In an age mercifully innocent of environmental impact studies, suburban shopping plazas, and the universal motorcar the only thinkable means of overland transit was via the Old Colony Railroad which linked Boston with distant points in southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island. This legendary carrier was one of the best managed of all railroads and a veritable bonanza for It's stockholders.
For sixty-seven years it grew and prospered until 1893, when the expanding New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad leased the Old Colony for a period of ninety-nine years. Though notable improvements and increased service were introduced by the New Haven management the personalized service of the Old Colony was lost. The zenith of passenger service to and from Newport was reached in 1913
Newport County was no exception to the railroad fever that was sweeping the country during the middle years of the nineteenth century.The Old Colony Railroad terminated in Fall River in 1854, and that city was taken with its importance as a commercial center. Aquidneck Islanders (Newport) desired to be part of the growing national rail system. At the time Newport was well served by coastal steamboats and the Old Colony had little interest or inclination to buy an expensive right-of-way from the Massachusetts state line to Newport involved residents of Newport County agreed among themselves to offer the Old Colony Railroad a 50 foot wide right-of-way from the Massachusetts state line to Newport if the carrier would construct a southerly extension. This action had the desired effect as the property offered was prime and located almost entirely along the level shore of Narragansett Bay. It would be scenic as well as useful. On April 9, 1861, the Old Colony was authorized to build and operate a railroad from the end of track in Fall River, to the Rhode Island state line, to connect with a railroad to be built from Newport in a northerly direction
In 1862, The Fall River line was extended toward Newport under the corporate title of Newport and Fall River Railroad. This line was merged into the Old Colony and Fall River Railroad which was then renamed the Old Colony & Newport Railway. The citizens of Fall River felt dismay and chagrin over the prospect of becoming patrons of a way station. Construction proceeded according to schedule with the exception of the bridge across the Sakonnet River. Initial attempts at overcoming this major obstacle met with failure due to tidal currents; however, substitution of stone for dirt fill solved the problem. A passenger train was run to Stone Bridge Village, Tiverton, on November 19, 1863. Regularly scheduled through service commenced on February 1, 1864.
With the establishment of direct rail service to Boston, Newport enjoyed further prestige with the announcement that Fall River Line steamships would terminate at Long Wharf, Newport. The famous "Boat Train" would now speed on to Newport after only a brief pause at Fall River. This arrangement remained in effect for five years until 1869. the Old Colony & Newport timetable dated November 12, 1866 reveals that the carded time for the "Boat Train" between Newport and Boston was two hours and fifteen minutes with stops at Fall River and Taunton. The Old Colony & Newport established stations at Portsmouth Grove, Bristol Ferry, and Tiverton. A t the time Aquidneck Island's economy was agricultural and Middletown and Portsmouth were sparse ly settled. As time when on the railroad sponsored excursions at very low rates to attract tourist patronage. A Sunday round-trip from Boston to Newport for a dollar was immensely popular. Another feature designed to attract business was a railroad sponsored summer development at "The Hummock" in Portsmouth. Land was available at bargain process for seasonal rentals and many Fall River residents took advantage of the offer. They also bought commuter tickets to get to their jobs in the city. Eventually the tenants bought the land from the railroad and became permanently established.
At the turn of the century, regular stations with resident agents were located at Middletown, Melville (Portsmouth Grove), Portsmouth, Bristol Ferry and Tiverton. Flag stops were made at Aquidneck, Coreys Lane and The Hummock. Portsmouth station also served the adjacent coalmines but coal never became an important factor in freight revenue. "Island Coal" had an infamous reputation for being slow to ignite but once burning, so hot that it would ruin a ormal firebox. It was useless for locomotives or steamships.
For many years the Newport Line was served by a handsome express train known unofficially as "The Dandy Express". It's consist included a Pullman parlor car to care for first class clientele who insisted on privacy and comfort. "The Dandy" was a morning train from Newport to Boston with a late-afternoon departure from the "Hub". The travel time was under two hours.
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.
The Newport Depot was pictured as this in 1919. Seven years previous 24 trains used it daily.
After World War I, the frequency of service went into a decline that was never reversed. The only notable change took place in the summer of 1929, when a weekend sleeper bound for Newport left Grand Central Terminal, New York, attached to an overnight New Bedford train called "The Harpooner". It returned to New York on Sunday night.
The early 1930's, the private automobile and expanding bus service was cutting deeply into the New Haven's branch line revenues. Patronage on the Fall River Line ships was poor during the fall and winter months. By Mid-1937, the great steamers were gone and one train a day was serving Newport. Early in 1938, the Railway Mail Service contract to Newport was terminated and the last passenger train to Boston left without fanfare. With the exception of military extras during World War II, the one week during 1954 when the New Haven operated shoppers' specials to Fall River while Stone Bridge was closed to auto traffic, through passenger trains from Newport joined the steamers and trolleys on the more orderly past.
Rail freiht service to Newport was continued on a daily basis. The old passenger station, located between Marsh Street and Long Wharf was razed in 1939 and replaced by a large rectangular freight house. The combination railroad and steamer terminal at the end of Long Wharf was used for any years by the US Navy. Shortly after the Navy abandoned the facility, the former terminal was burned by vandals.
During the 1960's the impact of the Interstate Highway System was felt by Newport's rail freight service. Daily service was reduced to tri-weekly and then once a week. In 1968 the New Haven Railroad was bankrupt, and as such, was ordered taken over by the new giant Penn Central System. Two years later Penn Central was in the hands of receivers thanks in part to having the former New Haven. Penn Central service to Newport was replaced by the Consolidated Railroad Corporation. Conrail, however, was merely designated operator of the Newport Branch on most of Aquidneck Island. Penn Central had filed for abandonment and with those plans imminent, the state of Rhode Island bought the line from the "estate". Title Passed on the southerly 18.6 miles.
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