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Woonsocket's Railroads

By the mid-nineteenth century, Woonsocket had grown to become one of the largest textile manufacturing cities in the United States. That growth would accelerate with the introduction of rail service in 1846.

Engine #16 at Depot Statation c.1890 with Edward Harris' curved warehouse in the rear. Prior to the railroad, freight was transported by horse and wagon or by the Blackstone Canal. Rail service expanded transportation capabilities considerably and made them more reliable. With the ability to move raw materials in and finished goods out, railroads linked the Blackstone River Valley to markets around the world. While extremely expensive to build, nineteenth century railroads were extremely profitable if the volume of freight and passengers could be maintained.

The first railroad to provide service to Woonsocket was the Providence and Worcester Railroad. Completed in 1846, the Providence and Worcester was financed by Rhode Island businessmen who were interested in keeping Blackstone River Valley goods flowing through the Port of Providence. Along much of its route, the Providence to Worcester Railroad followed the course of the Blackstone Canal. In Woonsocket, it crossed the Blackstone River just downstream from the Court Street Bridge and entered Depot Square. The P&W's Woonsocket depot was one of the finest on-line stations in New England and made Depot Square the commercial and transportation hub of the city.

In 1849, a second railroad - later known as the New York and New England Railroad - began operations to Boston from from near by Blackstone, Mass. The New York and New England Railroad was built by Blackstone industrialist Welcome Farnum. Farnum, the brother-in-law of Edward Harris, had begun his manufacturing career in the Market Square area of Woonsocket before moving to Blackstone in the 1820's. By 1854, his New York and New England Railroad ran from Boston through Blackstone all the way to New York.

While the New York & New England Railroad passed through nearby Blackstone, the Providence & Worcester Railroad enjoyed a monopoly in Woonsocket until 1863 when the Airline Railroad began service between Woonsocket and Boston. Although it was originally planned for the Airline to continue all the way to New York, it was never extended beyond Pascoaq and Harrisville. Eventually, all three of these railroads (Providence & Worcester, New York & New England and Airline) fell into the hands of banking and railroad magnet J. P. Morgan. By the turn of the century, Morgan, through his New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, enjoyed monopoly control over most of the rail traffic in southern New England. Providence & Worcester Depot (photo, 1900)

While Morgan was consolidating his control over railroads in southern New England, Charles Hayes was attempting to establish a rail connection from Montreal to an ice free port in the US. This would allow goods to travel in and out of Montreal when the St. Lawrence Seaway froze in the winter. Using the Central Vermont Railroad as a base, Hayes planned a line through Woonsocket on the way to Providence. He planned eventually to extend the line to Boston and New York.

The Grand Trunk Line, as it would be called, would be a high speed line featuring 40 mile per hour minimum speeds and a complete absence of grade crossings. Unfortunately, on a return trip from a meeting with London bankers, Hayes was killed when the ship he was on, the Titanic, struck an iceberg and sank. Construction of the Grand Trunk line began in 1912 in spite of Mr. Hayes' death and continued on and off until 1915 when the project was finally abandoned. While the line was 70% complete, not a single mile of track was laid.

For more information on the Providence Worcester Railroad, visit the home page of the Providence Worcester Railfan Club.

This page utilizes information from:

  • History of Woonsocket written by E. Richardson and published by S.S. Fosse Printers, Woonsocket, RI 1876 (printed by Higginson Book Company, Salem, MA)
  • Statewide Historic Preservation Report for Woonsocket, Rhode Island published by the Rhode Island Historic Preservation Commission in September, 1976.
  • Woonsocket - Highlights of History 1800-1976 written by Alton Pickering Thomas, MD and published by the Woonsocket Opera House Society in 1973.
For Woonsocket residents, both books are available at the Woonsocket Harris Public Library.

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