train.
Over the years, the operation has expanded to the point that it now also maintains the former Boston & Maine line from Concord to Lincoln, all of which is owned by the state of New Hampshire.
This property predominantly handles excursions but the 19-mile segment from Tilton to Concord also hosts freight trains of the New England Southern Railroad.
Located in Intervale this organization features a large collection of model railroads with layouts HO and Z to G-scale and Lionel products.
They also showcase many pieces within display cases. Finally, outside is a small operating, scale-train operation. They are open on select days year-round. To learn more please visit their website.
The Mount Washington Cog Railway is one, if not the, most popular such attractions in the country.
As its name implies the company offers scenic train rides traveling up Mount Washington, some of which still utilize steam power. It is the world's oldest cog railroad system dating back to the late 1860s.
The operation was conceived by Sylvester Marsh who believed the railroad would become a popular tourist attraction after he climbed New Hampshire's Mount Washington in the early 1850s.
His idea proved to be quite a success and, just like the Manitou & Pike's Peak Railway in Colorado, thousands of folks continue to descend upon Bretten Woods annually to ride the train.
Interestingly, the railroad does not scale the entire mountain but begins about a quarter of the way up with grades reaching incredible levels, peaking at 37.4%! (In regards to standard railroads, a 3% grade is considered steep!)
For much of its existence the Mt. Washington line relied on standard steam power to shove trains up the slope but today it uses cheaper, and more environmentally friendly, bio-diesel units alongside its steamers. To learn more please click here.
Located inside the Boston & Maine's restored depot here (built in 1893) this museum features a collection of displays and artifacts related to the area and railroad in general.
They also have a small collection of rolling stock on the grounds (which includes a refrigerator car, caboose, and small Whitcomb diesel switcher lettered for the Portsmouth & Concord Railroad).
The former B&M line here has been abandoned for many years and now hosts the Rockingham Recreational Trail.
The non-profit Raymond Historical Society, which oversees the depot, was formed in 1969 and eventually acquired the building before the B&M abandoned the tracks.
In addition to this structure they also have preserved a small maintenance shed and observation building. While there be sure and also visit their tools museum and one-room school house.
Throughout the year they host various special events, largely aimed at raising funds for preservation efforts. To learn more please visit their website.
This museum is located within the restored depot in Sandown, completed in 1873/74 by the Nashua & Rochester Railroad, a future component of the Boston & Maine.
It is operated by the local historical society and offers handcars to view along with a collection of historic documents and displays. To learn more please visit their website by clicking here.
The White Mountain Central Railroad is based in Lincoln and departs from the local train station on a 2.5-mile excursion that usually lasts about 30 minutes.
The railroad is rare in that it operates a pair of geared steam locomotives which include Beebe River Railroad 2-Truck Climax #6 (built by the Climax Locomotive Works in 1921) and International Shoe Company 2-Truck Heisler #4 (built in 1929).
There area also two additional small steamers which are operational; East Branch & Lincoln Railroad 2-4-2ST #5 (built by Baldwin in 1906) and Koppers Company 0-4-0T #1 (a 1930 product of H.K. Porter).
Finally, the Clark Family also has East Branch & Lincoln 2-Truck Shay #5 (a 1919 product of the Lima Locomotive Works) on display. It is owned, along with the Hobo Railroad and Cafe Lafayette Dinner Train, by the Clarks.
The Winnipesaukee Scenic Railroad, based in Weirs Beach, New Hampshire offers several different excursion trains and special events throughout the year, operating on trackage once owned by the Boston & Maine Railroad.
It is yet another property owned by the Clark Family with trips running along the beautiful Lake Winnipesaukee.
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Wes Barris's SteamLocomotive.com is simply the best web resource on the study of steam locomotives.
It is difficult to truly articulate just how much material can be found at this website.
It is quite staggering and a must visit!