The Sound of the Whistle -  by James Garman Print Article

Notes on the early days of the railroad on Aquidneck Island.

The railroad era began on Aquidneck Island when the Old Colony Railroad made its first run from Fall River to Newport on February 1864. The railroad line had been in the planning stages for several years. The line connecting Fall River with Myricks and eventually Boston had opened in June of 1845. This had been under the Fall River Branch Railroad Company. Later on, the Old Colony Railroad Company had taken over the Fall River Branch Line and plans were launched for a connecting line to Newport along the Fall River waterfront.

Old Colony had also taken over control of the By State Steamboat Company. The connection between the railroads and the steam boat lines were frequent and they were often operated in tandem with one another in the form of a "boat train."

One November 1, 1861, the voters of Newport were asked to go to the polls to determine if Newport should be connected to the railroad. A Newport newspaper reported beforehand that the voters seemed optimistic that the referendum would pass. It was projected that, with a railroad, many people would build summer residences in Newport and therefore the tax burden would be eased. The vote in favor was decisive: 668-19. This near-unanimous vote settled the issue, and the mayor of Newport issued a proclamation hailing the decision. After securing the right-of-way with the purchase of property along the riverfront in Fall River and along the scenic route along Narragansett Bay, construction of the track began.

With a great deal of ceremony, the service was initiated in February of 1864. Among the stations on the line were the ones at Tiverton; Bristol Ferry; Portsmouth; Portsmouth Grove; Middletown, and Newport.

The Tiverton station was at the east end of the railroad bridge. The Bristol Ferry station was at the wharf near the end of Bristol Ferry Road. The Portsmouth station -- called "Coal Mines Station" on some early maps -- was at Willow Lane. The Portsmouth Grove Station was at Melville. This station was near the Lovell Hospital, a Civil War hospital built at a nearby summer resort during the Civil War. The Middletown station was at Green Lane and the Newport station was at the end of the line on Long Wharf.

The railroad provided both passenger and freight service for the island. Connections were by rail to Fall River and then to Providence, Boston or New York.

The effect of the railroad on the northern end of the town of Portsmouth was not all beneficial. A petition addressed to the Town council on May 16, 1897 states that the northern part of the town is a camping ground for "tramps and dangerous men whose presence is a constant menace to the citizens who live in that part of the town." There probably was a "hobo-town" of some sort around the tracks.

In 1889, after the ravages of the tidal erosion had attacked the railroad bridge over the Sakonnet River, a new bridge was opened between Tiverton and Portsmouth. This was the bridge that stands to this date, perhaps a little the worse for wear.

In 1901, the United States government announced plans for a coaling station at Bradford (formerly Portsmouth Grove). The Civil War hospital had been abandoned after the war ended in 1865. After the Bradford coaling station was constructed, coal was brought in by rail and by ship, and US warships were tied up at the piers there to refuel. In 1904 the Portsmouth Town Council changed the name of Portsmouth Grove Road to Bradford Road.

In October 1904, the newspapers reported that work was being done at Bristol Ferry to build a railway cut so that the trolley could pass on a bridge over the railroad line. There had been many complaints made to the Town Council about the trolley access to the ferry at the wharf being blocked by the stopped train.

On December 16, 1915, the Portsmouth train station was knocked from its foundation when a train derailed. A new station was soon built and this building remained until recently succumbing to vandalism.

In 1937, during the Great Depression, the railroad fell on hard times. The parent company of the Old Colony Railroad, the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad Company, announced that due to company deficits the railroad would be abandoning 88 stations, including all of those from Tiverton to Newport.

By February 14, 1938, the Portsmouth town Council reported that the railroad had discontinued passenger service. This was nearly coincidental with the abandonment of the famous Fall River Line the same year, due to labor and lack of freight service problems.

Freight trains continued to run afterwards, particularly to supply the Naval Base during World War II and also the PT-Boat Base at Melville.

The trains continue to run today, usually about one per week, but it has become a rare occasion to hear the sound of the whistle or the rumble of the freight train as it rolls down the line.

Mr. Garman is the author of
'Traveling Around Aquidneck Island 1890-1930 (How We Got Around)',
James E. Garman, 1996. Printed by Hamilton Printing, Portsmouth, RI.
This article is presented with permission of Mr. Garman.