Blackstone River Greenway History

Massachusetts, Rhode Island

At a Glance

Name: Blackstone River Greenway
Length: 29.9 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Inline Skating, Fishing, Wheelchair Accessible, Horseback Riding, Walking, Cross Country Skiing
Counties: Providence, Worcester
Surfaces: Asphalt, Boardwalk, Crushed Stone, Dirt
State: Massachusetts, Rhode Island

A Brief History

Except for a very short segment, the route used today by the Blackstone River Bikeway follows an active railroad line owned by the Providence & Worcester Railroad (P&W). The right-of-way dates back to before trains even ran in the United States, originally used as the towpath for the Blackstone Canal, which opened in the 1820s. The P&W began service roughly two decades later, and the Blackstone River has heard the rumbling of passing trains ever since. The railroad has had a fascinating corporate history: it was independent for nearly a half-century before being leased by the New York, New Haven & Hartford (better known as simply the New Haven), which operated the route for more than 70 years. The NYNH&H disappeared into the failed Penn Central system, which, following its bankruptcy, spun-off the Providence & Worcester as an independent once more. Today, the railroad provides freight service throughout Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.

The Blackstone Canal’s creation was an attempt to open trade throughout the Blackstone valley. The states of Rhode Island and Massachusetts recognized the need for such a transportation artery, and both chartered companies in the early 1820s to begin construction of a canal that would link Worcester and Providence. The Blackstone Canal, which followed the Blackstone River, officially opened for service between the two cities on October 7, 1828. It was successful for a few years and helped spur economic development across the region, until railroads proved they were far more efficient. The first began service in Rhode Island during 1835, when the Boston & Providence Railroad opened a line between its namesake cities that year.

With the proven success of the railroad and the canal’s slow decline following its peak year of traffic in 1832, the right-of-way was sold in pieces to the Providence & Worcester, chartered on November 25, 1845, to run along the waterway’s old towpath. Work on the P&W proceeded very quickly; service between Providence to Woonsocket, Rhode Island, was initiated on September 15, 1847. Trains rolled into Worcester a few weeks later on October 20. It was double-tracked during the 1850s and became an important corridor moving freight and passengers, with connections to all of the region’s major railroads, including the Boston & Albany (later New York Central), Boston & Maine, and the New Haven. In 1888, the P&W was leased by the New York, Providence & Boston, which itself was acquired by the New Haven on July 1, 1892. The NYNH&H grew to become the largest railroad in the entire New England region partly by acquiring several smaller systems.

The only section of today’s Blackstone River Bikeway to use an abandoned rail bed was constructed shortly after the P&W was acquired by the New Haven. In 1893, work began on a combination railroad bridge and dam across the Blackstone River at Lonsdale (today referred to as the Lonsdale, or Pratt Dam). According to the Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission, the structure was built by the Lonsdale Company to connect the older part of Lonsdale with the newer area of town and was completed in 1894. The railroad spur, about a mile long, diverged from the main line just west of Route 122 (Mendon Road) and swung across the river on five stone abutments built out and over the dam. After rail service was discontinued, the original steel span was removed before being rebuilt for today’s trail.

The New Haven offered the primary rail link between Boston and New York, with a blanket of secondary and branch lines serving Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and southeastern New York. During New England’s years as a major industrial center, the railroad offered key freight service, which businesses greatly depended on. However, perhaps its most endearing legacy, which still carries on today, was the important commuter service it provided throughout the metropolitan region. Its heavy reliance on passengers meant the New Haven was often plagued with tight profit margins, making it susceptible to bankruptcies. The first occurred in 1935 during the Great Depression, although a surge in traffic during World War II allowed the railroad to escape receivership by 1947. However, things again turned bleak in the 1950s, when poor management and declining passenger traffic resulted in the New Haven going bankrupt again in 1961.

Throughout the years under New Haven control, the P&W was treated as little more than a secondary main line, although it did play host to a number of New York-Maine limited passenger trains like the “State of Maine”(New York-Portland). The New Haven would post its final profit in 1954 and struggled to maintain a satisfactory level of service during the 1960s, when revenue continued to slide away. The railroad’s trustees felt that it should be included in the Penn Central merger in an effort to stave off complete liquidation. The PC formally became reality on February 1, 1968, and the New Haven joined it on January 1, 1969. Unfortunately, the ill-fated company began to collapse almost immediately. After only a year, it had declared bankruptcy in 1970. That April, the Providence & Worcester approached the Interstate Commerce Commission with a request to terminate the lease and be free of Penn Central. While the PC protested, citing unfavorable competition, the issue was settled in court in November 1972.

At 12:01 a.m. on February 3, 1973, the P&W officially became an independent railroad once more. By noon that day, a freshly painted white, orange, and brown RS3 diesel locomotive, along with matching caboose, were both greeted to a great deal of fanfare—250 spectators in Woonsocket. Given the Penn Central’s continual decline, during which it eventually disappeared into the government-created Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail) in 1976, it is likely that the Providence & Worcester route would have been abandoned. Today, the railroad has grown into a thriving Class II regional system that has expanded far beyond its original main line.

Railroad attractions near the trail include the Old Colony & Newport Railway/Newport Dinner Train in Newport and the Rhode Island Railroad Museum in West Kingston, Rhode Island. In Massachusetts, visit the Berkshire Scenic Railway in Lenox; Cape Cod Central Railroad in Hyannis; Chatham Railroad Museum in Chatham; Old Colony & Fall River Railroad Museum in Fall River; Shelburne Falls Trolley Museum in Shelburne Falls; and the Walker Transportation Collection/Beverly Historical Society & Museum in Beverly.

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