Smithfield’s Woonasquatucket Railroad

     Originally published in the Smithfield Times, April, 2018

Smithfield’s Woonasquatucket Railroad

By Jim Ignasher

 

A locomotive of the type that once ran through Smithfield in the late 1800s.

  In the February issue I wrote about Smithfield’s Air-Line R.R. This month’s article is about another rail line that has long since disappeared.      

     If someone today were to propose the construction of a railroad through Smithfield, they would likely face strong opposition. The town hall would be inundated with residents demanding the tracks be laid elsewhere, and not through their “back yard”. Yet one might be surprised to learn that there was a time when just the opposite was true, and the citizens of Smithfield eagerly awaited the construction of a new railroad.

     After the division of the town in 1871, Smithfield, as we know it today, was left without a railroad. However, there were those who hoped to remedy the situation by reviving the charter for the Woonasquatucket Railroad Company. The charter had originally been granted in 1857, with a plan to lay tracks that more or less followed the Woonasquatucket River from Providence to Massachusetts. Unfortunately, financial setbacks, followed by the onset of the American Civil War delayed the project for nearly fifteen years.

     In 1871 the idea was revisited and planning of the route was begun. Although everyone agreed that a rail line would be good for the town, there was much debate as to exactly where the rails should be laid, for every mill owner and farmer wanted the trains to pass as close as to their property as possible. It was finally announced that the proposed route would run through the villages of Esmond, Georgiaville, and Stillwater, and then continue on into North Smithfield, and Burrillville, which was good news to some, but not for Greenville.  

     On November 20, 1871, a meeting was held at Tobey’s Store in Greenville to discuss the possibility of constructing a branch line that would run from Stillwater to Greenville. If it proved successful, the branch line would later be extended to North Scituate and Chepachet. The meeting was well attended, and efforts to have the branch-line constructed continued for several years, but history has shown that it was never built.

     By the spring of 1872 construction on the main line was begun, but sometime between March and June the name of the railroad was changed to the Providence and Springfield Railroad. The project moved quickly, and on August 11, 1873, the line was open for business.

     Smithfield had four railroad stations: the Esmond Station located behind the Esmond Mills; the Georgiaville Station, located on Station Street; the Stillwater Station, located on Capron Road; and the Smithfield Station, located on Brayton Road just to the east from Farnum Pike. The stations became social centers where people could catch up on the latest news, mail a letter, or ride to Providence in less time then it took to ride a horse from one side of Smithfield to the other.  

     By 1878, the Providence & Springfield R.R. was running three locomotives, three passenger cars, and seventy-seven freight cars along the Smithfield route.

     During the 1890s the rail line changed hands three times; to the New York & New England Railroad in 1890, to The New England Railroad in 1895, to the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad in 1898.

     The railroad had a great economic influence on the town as it allowed business owners and farmers to transport more goods to other markets than ever before, and at a lower price. It even played a part in World War I by transporting Esmond Mill army blankets destined for troops overseas.

     Unfortunately, just as rail lines eclipsed the horse-drawn stage coaches, improvements in roadways and automobile technology eventually eclipsed the “iron horses” of the rails. Passenger service along the Smithfield route was discontinued in 1931, and in 1962 the tracks that ran from Olneyville to Pascoag were abandoned and eventually removed. The only surviving rails known to exist were found under the asphalt of Esmond Street during road construction several years ago. Today they can be viewed at the Smith-Appleby House Museum next to the restored Smithfield Station.    

     As with all rail lines of the time, the Smithfield portion experienced its share of accidents. At a town meeting held on January 29, 1876, local citizens cited several instances of narrow escapes at rail crossings in town, and urged the Town Council to force the railroad to use flagmen. The council, however, didn’t have the legal authority to do so.

     The first known accident to occur along the Smithfield portion happened on Christmas Eve in 1878 when a wagon was struck broadside by a speeding train at the Brayton Road crossing. The driver survived, but his horse did not.

     According to town records, the first railroad fatality in town occurred in 1888 when a man was struck by a passing train. The exact location isn’t given.

     One of the more notable accidents involved a head-on collision between two trains on June 12, 1894 in the area of what is today the Stillwater Scenic Walking Trail. Ten people were seriously injured. The crash was blamed on human error.

     The Brayton Crossing was reputed to be one of the most dangerous for it was frequently traveled by those heading to or from Woonsocket. On April 15, 1925, it was the scene of what might be the worst accident to occur on the rail line. At about 7 p.m., a car carrying seven adults was struck by a southbound train. One man and three women were killed, and the others were severely injured.    

     Three years later on November 30, 1928, yet another accident occurred at the Brayton Crossing in which a husband and wife were injured when a train collided with their car.

     Other accidents are documented, but space does not permit their inclusion here.

     Until recently, it was thought that Smithfield’s only surviving train station was the Smithfield Station presently located at the Smith-Appleby House. However, recent information has come to light that Esmond may have had two railroad stations; a smaller one that was replaced by a larger one. The smaller one is indicated on early maps, and may possibly have been sold to a private party and relocated to Farnum Pike in Georgiaville. Research to confirm this continues.      

For more info click here: Moving The Smithfield Railroad Station – 1975  and here: Woonasquatucket R. R. Newspaper Articles

 

 

 

 

 

Smithfield’s Air-Line Railroad

Originally published in The Smithfield Times magazine, February, 2018

Smithfield’s Air-Line Railroad

By Jim Ignasher

A locomotive of the type used on early railroads.

     In the 19th– century, decades before the first airplane took to the skies, there were “air-line” railroads. The term, “air-line” was used to describe a route that ran fairly straight and flat in a more or less direct line from one point to another. In 1847, the Providence & Worcester Railroad began operation of such a line in Smithfield along the shore of the Blackstone River.

     It should be noted that before the division of Smithfield in 1871, the municipalities of Central Falls, Lincoln, North Smithfield, and Woonsocket south of the Blackstone River, were all part of the town of Smithfield.    

     The idea of linking Providence and Woonsocket by rail was proposed as early as 1843. This was an era when roads between cities and towns were unpaved, unplowed, and usually poorly maintained. A rail line could provide a safer and faster means of travel, as well as a more economical and efficient way for mills and businesses to get their goods to market.      

Air-Line Railroad Schedule
December 24, 1847

     But the rail proposal was only part of a grander plan, for it was hoped Woonsocket would become a railroad hub for southern New England. The railroad men envisioned a time when one could travel by train from New York to Boston, more economically, in less time, and without the dangers and discomforts associated with maritime or stage coach travel.

     On December 20, 1843, a meeting was held at the Woonsocket Hotel where local citizens gathered to discuss the plan. The meeting was a success, and several resolutions were drafted, all in favor of the railroad. The minutes were posted in the Woonsocket Weekly Patriot on December 22. However, seven days later the paper printed a letter penned by a person identified only as “J.C.M.”, who stated that such a railroad would hurt local businesses and decrease property values. As proof he cited the town of Dedham, Massachusetts, which he maintained had enjoyed economic prosperity before being connected to Boston by rail. The letter stated in part: “The merchants, by moderate profits, could compete with the retailers of Boston – simply by reason of the high fare and tedious ride which customers must necessarily encounter going to Boston.” After the railroad was built, “Store after store closed for want of business.” In short, the railroad made it easer for shoppers to travel for bargains, and J.C.M feared the same would happen to Woonsocket.        

     J.C.M. wasn’t the only voice of opposition. Stage coach lines and nautical companies weren’t anxious to compete with the railroads for freight and passengers, and then there were others who were attempting to establish new railroads of their own. Yet despite efforts to curtail the project, the “Air-Line” was finally approved, and surveyors laid out the intended route in 1844.    

     Construction began in 1846, and the line opened for business on October 27, 1847. The first train to make the inaugural run from Providence was equipped with two locomotives to pull twenty cars which carried 1,500 passengers. Crowds gathered along the way, some firing salutes from pistols or small cannons.    

Air-Line Railroad Schedule
March 10, 1854

     However, not all aspects of construction had been completed. The depots, for example, had yet to be finished, even though the trains were running, and certain portions of the route still needed upgrading. Yet the venture was so popular that it was reported there was more freight business than the railroad could presently handle.

     An editorial in the Woonsocket Weekly Patriot referred to the project as “…the great highway of New England, and the paragon of modern enterprise.”  

     The tracks ran from Providence to Pawtucket, and then into Central Falls, which in 1847 was considered “downtown” Smithfield. From there the tracks led to Valley Falls, Lonsdale, and Ashton in the town of Cumberland, before crossing the Blackstone River and back into Smithfield at Albion. From there they led to Manville, Hamlet, and Bernon Village, before crossing the Blackstone again and entering the village of Woonsocket, From Depot Square they continued west crossing the river again back into Smithfield and Waterford Village before crossing the state line and continuing on to Worcester.

     Passenger trains ran every day except Sunday, beginning at 7 a.m. There were also special “merchandise trains” that began rolling at 6 a.m.

     A special rail road stage line was begun to convey rail passengers to their final destinations not serviced by the railroad.        

     By 1851 passengers could make connections to express trains to cities like Hartford, Springfield, and New York.  

     A rather bizarre and humorous tale relating to the new rail line occurred in April of 1855 when a man boarded a train in Rhode Island with a ticket to Worcester. For reasons unexplained, he refused to give it to the conductor so it could be cancelled. No amount of persuasion seemed to work, so when the train stopped at a Massachusetts depot, the conductor summoned a constable who brought along a Justice of the Peace. Why the man wasn’t immediately escorted off the train isn’t clear, but the decision was made to allow the train to resume its journey with all concerned still aboard. As the train moved along at 25 miles per hour, “court” was convened, during which the conductor stated his case, the J.P. issued a writ, and the constable served it. The passenger was found guilty and fined five dollars plus court costs which totaled nine dollars. He was then given the option of payment, or jail. He chose the latter!   

Air-Line Railroad Schedule
August 1, 1851
Click on image to enlarge.

     Another interesting tale relates how on December 3, 1857, an apple grower sent some product to market and was later undercharged on the freight bill. At the time he said nothing because some of the apples had been damaged in transit, but his conscience bothered him – for the next thirty-one years! In April of 1889 he was 70-years-old, and decided it was time to make amends before he met his maker. Going to the railroad office, he related the story, and offered to pay the bill with interest. The railroad official offered to compromise since the apples had been damaged by the railroad, but the man insisted on paying the whole amount. The original fee had been $16.50, but with thirty-one years of interest, the bill came to $47.19. Thus unburdened of his guilt, the man went away happy and relieved.

     There’s no doubt that the “Air-Line” helped Woonsocket to grow into the city it is today. Yet for all their benefits, early railroads lacked the electronic safety features we take for granted today, and sometimes accidents occurred.

     On August 12, 1853, two trains utilizing the air-line route collided head-on at Valley Falls killing thirteen people and severely injuring others. The wreck was initially blamed on a conductor named Putnam with only two weeks on the job, who hadn’t been properly instructed in his duties.

   Months later, in May of 1854, while reporting on the civil trial that resulted from the accident, the Woonsocket Weekly Patriot stated in part, “…as the real facts and circumstances of the disaster are brought to light, much of the blame attributed to Mr. Putnam is seen as undeserved.”

     This wreck, by the way, was the first railroad accident to ever be photographed.

     On July 21, 1855, a derailment occurred as a train approached the Woonsocket Depot sending passengers tumbling in all directions. Several were hurt, one seriously.

     A few days later on July 26, a train crashed into some boulders which had fallen on the tracks due to heavy rain just outside of Waterford. The train was wrecked in the subsequent derailment, but miraculously there were no serious injuries.  

     Another serious derailment occurred on July 11, 1870 not far from the Albion depot, in which Jessie Annis, a brakeman was killed.  

     On June 8, 1871, Conductor Bethuel A. Slocomb was killed when he fell beneath a train as it was leaving Woonsocket depot.  

     On January 18, 1893, a horse-drawn sleigh carrying twenty-four people was struck broadside at the Lonsdale crossing. Eight people were killed and sixteen others seriously injured.

     An interesting article about a wreck that was averted appeared in The Providence Journal in December of 1879, and was subsequently picked up by newspapers around the country. The story related the strange experience of William D. Hilton, who worked in the freight department at the Providence station. On one particular night, (The date isn’t given.) a freight train was standing on the tracks, and a red lantern had been lit further up the way to indicate to the incoming express train that it was to stop and wait until the track was clear. About three minutes before the express was to arrive, an unseen voice said in an urgent tone, “Hilton, the light will go out!” Looking about, Hilton saw no one, but the mysterious voice repeated the warning.

     Without hesitation, Hilton grabbed a red lantern and began running along the tracks until he reached the red warning lantern, which he found to be working perfectly, but as he stood there catching his breath the lantern suddenly went out! Just then he saw the headlight of the approaching express train and began frantically waving his lantern. Fortunately the train’s engineer saw Hilton and his waving lantern and brought the train to a stop. Had it continued on it would have plowed into the standing freight train with disastrous results. Normally the express carried two passenger cars, but on this night it was pulling seven, and they were all full.    

     Examination of the faulty signal lantern found nothing wrong with the wick or oil level, and why it went out could not be explained. To prevent a reoccurrence, three warning lanterns were hung in the future.      

     Of course accidents weren’t limited to the Providence & Worcester line, for all railroads of the time experienced their share of mishaps.

     The “Air-Line” proved to be a great success and until January of 2017 was still operated by the Providence & Worcester Railroad. Today it’s managed by the Genesee & Wyoming Railroad.

 

 

 

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