It is Half Shell’s contention that there are few more attractive rail routes in the country than the brief stretch that passes along the coves from northeastern Connecticut into southwestern Rhode Island at sunset or sunrise, when the track deviates from coast to swamp, a view we’ve enjoyed on the Amtrak line to West Kingston during various excursions from New York, Washington, D.C. and Colonial Williamsburg.
We’ll have a review of Frank Heppner’s “Railroads of Rhode Island: Shaping the Ocean State’s Railways,” an entertaining survey of the state’s rail heritage and culture written for The History Press, in this Thursday’s paper (and online). But for the purposes of today’s blog, we’re going to mine the minutia for the nuggets and oddities that give the book such a Rhode Island flavor.
As Heppner writes about the Ocean State in the preface: “It abounds in contradictions. Rhode Island has produced some of the most distinguished and honorable national politicians of recent times…However, during one recent ten-year period, an ex-governor, the ex-mayor of the largest city, the ex-mayor of the third-largest city and a superior court judge were all serving time in the slammer on various corruption charges.”
Personal anecdotes and comments throughout lend a touch of humor to the history. Writing about the Providence and Springfield Railroad: “Most of the names of the towns along the right of way would not be recognized by anyone outside Rhode Island, but one town name would be instantly recognized by anyone who was a child in the 1920s through the 1940s. The Esmond Mills made baby blankets and, in a stroke of marketing genius, published a little book in 1924 designed to be read aloud to children. Called The Tale of Bunny Esmond, it was about an adorable bunny that was always cold until somebody wrapped him in a Bunny Esmond blanket. By a strange coincidence, Esmond Mills made a baby blanket that had Bunny’s image printed on it. Bunny Esmond was the Elmo of his day. The Esmond blankets were softer than most, and in 1943, the author would have killed with his tiny fists anyone who tried to take his Bunny Esmond blanket away from him.”
Among the things the staff at Half Shell did not know:
“The lowest temperature ever recorded in Rhode Island – negative twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit – was noted at Wood River Junction, located at the current route in southwestern Rhode Island. Wood River Junction is consistently the coldest location in the state.”
“The Great Swamp was also the home of another most unusual railway, perhaps a unique one: the Rhododendron Railroad.” (It was established by Dr. Lorenzo Kinney Sr., a professor of botany at URI, who in the early 20th century became one of the world’s foremost experts on rhododendrons and azaleas, and began a business exporting native and cultivated rhodies to East Coast estates.)
Two straight stretches of track in Rhode Island are two of only three places on the Amtrak line where Acela trains can go as fast as 150 miles per hour.
There was once a village of Sinking Fund, Rhode Island.
The first Union Station building in Providence was “the longest building in the country at the time (some historians dispute this; none of them is from Rhode Island).”
The Providence and Worcester Railroad’s freight train PR-3 serves a single customer in South County – Arnold Lumber of Kingston.
In addition to its record for Rhode Island cold and its sad role as the site of one of Rhode Island’s worst railway disasters, Wood River Junction earned another kind of notoriety when, in 1964, the United Nuclear Co. built a nuclear fuel reprocessing facility “less than half a mile from the location of the wreck at Richmond Switch.” After pouring a solution of uranium compound into a mixer, a worker at the plant saw a blue flash, was knocked over and died of radiation poisoning two days later. “His was the first and only death due to acute exposure to radiation in a commercial nuclear facility in the United States.”
Rhode Island, America’s smallest state, once had two of the shortest railroads in the country. The smallest, a revamped version of the Warwick Railroad, was about a mile long. Perhaps more interesting was the Moshassuck Valley Railroad, “which operated as an independent line for over a century with only 1.8 miles (generously) of track.”
Providence was the only New England city to have cable cars.
One unusual aspect of the Providence and Danielson Railroad: It had a single freight car that carried a particular cargo – occupied caskets. Heppner explains: “Trolley lines were often built near cemeteries (the land was cheap), and in an era before automotive hearses, a specialized trolley car with seating space for the funeral party and cargo space for the departed was often a feature of trolley lines, including the Providence and Danielson Railroad.”
The original paint job of Kingston Station was three shades of brown.
One of the more familiar electric locomotives that passes through Rhode Island is the AEM-7, made by General Motors for Amtrak, a generally reliable train distinguished by its ugliness. Railroad enthusiasts call them “Toasters;” to Amtrak employees, they are known as “Meatballs.”
What is your favorite Rhode Island train story?