House-to-river funicular would be a first for Milton

MILTON, MA - 6/12/2017:At 118 Forbes Road in Milton, a funicular that the homeowners are hoping to install. The funicular is like a small track with an electric carriage that slowly will transport the homeowners up and down the 40-foot slope in the back of their property and to a pier ( NOTE: PIER IS ON THE LEFT )they share with their next door neighbors on the Neponset River. (David L Ryan/Globe Staff ) SECTION: BUSINESS TOPIC 15funicular(2)
David L Ryan/Globe Staff
Shelley Hoon-Keith and her husband, John Keith, desire easier access to the Neponset River from their Milton home.

Funiculars are the slower but more thrilling cousins of trains, taking passengers up and down cliffs in Switzerland and Norway, and to the top of the Montmartre neighborhood in Paris.

But a funicular in Milton? Yes, if state officials sign off on a Forbes Road couple’s plans to put one on their property.

The systems — basically open elevators or trams on an inclined rail system — have been used for centuries around the world, but rarely in Massachusetts, at least commercially. In 1854, Mount Holyoke became home to New England’s first wooden-rail mountain funicular, according to the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation. It was operational until the 1940s.


Today, White Cliffs Country Club in Plymouth has what may be the only funicular in commercial use in Massachusetts. It was installed in 2014 to allow members easier access to a private beach 200 feet below the sandy cliff, and it has proven popular.

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“On a beautiful summer day it’s probably nonstop, about 100 people, easily, per day,” said general manager David Mastroianni.

Seeing White Cliffs’ electric funicular inspired Shelley Hoon-Keith to look into having one installed at the sprawling Milton home she shares with her husband, builder John Keith. In 2012, they bought a parcel on tony Milton Hill that affords views of the Neponset River, which is more than 45 feet down a steep bluff in their backyard. But the only reasonable way to get to a river pier they partially own is via a path on their next-door neighbor’s land.

While they have oral permission from the neighbor to use the path, Hoon-Keith said, they wanted their own access to the water.

A stairway would have required more than 84 steps over a series of eight 10-foot staircases. Another possibility, constructing a pathway, would have demanded extensive use of boulders to create a navigable path. Town conservation officials said those options would have damaged the environment.


The funicular, however, was deemed acceptable.

“The neighbors, they’re our friends, but it’s their property. Deeding it and giving us access was not an option,” Hoon-Keith said. “I’m going to be 60 this year, and my husband is senior to me and we love nature, and we did some research and they use them up in Canada, Michigan, Maine.”

For Milton officials, the funicular was a first.

“You see it in the movies and stuff, but not here,” said William Clark, director of planning and community development. “I’ve never heard of it before.”

During the permitting process, the town’s Conservation Commission worked with the nonprofit Neponset River Watershed Association to outline environmental mitigation efforts the Keiths would have to undertake after installation of the funicular, including turning their manicured lawn atop the hill into “more of a wildlife meadow,” said Ian Cooke, the association’s executive director.


“Our first reaction was, ‘You want to build what? A railroad on the side of the hill?’” Cooke said. “But when we looked at it, it was relatively minor [environmental] impact. It was such a novelty. This is a natural hill that’s been modified over the years that comes right down to the estuary. It’s certainly interesting and funny to call it a funicular.”

Cooke said he remembers seeing one in Wes Anderson’s 2014 film “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” but never in person.

The project, which got letters of support from the Keiths’ immediate neighbors, was approved last year by the Conservation Commission and allowed to go forward with a special building permit from the town. The application is currently being reviewed by state agencies to determine whether the project, with its proximity to the Neponset River, could trigger a more stringent environmental impact review or require the Keiths to obtain a specific state environmental license.

Funiculars may be a novelty in these parts, but they’re not unusual in places like Wisconsin, California, and Texas, where many houses on hills overlook rivers, lakes, and reservoirs, said Michael Botzet, president of Marine Innovations. The Minnesota funicular manufacturer built the track at White Cliffs, and — pending final approvals — will oversee the Milton project.

“They’re not very big. They carry up to four people . . . and have a very low impact,” Botzet said.

But they don’t come cheap. A residential system can range from $60,000 to $90,000 installed, Botzet said.

Depending on the scope of the project, installation takes about five days. It involves positioning pipe posts to form a foundation along the slope and then fastening steel-tube rails to the posts. A four-wheeled open trolley, sometimes with a canopy, is then mounted on top. The elevated rail allows for vegetation to grow around the track, helping to give it a low profile.

The White Cliffs project may have also started a trend: Pilgrim Monument is exploring installing a funicular to connect Provincetown center to the base of the monument, which rises from a hill, said executive director K. David Weidner.

The Keiths’ attorney, Robert Sheffield, said work on their funicular can start this fall if permits are issued by summer.

Hoon-Keith said she is trying to focus on the final goal. If she and her husband can easily get to the river by funicular, their plan is “to get a canoe.”

Katheleen Conti can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.