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This wall needs mending

The block, the gaping hole it left at the edge of the sidewalk March 23 and the sawhorses and caution tape that cordon off the area are visual reminders that the retaining wall is aging and in need of repairs.

Department of Public Works Director Edward S. Huntley estimated that the retaining wall where a bike path and an active railroad track cross over Route 9 was probably built in the mid-1800s by the Connecticut River Railroad. Because of that, he believes the company that owns the bridge now should repair the wall, but his attempts to discuss it with Pan Am Railways representatives have been futile.

The fact that a 500- to 700-pound block fell out of the wall which borders the sidewalk is cause for concern, Huntley said.

“Someone could have gotten killed. There could have been an awful accident,” Huntley said this week. “It’s fortunate that he wasn’t hurt more than he was.”

Charles Houle, 28, of Greenfield, was treated at Cooley Dickinson Hospital for an ankle injury after the block pinned his leg to the side of a car parked parallel to the wall.

According to the police report of the March 23 incident, Houle was climbing on the wall and the railing on top of it as he tried to get into the passenger-side door of the car because the driver’s-side door would not open from the outside. His climbing dislodged the block from the section of wall in front of the parking lot between the Toasted Owl and the bridge.

Police said his ankle had “minor bruising” and the car was not damaged.

Huntley said that he is also concerned about a similar retaining wall where the bike path and railroad track cross North Street. He said the blocks in that wall appear to be “moving in towards the road,” although none of them have fallen out.

“When the railroad people come in, we’ll ask them to look at those, too,” he said.

The railroad tracks are currently used for slow freight trains, Huntley said, but Amtrak passenger rail service, expected to start in Northampton in 2015, will use the same track. He said the safety of every underpass, including the retaining walls, will have to be considered before the higher-speed trains use the tracks.

Huntley said the first step in repairing the Main Street retaining wall is to set up a meeting with Pan Am officials to decide who is responsible for the wall.

“That’s what we’re trying to determine: whose wall is it?” he said. The city does not have a copy of the original bridge plans from the 1800s, but he said it is likely that the Connecticut River Railroad built the wall along with the support structure when it constructed the bridge.

The section of wall that fell apart March 23 is closest to the Northampton Bike Path bridge and does not support the active railroad bridge on the Bridge Street side of the underpass.

If the railroad is able to prove that it is not responsible for the wall, Huntley said the city has the required equipment and could fix it in about a day.

Huntley said he has called and emailed Pan Am Railways, based in North Billerica. His plan is to wait to hear from them, because the broken wall is not causing any major problems.

“If we were doing snow removal, that would be a different story,” he said, because the block is sitting in a Main Street parking space. The city used sawhorses, cones and caution tape to keep people away from the hole in the sidewalk and cars away from the block.

Calls and emails to Pan Am Railways seeking comment were not returned to the Gazette.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.

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