East Bay Bike Path (RI) History

Rhode Island

At a Glance

Name: East Bay Bike Path (RI)
Length: 14.3 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Inline Skating, Fishing, Wheelchair Accessible, Walking, Cross Country Skiing
Counties: Bristol, Providence
Surfaces: Asphalt, Boardwalk
State: Rhode Island

A Brief History

The East Bay Bike Path has grown into a popular recreational corridor in southern Rhode Island between Providence and Bristol. The route’s history traces back to the New York, New Haven & Hartford (commonly referred to as the New Haven), one of the New England’s largest and most recognized railroads. It was constructed during the mid-1800s by a predecessor system. Under New Haven ownership, the route was upgraded, carrying both freight and passengers well into the 20th century before declining traffic witnessed passenger service end before World War II. The NYNH&H was eventually folded into the disastrous Penn Central Transportation Company, which subsequently removed the line to Bristol during the early 1970s.

No other railroad dominated the New York–Boston market like the New Haven, and the railroad enjoyed only sparse competition from a few other systems, such as the New York Central-controlled Boston & Albany and Boston & Maine. The NYNH&H gained its near-monopoly by gobbling up most of its competitors during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The company’s many subsidiaries are far too numerous to list here but ultimately included more than 200 predecessor systems. The more notable of these included the Hartford & New Haven (one of the earliest components chartered in 1833), New York & New Haven, Housatonic Railroad, New York & New England, and Old Colony Railroad. The New York, New Haven & Hartford was formed in 1872 through the merger of the H&NH and NY&NH. However, what is today part of the East Bay Pike Path was originally part of the Old Colony, which grew into a formidable system and comprised most of the New Haven’s network west of Providence.

According to Frank Heppner’s book Railroads Of Rhode Island: Shaping the Ocean State’s Railways, the earliest history of the line between Providence and Bristol traces back to the Providence & Bristol Railroad organized in 1851, which soon changed its name as the Providence, Warren & Bristol Railroad. By 1855, the system was opened from East Providence to Bristol via Warren, where later a branch split east of that point to reach nearby Fall River. The line’s total length was 15.69 miles and was double-tracked as far south as Warren. Joseph Schwieterman’s points out in his book When The Railroad Leaves Town, Eastern United States that the area around Bristol became a rather busy manufacturing center during the mid-19th century. Along the waterfront notable industries sprang up, such as shipbuilder Herreshoff Manufacturing Company and National India Rubber Company. The town was once a terminal for the Narragansett Steamship Company, which ferried passengers to New York City.

After this service switched cities, folks could still catch a ferry provided in conjunction with rail service offered by the Newport & Providence Street Railway running between either Newport or Providence. The PW&B was leased by the Old Colony Railroad in 1891 before both properties came under the direction of New Haven in 1893. The NYNH&H apparently saw significant potential in the Bristol line when it upgraded the line with electrification. This move made for an interesting operational layout in southern Bristol, where the local streetcar services and the New Haven shared the same rails. Alas, many local trolley lines across the country barely survived to see the 1920s, as was the case in Bristol, which lost its service in 1924 (then operated by the Rhode Island Company). In 1934, electrified operations were discontinued, and with encroaching competition from cars and trucks, it wasn’t long until the New Haven itself ended all passenger service to the town in 1937.

Despite stopping passenger service, the line would see local excursions from time to time, even during the postwar years. More cutbacks occurred in 1938 when damage from a hurricane caused the New Haven to reduce the route to single-track. Automobiles and the Great Depression also significantly hurt freight traffic, although the great influx of business during World War II, particularly with Herreshoff’s shipbuilding efforts, helped offset these losses. Unfortunately, the 1950s brought about more hard times, particularly for the New Haven itself. The Depression years had forced the company into bankruptcy in 1935 from which it did not emerge until 1947. The railroad relied heavily on its passenger/commuter business, particularly between New York and Boston. Competition from highways and airlines, coupled with the loss of New England’s once bustling manufacturing industry and general poor management of the railroad, made for a bleak outlook.

The New Haven entered bankruptcy again in 1961 and languished throughout the decade, posting deficits year after year. On February 1, 1968, the Penn Central Transportation Company was formed through the merger of the New York Central and Pennsylvania railroads. This poorly conceived and planned union was a disaster from the start, and despite its problems, PC was forced to take on the failing New Haven on January 1, 1969. In an effort to curb mounting losses, the railroad was able to abandon the Bristol branch in 1973 despite protests by local businesses shipping by rail at that time. Interestingly, in 1994 the Rhode Island Department of Transportation implemented a study to discuss the idea of restoring the line for light rail/commuter service. Despite much talk, the proposal has not gotten beyond the preliminary stage, partly because it would take millions of dollars to restore rail service.

A few nearby railroad attractions include the Newport Dinner Train/Old Colony & Newport Railway in Newport and the Rhode Island Railroad Museum in West Kingston.

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