by Alice Clemente
December 2007

In a Green Light issue devoted largely to neighbors and "neighborliness", the Point's railway could easily be overlooked. That is in itself an amazing assertion since, on Sundays at least, the train is such a noticeable presence in the Point neighborhood. That the OCNRR is a responsible neighbor was brought home to the editor of this journal last spring when Point resident and OCNRR engineer Peter Martin submitted the following - just as other Pointers were preparing for the semi-annual cleanup of the Point's parks:

"On March 13, a group of Old Colony & Newport Railway volunteers spent the day cleaning the tracks from the Walnut Street bridge abutment to Hunters Park. By the end of the day, they had gathered 22 bags of trash, four couch pillows, 2 broken bicycles, and one tire. When they saw the amount of trash, a call was put in to the City of Newport for help. Scott Wheeler, the City of Newport tree warden, responded the next morning and hauled the 'collection' to the city yard for disposal."

Peter Martin, a native Newporter who spent the better part of his adult life elsewhere, returned to Newport in 2000 and immediately became active in city affairs; he is among other things the secretary of the Planning Board, past chair of the Aquidneck Island Planning Commission, and a volunteer of the OCNRR. The only native Newporter involved with the latter, he qualified only last year to become an engineer on the railroad, at the age of 65. It was he who provided the following information and answered some of the questions raised on a recent trip aboard his train, e.g., how do you get the train back to the depot when there's no switching mechanism? (The answer: you back it up with the brakeman, on this occasion with Patrick Macomber at the rear of the train guiding and signaling the engineer via radio).

Peter explained that the OCNRR and the equally familiar Newport Dinner Train are in fact two separate entities that share the use of the tracks, both of them having formal contracts with DOT for the use of this state-owned facility. The Dinner Train is a commercial enterprise that organizes numerous events during the high tourist seasons of summer and the holidays. It has responsibility for maintaining the tracks. The OCNRR is a 50l (c) 3 non-profit corporation made up of 18 or so individuals who volunteer to clear the tracks, maintain the vegetated area alongside the railway and operate the railway itself. The OCNRR operates year round and is reportedly the only non-profit railway to take on the at times daunting challenge of winter in the north. It is thus a valuable adjunct to the tourist economy during its off season.

The OCNRR was founded in 1978 by Don Elbert with strong support from a number of city leaders, including two mayors and Senator Claiborne Pell. He has been at the forefront of operations since it began operating in 1979, with a core group of volunteers from all over New England. Since 2004, it has operated under its agreement with RIDOT. The OCNRR has acquired 3 locomotives, 2 antique passenger cars (dating from 1884 and 1904), 2 cabooses and 1 flat car. It runs over a 4% mile stretch of track along Narragansett Bay's rocky shoreline, past the Naval Base, the decommissioned aircraft carriers USS Forrestal and USS Saratoga, and the aquaculture farm out in the Bay where oysters filter unwanted nitrogen from the water - all of this on a track bordered on both sides on an autumn day by the colors of familiar vegetation: knot weed and pokeweed, Virginia creeper, Japanese bittersweet, goldenrod, and asters.

The OCNRR was the subject of a proclamation from the city on its 25th anniversary in 2004. The text, posted in the Depot, acknowledges the OCNRR's goal of preserving a railroad corridor on Aquidneck Island by operating a scenic train on a railroad that has been in existence since 1863. It also acknowledges the service of the facility and its volunteers to local non-profit organizations for fund-raising activities and to students at Rogers High School who have taken advantage of the opportunity to learn about railroad maintenance and operation and, in the early 80s, to take on depot restoration as a community service project.

Peter Martin, the Point's resident engineer, believes that in addition to fulfilling its declared mission, the OCNRR has served the community by providing a buffer for the Point neighborhood. He supports a proposed bike/walking path along the west side of the tracks and hopes that the community will in turn continue to support the OCNRR.

This article appeared in the "Winter 2007 - 2008' issue of 'The Green Light' Bulletin of the Point Association of Newport, Rhode Island. It was written by Alice Clemente, Editor.