Sunday, May 24, 2009

Old Tracks Still In Use

This past Tuesday I went walking up the Old Colony & Newport Railway tracks to take pictures for the current Snap Happy theme of "Trains and Railroads" on Today I went farther up the line and got some more shots, and when I got home it struck me that there's a full photo essay to be had on this subject. I've done some research on the history of these tracks and figured I'd share the results as well as the photos. [Note: Click on the pictures to see the full-sized versions.]

Rail service on Aquidneck Island goes all the way back to 1864. The Old Colony Railroad linked Boston to population centers in southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and in 1854 it terminated in Fall River. At this time Newport was still a major port, and the need was felt for an extension of the line. Property was purchased, deals were struck, and eventually the line was extended all the way down the length of Aquidneck Island, from Portsmouth in the north down the western coast overlooking Narragansett Bay to Newport, where the line terminated at Long Wharf. The new line was named the Old Colony & Newport Railway, and regular service began on February 1, 1864.

Because of this new direct link between Newport and Boston, the famous Fall River Line steamship line terminated at Long Wharf in Newport rather than going a further 20 miles up the Narragansett Bay to Fall River, and the equally famous "Boat Train" whisked passengers from Long Wharf to South Station in Boston in 2 hours and 15 minutes, with only a brief stop in Fall River, the city who gave its name to this famous East Coast transportation legend.

The Old Colony also sponsored a low-rate tourist excursion, and the round trip to Newport and back for one dollar was very popular. The railroad also ran regular commuter runs for those who lived or spent Summers on Aquidneck Island but who worked in Fall River. There was also the "Dandy Express", an opulent Pullman car which left Newport in the morning made the return trip from Boston in the late afternoon, patronized by the "robber barons" who had built their "summer cottages" on Bellevue Ave. in Newport.

This was a very busy railroad. As Donald O'Hanley and George Kenson decribe it on their webpage on the history of the Old Colony & Newport line: "Regularly scheduled passenger service reached an all-time high during the summers of 1912 and 1913 when 24 trains a day arrived and departed Newport between 5:55AM and 11:03PM. Added to this impressive total were two scheduled freight trains a day, extra excursion specials and frequent private charter used by summer colonists who owned 'cottages' in the environs of Bellevue Avenue and the Ocean Drive. Several yard tracks were reserved for private cars. On occasion the eastbound Fall River Line steamer would be hours late due to storm or fog conditions. The railroad would make up a special extra to speed passengers to Boston. As many cars as needed would be waiting at Newport's 'Wharf Station' with a pair of ten-wheelers hot and ready displaying white flags."

After WWI the rail service started to decline, and in the 1930s it declined even more due to the increase in personal automobile ownership and expanding bus services. By mid-1937 the Fall River Line steamers had stopped running and there was only one daily passenger run serving Newport. In early 1938 the Railway Mail Service contract with Newport ended, and thus ended the passenger service as well. Rail freight service continued on a limited basis, but in the 1960s the interstate highway system was heavily impacting it. By 1968 the New Haven Railroad, who owned the service, was bankrupt and sold to Penn Central, who also soon went into receivership, and in the end Conrail served as the liquidator of the entire enterprise. The railway and surrounding property was bought by the state of Rhode Island, and rail service was no more on Aquidneck Island.

But this wasn't the end of the line by any means. Sometime in the late '80s a group of investors decided Newport needed a tourist train to use the tracks, and a summer tourism run and a dinner train was established under the old name of the Old Colony & Newport Railway. This looked to be a lucrative proposition, but there were problems right from the start. The company had to rent the tracks from the state, and the tracks were in poor condition. The state also seemed reluctant to do any track repair and apparently expected the company to take care of maintenance and improvement. Slowly bit surely the OC&NR began losing money, and in the end couldn't afford to pay the rental fee on the track use, and the state terminated the contract.

And that still wasn't the end. In 1996 Robert Andrews, who owned a dinner train operation in Old Saybrook, CT, saw the opportunity, and with a group of investors bought the OC&NR and made a deal to out-and-out buy the old railway tracks and property from the state of RI (which was quite frankly pleased to get out of the railroad real estate business!). The new company was called the Newport Dinner Train, and you can visit their website here. It has become a going concern and has increasingly expanded its operations, starting as a simple daily excursion and evening dinner train, and going on to add a cabaret car, a theatrical company, and special holiday-related services. On Friday nights in season they have a Comedy Murder Mystery run. In the Fall they have foliage excursions, for Christmas there's the "Polar Express" , and in February there are special romantic dinner runs for Valentine's Day. Rumor has it that in the future there may also be Irish Theater runs for March, which is officially Irish-American Heritage Month in Newport. So in the end the old railroad is still a going concern!

For me, despite the commercial aspect, these old tracks are just a great place to walk. There are plenty of songbirds and flowers in the Spring and Summer, and lots of squirrels and even rabbits, not to mention the neighborhood cats. It passes through wetlands alive with Spring Peepers, Bullfrogs, and Green Frogs and even visited on occasion by Egrets and Herons. There are always odd things from ages past that pop up from between the ties, and even some old pieces of coal and coke from the days when that was the locomotive duel. And there's just something about old railroad tracks that just feels old, venerable, and even historic. And it was that "feel" that convinced me to do the photos in black & white instead of color; it just enhances that historical look.

I hope you've enjoyed our little railroad excursion!

© 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger


  1. ...that was really interesting! Thanks for doing all the research and passing it on. I love your history posts. The photos of the tracks are so beauitful...artistic. There is something elusive about train tracks and you've captured that feeling!!

  2. Great job on those pictures.

    Last year 'round about this time, we went on a train ride because my oldest grandson just is SO into trains... it was his birthday outing. Wonder where my pictures from that are...will have to see if I can find them up one of these days.

    After I get home again of course

  3. One of the little (and yet big) things I miss from my old house is the sound of the freight trains going through town late at night.

    I enjoyed this post very much, thank you!

  4. Hey, nice train-spotting and history lesson. I haven't been on a train since, well, high school when I used to take one fairly regularly into NYC. The station where I waited is now a restaurant. Commuters used to have their particular spots to stand, knowing exactly where the door would open when the trains pulled in and ground to a stop.

  5. Once again fabulous photos! You are Blk. and Wht. they add the historic feel. That little ticket booth/depot is pricless. Thanks to Roy for the background information.