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Rhode Island and Providence Plantations

When the Railroad Came to Westerly

By Herbert A. Babcock

This was a paper read before the Westerly, Rhode Island Historical Society on October 5, 1922.

As my memory reviews the scenes around the Westerly railroad station in the 60’s and 70’s, and its present surroundings, naturally I doubted that such a state of affairs ever existed as pictured by me, that it was just a fairyland vision of my boyhood days. Every time that I visit the present Westerly railroad station my memory again carries me back to one of my cherished boyhood resorts, “Dixon Hill.” Standing on the apex of the hill’s western declivity, the scenery was perfectly grand, especially the golden sunsets. At the foot of the hill was Canal Street; also, the canal which furnished water power for the mill property on Main Street. This canal flowed under a railroad bridge, under which the boys of the 60’s whiled away many hours fishing for perch. This bridge was removed, the embankment filled in–the abutments are still buried there–when the canal was abandoned.

I also recall the many personal interviews at the Dixon Mansion, then occupied by that noble lineage, the Hon. Nathan F. Dixon, Sr., and family.

From this mansion, looking south, there was a fine view of the railroad and station, and many were the remarks then made, in pastime conversation, among the young folks who ventured there, of the quaint and antique looking passenger cars, the little wood-burning locomotives-especially the “Apponaug” and Roger Williams with their funnel-shaped stacks, from which poured a constant stream of smoke, their tenders stacked high with two-foot fuel, and here and there, out in the dusty roadway. near the station, horses and carriages waiting to convey patrons to their destinations, as the trains arrived.

Out in the roadway, in the 40’s, there was a quaint-looking dugout drinking trough, where oxen, with creaking carts, and horses with freight-laden wagons, stopped to quench their thirst. The station then was a province of continuous peace, and a quiet spirit breathed upon those who entered it, with none of the conveying vehicles of today, trolley cars and automobiles, to divert their daily travels.

The village of Westerly in 1837, was thinly populated and not until 1852 was the census return between two and three thousand, with a total town valuation of $1,600,000 from which was collected a tax of $3000.

The station then (1837) was a small building, one story in height, with the freight and passenger accommodations under one roof, the one-track for passengers on the north side, and the freight track, over which all patrons of the road had to cross to enter the station, on the south side.

The access to the station then was a roadway from Canal Street which extended beyond the station to the end of the freight turnout. A fence separated the railroad property from land south of the station. This land, which mostly a pasturage, extended east to High Street, and was then owned by Nathan F. Dixon, Sr.

On the north side of the station, was a private roadway, extending from Canal Street to High Street, the property of Nathan F. Dixon, Sr., which was the approach to the Dixon mansion, and called Oak Street. This was a particularly esteemed promenade for the young people of our village in the “forties.”

Looking down Canal Street from the railroad crossing to High Street, on the west side, was an unobstructed view with an embankment sloping down to the canal to the Hammond dwelling house at the corner of High and Canal Streets.

On the east side of Canal Street, from the station to High Street, were vacant lots owned by Lemuel Vose.

Samuel A. Coy, who died September 29, 1875, aged 85 years was for several years stationmaster, until August 1, 1852, when he resigned, and Maj. Isaac Champlin, of Stonington, was temporarily in charge. until Edward P. Hitchcock was assigned to the position, which he occupied for several years.

It was very interesting and entertaining during Mr. Coy’s lifetime, to hear him rate the trials and experiences of those who promoted the railroad enterprise, and also the testimony of Messrs. Chas. Perry and O. M. Stillman. and were they living today, you can imagine their surprise. at the undertaking, since enacted, of the entire removal of Dixon Hill, which was “impossible” in the 30’s.

During the 40’s three passenger trains, two local and one express, stopping at Greenwich, Kingston and Westerly only, and one freight, east and west, was the dailv traffic of the road.

The mails then, from and for Westerly, were daily, except Sunday, by rail, for Stonington 4:30 P.M., Providence 7:35 A. M., and 2 P. M., and New York by the Stonington steamboat line, 7 P.M.

The express company in our village in the 50’s was Lawton’s Express. W. B. Lawton, proprietor, Alvah Taylor, agent. with an office located in E. W. Babock’s store, on Main Street. recently vacated by Milo Clarke’s Market. Connections were made by rail, to Providence with Earle’s Express Companv: to New London by Westerly’s “Lily Line,” with Adams Express, and Norwich with Turner’s Express.

In the 50’s a freight shed was erected north of the passenger track, and the freight siding in front of the passenger station was transferred to the north side of the new freight shed. In subsequent years, as the freight traffic increased, more ground was needed for spur tracks, when the railroad corporation purchased of Mr. Dixon the roadway leading up Dixon Hill, which they removed the length of the freight turnout and erected a high granite wall to keep the debris from the hill off the tracks. A bridge was built across the main railroad tracks, several feet west of the present West Street Bridge, which was the exit from the Dixon mansion to Railroad Avenue for many years after the removal of the above roadway.

Since then we all are familiar with the incidents witnessed in the entire removal of Dixon Hill, in 1911-1912, for present freight building and yard.

In 1872, the freight shed was lengthened several hundred feet, and the original passenger station was moved across the railroad track, and formed a part of the addition to the freight shed, and a new station, one story in height was erected on the site of the one removed, at an outlay of about $8,000 for the station and $3,788 for the freight shed.

A few years later, a one story building was erected east of the Station, with two compartments, and was occupied by Adams Express Commisary, and the baggage department.

All of these buildings were removed in 1911, the station to Oak Street, and on the site of the old freight shed was erected our present artistic station.

During the summer of 1852, there was an intense rivalry between the Providence and Stonington lines of steamers to New York, ‘which resulted in the fare being reduced from $2.00 to $1.00 from Providence to New York-the same from Westerly-by the Stonington line; the boats on the line then were the “C. Vanderbilt,” Capt. Joel Stone, afterwards wrecked on the west coast of Fisher’s Island, in December, 1859, and the “Commodore,” Capt. Frazee, also ‘wrecked, on Harton’s Point, L. I., in December, 1866. They handled the vast patronage as a sequel to the “low fare” excitement with satisfaction to all.

But Westerly was greatly inconvenienced by this “low fare” commotion, as the steamboat train, passing Westerly at eight o’clock P.M., did not stop, compelling Westerly patrons to take the six o’clock train or carriage to Stonington. A petition was circulated around our village, endorsed by several of the business firms and others, requesting the eight o’clock train to stop at Westerly station, and the answer the petition received was that “there was such an increase of passengers since the reduction of fare, they deemed it wise not to stop at Westerly.”

While the Stonington line of steamers were in existence, during the 80’s, Westerly patrons, each summer, had the pleasure of enjoying excursions to Rocky Point and Newport on one of their then palatial steamers, the “Rhode Island.” One of the attractive features of these excursions was dancing on the steamer’s freight deck, with music furnished by Kenneth’s orchestra-William Kenneth, prompter and second violin B. F. Greenman, first violin; George Kenneth, cornet; and William Kenneth, pianist, a musical organization that was a drawing card in those days.

Numerous are the sad and pleasurable incidents which a few of us can now recall which occurred while the second railroad station was in its balmy days, which are today frequent subjects of fireside conversation, cherished by all.


Thinking perhaps a short sketch of the early days of the railroad passing through our village-the New Haven-would be of interest to some, I have, from various sources, collected the following:

The first directors of the “Providence and Stonington” railroad were: Daniel Jackson, president; Courtland Palmer, secretary; Charles Perry of Westerly, treasurer (this was the father of Mr. Charles Perry, now president of the Washington Trust Company); Robert N,. Foster, Charles Dyer. Charles Potter, Samuel F. Denison, Charles H. Phelps, and Gurdon Trumbull, named in the Rhode Island and Connecticut charters. They met in the City of New York, January 28, 1833, organized. and as authorized by the legislatures of Rhode Island and Connecticut, opened books in the City Hotel, Providence, on March 4, 1833, for stock subscriptions to the railroad enterprise.

The annual meetings of the stockho1ders in 1834 and 1835, were held in the Benadam Frink house, in this village, afterwards known as the “Leonard House,” with Nathan F. Dixon, Sr., as clerk in 1834, and secretary in 1835. This house was moved in the 60’s to Canal Street, and the Dixon House erected on its site. Since then it has been torn down, and the Crandall block now occupies its site.

In 1836, Jesse L. Moss, of this village, was secretary of the railroad corporation.

From 1836 to 1843 the annual meetings of the corporation were held in the City Hotel and Franklin House, Providence, and subsequent years, in the depot office in Providence.

With the difficulties to overcome in building this railroad then, it was about four years before it was completed from Hill’s Wharf, near Providence, to Stonington, and many were the interesting reminscenses related by those who witnessed its construction, especially the filling in and grading of the embankment from Canal to Palmer Streets in this village, and the excavating of the embankment from the station to High Street (spoken of for years afterwards as the “Dixon cut,” which was then looked upon as a vast undertaking, with no giant powder, dynamite, nitro-glycerine or steam shovels in existence, as are used today.

On November 10, 1837, with a grand celebration in Stonington, which was a theme of conversation for years afterwards, the road was opened for travel from Stonington to Hill’s Wharf, Providence Bay, thence by ferry to India Point, near Providence, connecting with the Boston and Providence railroad, at a cost of $2,600,000, the funds for which were composed of the capital stock of 13,000 shares of $100.00 each ($1,300,000) and bonds of the company ($l,300,00) secured by three mortgages on the railroad property as surety.

Among the names of the various stockholders who were on the company’s books, at the opening of the road, eighty-two years ago, were: O. M. Stillman (my father’s brother-in-law), Charles Perry, Jesse L. Moss, and Nathan F. Dixon, Sr., then residents and very prominent in Westerly affairs.

The officers of the road in 1837, were: Courtland Palmer, president; Nathaniel Thurston, treasurer; James Rintoul, clerk; A. S. Mathews, engineer and roadmaster.

At the opening of the Stonington railroad, in 1837, the roadbed was laid with the best rails that then could be procured. They were rolled” of common “bloom” iron, and weighed 54 pounds per yard, were twenty feet long, a total weight of 378 pounds per rail. Quite a contrast with the steel rails of today, in the equipment of the road, which weigh 107 pounds per yard, 30 feet in length, a total of 1,070 per rail.

The rates at this time, for nine years, were six cents a mile for passengers, and twenty-five cents a ton, per mile, on freight.

On May 1, 1848, the road was extended to the Cove in Providence, and the ferry abandoned, at a cost of $215,280.35.

In 1857 the road was further extended from Stonington to Groton, at an expense of $410,000, and opened to the public in January 1858, thus making, for the first time, a complete railroad line between Boston and New York, via Providence, as the road from New York to New Haven was opened in January, 1849, and from New Haven to New London, July 22, 1852.

Before the extension of the road to Groton, Westerly people, to reach New London or Norwich, had to be conveyed overland by carriage until the formation of the “Lily” line of steamers with headquarters in Westerly in 1850.

These two boats, “Water Lily,” Capt. J. W. Miner, and “Tiger Lily.” Capt. J. A. Robinson, made daily trips from this village to Stonington, Bradford Island, Mystic, New London and Norwich. The fares were: from Westerly to Stonington, 20 cents; to Mystic and Bradford Island, 37 cents;. to New London, 62 cents; to Norwich. 70 cents; allowing their patrons five hours in New London, and two in Norwich. William D. Wells, and H. and F. Sheffield were the Westerly agents for the company. In the fall of 1852, the railroad corporation placed an opposition line on this route from Stonington, and their president, Charles P. Williams, warned the managers of the “Lily” line, at Westerly, “if thy dared to run boats through Fisher’s Island. Sound another summer, they would rue the day.”

Despite the threats, and “rule or ruin” policy of the railroad corporation, the “Lily” line continued on the route until 1854, when the “Water Lily” was chartered for a route on the Providence river to summer resorts, the “Tiger Lily” remaining on the Stonington route until 1858, when the “Water Lily” again resumed her trips with the “Tiger Lily,” and both boats continued on the route until 1859.

In 1860, both boats left our village, the “Tiger Lily” for Harlem River, New York, and the “Water Lily” for Northport, L. I.

From 1872 to 1874, the second track, Groton to Providence was constructed, and opened for travel, July 1, 1874, at an expenditure of $335,192.35.

A very large item of construction expense was diverted in this additional track, by the railroad corporation, as all of the granite abutments for bridges spanning the highways and rivers from Stonington to the railroad’s eastern terminal were constructed in 1834-1837 for two tracks.

When the road was opened for travel in 1837, it became necessary to operate a steamboat line from Stonington to New York. The steamer “Stonington,” of the Boston and New York Transportation Company, was chartered, which ran on the route until May 1, 1838.

Then a contract was made with the New Jersey Steam Navigation and Transportation Company, a corporation ;unning several boats between Providence and New York, when the railroad directors chartered the steamer “Rhode Island,” Capt. Seth Thayer, her dimensions being 211 feet on deck, 28 feet beam, 10 feet hold, 350 h. p. engine, with a lower cabin, 165 feet long, and fitted with 170 berths. Her companion was the steamer “Narragansett,” Capt. Coleman. and her dimensions were 212 feet on deck, 27 feet beam 10 feet hold, 300 h. p. engine, and accommodations for 300 passengers, and her tonnage was 576. The fare from Providence to New York, via this line, was $2.00, the same from Westerly. The above boats were in commission until 1846, when they were sold to southern parties.

For many years the original charter title of the railroad corporation was the “Providence and Stonington Railroad,” then afterwards changed to “The New York, Providence and Boston Railroad,” in the 50’s. When their headquarters were removed from Stonington to Providence, the title was adopted, and is still in use-the N. Y. N. H. and H. R. R.

Before closing, perhaps a brief statement of the number of railroad corporations in the United States up to 1837, and other items may interest you all.

In 1837, there were 1,848 miles of railroads in fifteen of the thirty-one states then comprising our Union, as follows Maine 12 miles; Massachusetts, 126; Rhode Island, 50; Connecticut, 36; New York, 325; New Jersey, 103; Pennsylvania, 562; Delaware, 16; Maryland, 181; Virginia, 125; South Carolina, 137; Georgia, 57; Alabama, 46; Louisiana, 40; Kentucky, 22.

The first steam locomotives used in the United States, two in number, came from England. in 1829, built by George Stephenson, at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and Foster & Rastrick, at Stourbridge, and were operated on a rail line between Charleston, S. C. and Hamburg, on the Savannah River.

The first locomotive built in the United States was in 1830, by a Mr. E. L. Miller, in a West Street, New York, shop, and named “Best Friend,” which was shipped South, and was used on the Charleston, S. C., and Hamburg line for several years.

The second locomotive built by Peter Cooper, in Baltimore, in 1830, and run on the Baltimore and Ohio railroad. This road was constructed, at that time, of longitudinal pine rail, a foot deep, covered with an oak plate, which was imbedded in the ground on wooden cross-ties, and upon the rails were fastened flat bars of iron + and 5/8 inches thick, and 2” to 4 1/2 inches wide by spikes, their heads countersunk in the iron. This method was adopted by our early American roads from considerations of economy, and with a view of extending their lines to the utmost limit of the capital provided, soon proved to involve great danger and consequent expense. The ends of the bars of iron became loose, and starting up were occasionally caught by the wheels and thrust up through the bottom of the cars. Trains were run with great caution, the passenger traffic was seriously diverted on those lines, and they soon acquired a notoriety of “snake head roads.”

Hoping that the above abbreviated contribution has interested you all, I must bring it to a close, as it is a subject on which there is no end.