Turn off Main Street, go down London Street and you’ll find a piece of East Greenwich, RI, history at the corner of Duke Street. It once served as a focal point in the life of the community, from the 1800s into the latter years of the 20th century. The cream building with brown trim (once again in its original color scheme) dates from 1873. Typical of the period architecture, it has a cross-gabled roof, clapboard siding with Italianate trim, arched first-story windows, and a handsome oriel on the south end. Until the 1970s, a wrap-around platform also graced the front of the structure. We’re talking about the old East Greenwich railroad station, still standing and with a new lease on life.
Back in the 1830s, railroads began a rapid expansion across New England stretching out from Boston, MA. Providence, RI, was a prime early destination and the logical next step on the way to connecting Boston and New York. That was the aim of the New York, Providence, and Boston (which had quickly swallowed up the smaller Stonington Railroad). Passengers would link up with steamships at Stonington and comfortably sail on to New York City. (Eventually, the New York, New Haven, and Hartford RR swallowed up just about every rail line in southern New England, along with other mass transit, but that is a story for another time).
According to Dr. D.H. Greene in his 1877 “History of East Greenwich”, the New York, Providence, and Boston directors’ original plan called for the track to pass west of the village, but fortunately they were persuaded to come straight through town. It made good sense. In the early years of the nineteenth century, “East G” had become a thriving mercantile and agricultural community. As a growing commercial center, it would support passenger traffic. It also had strong political connections as one of the rotating sites for General Assembly sessions. The town was more fortunate than our neighbor to the south. The village of Wickford was bypassed by the railroad as it followed a straight-line route down through South County.
When the tracks were laid through East Greenwich, a byproduct of major excavation was the improvement of access to the harbor and cove from the town proper. By 1837, trains were crossing the handsome double overpass spanned King Street and stopping at a simple structure south of the bridge to serve as the first station. The railroad still wasn’t sure there would be a demand for passenger use, so why waste the money on a fancy station? They were soon proven wrong. (The original building would be picked up and moved to Slocumville to serve passengers when the new station was built).
In 1873, the railroad built the handsome new depot as described above. Three years later, Dr. Greene noted that 34,300 tickets were sold at the new station, not including tickets bought by commuters starting to use the train to go to and from Providence, RI. Earlier, in 1860, the railroad built an engine house just to the north of the depot to serve the engine “Apponaug”. A livery stable, opened that same year by James Fones, “was a good stand for business”, according to the Pendulum newspaper. Sidings, several small structures, and a hotel rounded out the busy station area.
Grade crossings were the norm in railroads of the day and on the main line through Rhode Island, they continued well into the 20th century until several tragic accidents led to their closure. One of the busier railroad crossings was at London Street just south of the station where gatekeepers stood watch around the clock. That crossing was one of the last in the area to be abandoned when the railroad finally fenced off the mainline. A 1987 issue of the Packet, published by the East Greenwich Historic Preservation Society, noted that by 1900 seventeen weekday trains stopped at East Greenwich to and from Providence. This became a boon to business people and gave rise to regular commuters to and from the capitol city.
Wartime always brought increased traffic to railroads. During World War I, the Gallaudet Aircraft factory, just up the line in Chepiwanoxet, was slated to have its own siding, but it never happened. Instead, warplanes built there during the war years were crated, trucked down to the siding at East Greenwich, and loaded aboard trains. World War II saw several East Greenwich factories converted to production of military goods and these were also shipped by rail. After the war, however, rail traffic across the country began to decline as highways improved and truck and automobile usage increased.
By the 1960’s, air travel had put a major dent in long distance passenger rail service. The often-bankrupt New Haven Railroad finally bit the dust in 1969, succeeded by the short-lived Penn Central. The latter was merged into Conrail, which continues to this day. Amtrak took over passenger service and by the 1980s, ended service to East Greenwich, RI. One of the last station agents was John Allen, who lived on Spring Street according to the East Greenwich Preservation Society. The venerable depot was soon boarded up and fell into disrepair. The town negotiated for a number of years with the railroad before the building was eventually turned over for development and a new lease on life.
In the 1980s, with paint and primping, it reopened as a gourmet shop, All Aboard, Inc., and an eating place, the Depot Restaurant. In the 1990s, an early learning center opened in the building (and delighted children who could watch the mainline trains speed past their windows). Several other ventures came and went. Along the way, the building acquired a new owner who restored the exterior to the original station color scheme. For the past three years, the entire building has been rented to the Maurice Jeffery Professional Hair Studio. Owner/Manager Maurice LaPlante has his office in the area formerly occupied by the ticket window. Today, where passengers once eagerly awaited the arrival of their train, customers enjoy a cut and color or a blow dry.
One wonders what the first station agent, Captain Nathaniel Greene, would think if he were suddenly transported from the 19th century to stand in the middle of the station. Fortunately, East Greenwich has a penchant for preserving history and this important piece of the town’s past, along with many other irreplaceable structures, including own Varnum Memorial Armory Museum and the Varnum House Museum, enjoy a protected lease on life. It would be a shame if we had lost the East Greenwich Depot. Fortunately, it proved to be a survivor.
The author thanks the East Greenwich Historic Preservation Society and the New Haven Railroad Historical and Technical Association for information that contributed to this article.