History, a time to Remember When

A simple Timeline: Olneyville from 1700 to 1900 early 1700's Settlement began around Olneyville Square
  • 1714 Plainfield Road was constructed
  • 1745 The Ruttenburg family had established a paper mill and a distillery
  • 1785 Christopher Olney settled what became Olneyville
  • 1788 An iron mill (rolling and slitting) was built in the Olneyville section of Johnston by Christopher Olney.
  • 1846 Providence Dyeing, Bleaching and Calendaring Company had opened a plant in Olneyville on Valley Street
  • 1890 The streets between Atwells and Manton Avenues were completely filled with two family houses.
  • 1870 The town rented space for town offices in the Irons Block in Olneyville Square, reflecting the
  • 1873 First Gas Powered Streetcar – The No. 13 ran between the car barns and Olneyville Square in Providence.
  • 1891 The opulent, Flemish-style Olneyville Free Library opened on the Johnston side of Olneyville. After the library was lost to Providence because of the 1898 annexation.
  • 1877 The Olneyville Free Library and Reading Room opened.
  • June 1, 1898 The western section of Olneyville and Silver Lake, part of Johnston since its founding in 1759, was re-annexed to Providence.
  • 1890 The streets between Atwells and Manton Avenues were completely filled with two family houses.
  • May 15, 1900 Olneyville was the site of one of the few occasions of "raining fish", when a late afternoon thunderstorm brought perch and bullspouts falling from the skies.
Settlement in Olneyville began at Olneyville Square in the early 18th century. The area began as a center of trade with a nearby Narragansett village. Larger settlement began in 1785 after Christopher Olney, for whom Olneyville is named, founded a grist mill and a paper mill on a wide part of the Woonasquatucket River. Olney was a captain during the Revolutionary War and owned a 95 acre farm in the area. By the end of the American Revolutionary War, a forge and foundry and other small industries operated in Olneyville.

Through the mid-19th century, Olneyville developed as a railroad junction and mill district. This attracted many Polish immigrants. However, the mill industries declined after World War II causing economic decline. The construction of the Route 6 connector in the 1950s exacerbated these problems. In the two decades that followed Olneyville witnessed a substantial drop in its population.

On May 15, 1900, Olneyville was the site of one of the few occasions of "raining fish", when a late afternoon thunderstorm brought perch and bullspouts falling from the skies.

Johnston Historical Society Historical Notes Vol. XIII, #2, July 2007 Louis McGowan and Christopher Martin, Co-Editors

The Providence and Springfield Railroad by Louis McGowan Older residents of the area will remember when trains ran through Johnston. The sound of the trains could occasionally be heard up until the last New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad freight train ran across town in 1962. The history of this branch of the NY, NH & H, though, began 150 years ago with the Woonasquatucket Railroad.

As far back as the mid-nineteenth century, a railroad was planned to run through the Woonasquatucket River Valley. Some promoters saw the railroad as reaching all the way to Springfield, Massachusetts. A survey for the railroad was accomplished during 1856-'57, and the Woonasquatucket Railroad received approval from the State legislature to build in January 1857. The train line would run alongside the Woonasquatucket River from Olneyville to Stillwater, a mill village in Smithfield. Heading west at that point, the line would run to Pascoag.

The rail line was not built at that time due to, first, a financial crisis and, second, the Civil War. A committee was formed in 1866 to revive the project. It was reported that there was plenty of demand for commercial transportation between Olneyville and Pascoag. The Woonasquatucket River north of Providence supported nine cotton mills, two woolen mills, and four factory stores. In Pascoag and surrounding villages, there were twenty-one woolen mills, four shoddy mills, two cotton mills, and numerous other manufacturers and dealers.

Even though the facts above were presented to the committee, that group recommended that the line should run to Woonsocket and not to Pascoag. They did not see the value of the Pascoag line as being certain. They felt that another line could be run from Woonsocket to Pascoag by the owner of the "Air Line Road" between New York and Boston. This latter road was owned by the New York and Boston Railroad.

As fate would have it, the New York and Boston was absorbed by the Boston, Hartford, and Erie Railroad, which soon became the New York and New England Railroad. The owners of the New York and New England had another agenda. They were looking for an alternate route from Boston, south-east to Providence, and then on to points west. They already had a route from Boston to New York, but it ran along the northern border of Rhode Island and totally bypassed Providence. The New York and New England people saw the Woonasquatucket Railroad as a way to run out of Providence, across to Woonsocket and then on to Boston. It was a round-about route, but it seemed the only viable one at the time. For our purposes in this article, we will not deal extensively with the New York and New England's ultimate goal. We are going to primarily deal with the Providence and Springfield itself, the way it was originally envisioned.

The original promoters of the Woonasquatucket Railroad started re-thinking their preference after the New York and New England came into the picture. William Tinkham, a prominent mill owner in Burrillville, became the driving force behind the project. His reason for being involved was his concern over the lack of fuel for his mills. Tinkham was able to get the Providence Journal to support the project, and newspaper advertisements proclaimed the benefits that the railroad would bring to people of the area. Residents along the route were urged to contribute money for the construction of the line. This appeal did not go over too well, but, thanks to a City of Providence bond, the builder's faith in the project, and much investment from outside Rhode Island, the effort went forward.

The Providence and Springfield becomes a reality In 1871, the Woonasquatucket Railroad was renamed the Providence and Springfield Railroad. The directors of the line felt that people not used to the former name would have trouble with it, and they also felt that the name of the railroad should reflect the line's intention to expand outside of Rhode Island. Dillon and Clyde, railroad contractors, began construction in 1872 on the 20.84 miles of mainline. When completed in 1873, the line ran from Dike Street in Olneyville all the way to Pascoag following the Woonasquatucket, Tarklin, and Clear Rivers.

What is interesting for students of Johnston history is that the Providence and Springfield Railroad ran across Johnston from the village of Manton right on through the village of Graniteville. Our town has gotten no credit for it, but the stations used for Lymansville, Allendale, Centerdale, and Greystone were all in Johnston, even though the stations were named for the corresponding North Providence villages across the Woonasquatucket River from each station. This odd naming was probably due to the fact that each of the North Providence villages was centered on a textile mill. There were none on the Johnston side. The Manton Station was also in Johnston, but the Manton name was used in both towns on opposite sides of the river.

 
Granitville Train Station

The   Graniteville train station, captured here about 1920 and actually called the   Centerdale Station. The Providence and Springfield provided both passenger and   freight service until 1905 when the New Haven Railroad took over both roles.   New Haven stopped carrying passengers in the 1930s and freight service ended   in 1962. The station was torn down to make way for a Burger King. The grain   elevator burned in the 1980s. Photo from Images of America:   Johnston, vol. 1 (1997).

Within a year or two, the P&S extended service to the Union Passenger Station in Providence, increasing the main line to 22.8 miles of track. The Union Station had really reached its capacity, though, already serving four other railroads. A special committee recommended to the city council that the Providence and Springfield erect a passenger station on Gaspee Street. A very modest one was built, which was occupied by the P&S in 1880. The small building was all that was needed since the station served only two daily trains in each direction when opened. Less than seventy passengers rode each train on average. The Gaspee Street Station was not well received, even though it saved P&S substantial rental fees that they would have paid for use of the Union Station. The former was only a quarter of a mile from the Union Station, but passengers could reach it only by crossing the busy tracks leading to the Union Station.

The physical resources of the P&S The P&S remained basically the same throughout the 1880s, although expenses increased for the small railroad as equipment and structures grew older. A 200-foot long trestle bridge at Olneyville began to settle and in 1882 had to be filled in with dirt to create a solid roadbed. Swampland in Olneyville through which the line passed had to be filled in. A new turntable and water tank were installed in Pascoag. The passenger and freight stations, engine house, and turntable at Providence were also expanded in 1883.

The Providence and Springfield began operations with two steam engines, the "Hercules" and the "Stentor." Both were built by the Rhode Island Locomotive Works in 1873. A third engine, "Achilles," was added in 1874. They were numbered 1, 2, and 3. All three engines cost about $12,000 each, and they easily covered the two passenger round trips, one regular freight trip, and extra trains. An increase in both freight and passenger train traffic led to the purchase of the Number 4 locomotive, "Mars," from the Rhode Island Locomotive Works in 1882. Because the amount of passenger train miles was continuing to rise and because the first three engines were aging, they added a #5 engine in 1889. It was never named.

Original equipment for the line was three coaches and a baggage car. A second baggage car was added after six years and during the mid-1880s three more passenger coaches were added. A milk car was purchased in 1889. The original freight equipment consisted of twenty-five box cars, sixteen flat cars and thirty-six dump cars. The inventory of dump cars increased to seventy-two over the years and five flat cars were added in the late 1890s.

A big help to local folk, but a financial flop for investors According to Edward J. Ozog, author of the article on which this piece is based, "the Providence and Springfield was a great benefit to the region it served." As an investment, though, it was unsuccessful. The company never paid its stockholders a dividend. Earnings were sufficient to make payments on the line's bonds, but expenses for new equipment and improvements left little for stockholders. The road had cost sixty-five percent more than projected, and income averaged about twenty percent less than expected. Looking back, this is not surprising since the line had opened during the financial panic of 1873, which was followed by a severe business recession. The recession affected the mills along the line, as shown by the fact that one half of the mills along its route were either closed or operating irregularly during 1878.

When the Providence and Springfield opened for business, it employed fifty-eight workers. By 1877, only forty-five were needed. Overall, the line functioned pretty well, despite the lack of return for its backers. The big problem for the company, though, was that there was no money for it to achieve its main goal, the extension of the line beyond Pascoag. The extension was necessary if the P&S was going to increase its earnings. Since the investors had not received a return on their investment, they were not willing to contribute more capital for expansion.

Vultures on the horizon Since 1882, the Pascoag line had been running its trains over the New York and New England Railroad track from Olneyville to the Cove in Providence. In 1887, the New York and New England started to put pressure on the Providence and Springfield in order to gain control of the P&S, and during that year the New York and New England presented a $60,000 bill for track usage to the smaller railroad. There was no way that the P&S could come up with that money, since their net income the previous year had been less than $3,000. The New York and New England began buying up stock in the Providence and Springfield, and by 1890 the former owned 3,400 shares in the P&S, 800 more than necessary for control of the line. On October 1, 1890, the New York and New England leased the Providence and Springfield for ninety-nine years for the annual rent of $66,047 per year. The rental fee was used to pay interest on bonds and capital stock of the Providence and Springfield. This was the first time that stockholders realized a return on their stock since the line was built. Most of the stockholders now were, of course, New York and New England people and not the original investors.

Another link in the line between Providence and Springfield was added in 1893 when the Douglas Junction Extension was opened. This extension ran from Pascoag to Douglas Junction just over the Rhode Island/Massachusetts border. The goal of the P&S was to reach the existing Boston and Albany Railroad's trackage at Palmer, Massachusetts, which would bring the Providence and Springfield into Springfield itself. It seems that the promoters never seriously considered an independent railroad all the way to Springfield.

The New Haven takes over The New York and New England Railroad fell into receivership during the financial panic of 1893. It was reorganized as the New England Railroad Company in 1895, but was purchased by the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad in the same year. At first the New Haven controlled the old New York and New England through stock ownership, but in 1898 they leased the New England, which included the lease to the Providence and Springfield. In 1905, the New England and the Providence and Springfield were deeded to the New Haven.

The New Haven had a monopoly on land and water transportation in southern New England by the turn of the century. Having a monopoly meant that they could raise the freight rates they charged to customers, who did complain, but to no avail. No one could challenge the New Haven until the Southern New England Railroad, a Grand Trunk subsidiary, nearly broke New Haven's monopoly power. They were ultimately unsuccessful in breaking New Haven, but with time, New Haven's power abated. First, the courts and finally, the automobile did them in.

While the New Haven operated the Providence and Springfield line, they ran one freight train between Providence and Pascoag. Until about World War I, five daily passenger trains and one Saturday train ran between the same cities. During the 1920s, train service fell to two trains each way, and that ended after the depression. A gas electric car carried passengers for the last few years of service. The automobile, operating on improved roads, and the migration of textile mills to the South, had done in the passenger train. After the depression, freight trains ran to Pascoag only on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The last trains ran on the line in 1962.

The trains traveling this route were relatively slow and traffic was light. This meant that accidents were rare. Passenger trains traveled up to fifty miles per hour and freight trains thirty-five miles an hour.

Remaining signs of the old Providence and Springfield There is not much left in Johnston to remind us of the old P&S line. The roadbed is still pretty much intact, although all the rails have been ripped up. None of the stations remain. The Centerdale Station was the last to disappear, being torn down in the early 1990s to make way for a Burger King. The grain elevator just west of the station lasted until the 1980s. The small Allendale, Lymansville, and Greystone stations and the larger Manton Station are long gone. There is still a Railroad Avenue, though, running parallel to the Woonasquatucket River just south of Graniteville.

The Providence and Springfield Railroad never achieved the greatness that its original promoters had hoped for, but it admirably served the people and businesses along its path. The P&S played an important role in our town's history.

Sources: Most of the historical information for this article was taken from Edward J. Ozog's three part story that was carried in Volume 21, Issue 3 and 4, 1990, and Volume 22, Issue 1, 1991, of the Shoreliner, the quarterly journal of the New Haven Railroad Historical and Technical Association. His story was entitled: "Another Way to Boston, the New York and New England in Northern Rhode Island."

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