The View of Swamptown: Remembering the South County Rail Wars | The view from Swamptown
Just over 115 years ago, on June 25, 1904, long before environmental impact studies and building permit requirements, the South County Rail Wars officially began. In the first light of that beautiful Saturday morning, two huge work crews working for two separate railway lines met at the site of the railway viaduct known as the Hunt’s River Crossing on the border between North Kingstown and East Greenwich and got down to work. The crew working for the New Haven Line, one of the many predecessors of today’s Amtrak, built two long wooden passenger platforms along its north and southbound tracks, and the Workers working for the Sea View electric streetcar line worked on installing a spur of their line on a slight slope ending alongside the newly constructed passenger docks. This first “blitzkrieg” action in the smoldering battle between three of the four South County railways came to an end before darkness set in.
The New Haven Railroad, the obvious “alpha dog” of transportation in southern New England, has always had a controversial relationship with the third party in this battle, the Narragansett Pier Railroad (NPRR); and in the spring of 1904, they decided to strike preemptively and began secret negotiations with the Sea View Line to cross the bread and butter activities of the NPRR, through the passengers from Providence heading to the jetty, and redirect it to the Sea View Line. Negotiations and the resulting contract were kept “on the QT” and construction activity at Hunt’s River was carried out on the weekends to attract minimal attention. But during that week before July 4th – well this week, the media blitz started. Each weekend morning four express trains departing from Providence met four electric streetcar express trips from Hunt River to the pier and the same arrangements occurred each late afternoon / evening. In 40 minutes, for just $ 1.00 round trip, a Providence factory worker and his family could be on the beaches of Narragansett or walking around the casino grounds. It was 25 cents cheaper and half an hour faster than using the NPRR from Kingston, and there was no longer any reason to carry your picnic basket from the NPRR station on Boon Street to the beach, because the Ouida de Sea View station was right next door. to the Pier beach house. And heck, if you didn’t feel like carrying that picnic basket, the folks at Sea View had arranged a ticket upgrade that included dinner ashore at a hotel next door to Narragansett Pier. As you can imagine, the effect on NPRR weekend ridership was immediate and devastating. The NPRR retaliated against the only entity they could, the Sea View Electric Trolley Line, when they canceled their long-standing contract which allowed rights of way on NPRR-owned lines for Sea View cars heading to Wakefield and Peacedale. In 1907 the Sea View retaliated, now supported not only by the New Haven Line, but by the enormous and powerful United Electric Railway from Marsden Perry, it built its own tracks from Sea View Junction on the south side of Tower Hill and in the center of Main Street in Wakefield stopping abruptly just north of the NPRR lanes. The NPRR retaliated when it refused to allow the Sea View to cross its tracks, thus nullifying the dreams, held by both Sea View management and powerful Providence transport mogul Marsden Perry of a service across the state.
Throughout all of these battles, the New Haven Line, like a child who had just pierced a giant hornet’s nest with a stick, sat down and waited for everything to calm down. They couldn’t lose, you see, no matter who came out victorious in the South County Rail War, they still needed the New Haven Line, at least that’s what their leadership thought. But, that was really a moot point, a new kid with a bigger stick was moving into the streets soon. This “kid” was called Henry Ford and his stick, the Model T, was going to change everything.
The author is the historian for the city of North Kingstown. The opinions expressed here are his.