By Jim Ignasher
In the 19th- century, decades before the first airplane took to the skies, there were “air-line” railroads. The term, “air-line” was used to describe a route that ran fairly straight and flat in a more or less direct line from one point to another. In 1847, the Providence & Worcester Railroad began operation of such a line in Smithfield along the shore of the Blackstone River.
It should be noted that before the division of Smithfield in 1871, the municipalities of Central Falls, Lincoln, North Smithfield, and Woonsocket south of the Blackstone River, were all part of the town of Smithfield.
The idea of linking Providence and Woonsocket by rail was proposed as early as 1843. At the time, Woonsocket was still an unincorporated village in the town of Cumberland, but it had grown to be a significant manufacturing center. And this was an era when roads between cities and towns were unpaved, unplowed, and usually poorly maintained. A rail line could provide a safer and faster means of travel, as well as a more economical and efficient way for mills and businesses to get their goods to other markets.
Yet the rail proposal was only part of a grander plan, for it was hoped Woonsocket would become a railroad hub for southern New England. The railroad men envisioned a time when one could travel by train from New York to Boston, more economically, in less time, and without the dangers and discomforts associated with maritime or stage coach travel.
On December 20, 1843, a meeting was held at the Woonsocket Hotel where local citizens gathered to discuss the plan. The meeting was a success, and several resolutions were drafted, all in favor of the railroad. The minutes were posted in the Woonsocket Weekly Patriot on December 22. However, seven days later the paper printed a letter penned by a person identified only as “J.C.M.”, who felt that such a railroad would hurt local businesses and decrease property values. As proof he cited the town of Dedham, Massachusetts, which he maintained had enjoyed economic prosperity before being connected to Boston by rail. The letter stated in part: “The merchants, by moderate profits, could compete with the retailers of Boston – simply by reason of the high fare and tedious ride which customers must necessarily encounter going to Boston.” After the railroad was built, “Store after store closed for want of business.” In short, the railroad made it easer for shoppers to travel for bargains, and J.C.M feared the same would happen to Woonsocket.
J.C.M. wasn’t the only voice of opposition. Stage coach lines and nautical companies weren’t anxious to compete with the railroads for freight and passengers, but despite efforts to curtail the project, the “Air-Line” was finally approved, and surveyors laid out the intended route in 1844.
Construction began in 1846, and the line opened for business on October 27, 1847. The train that made the inaugural run from Providence had two locomotives, twenty cars, and 1,500 passengers. Crowds gathered along the way to watch it pass, some firing salutes from pistols or small cannons.
However, even though the trains were running, not all aspects of construction had been completed. The depots, for example, had yet to be finished, and certain portions of the route still needed upgrading. Yet the venture was so popular that it was soon reported there was more freight business than the railroad could presently handle.
An editorial in the Woonsocket Weekly Patriot referred to the project as “…the great highway of New England, and the paragon of modern enterprise.”
The tracks ran from Providence to Pawtucket, and then into Central Falls, which in 1847 was considered “downtown” Smithfield. From there the tracks led to Valley Falls, Lonsdale, and Ashton in the town of Cumberland, before crossing the Blackstone River and back into Smithfield at Albion. From there they led to Manville, Hamlet, and Bernon Village, before crossing the Blackstone again and entering the village of Woonsocket, From Depot Square they continued west crossing the river again back into Smithfield and Waterford Village before crossing the state line and continuing on to Worcester.
Passenger trains ran every day except Sunday, beginning at 7 a.m. There were also special “merchandise trains” that began rolling at 6 a.m.
A special rail road stage line was begun to convey rail passengers to their final destinations not serviced by the railroad.
By 1851 passengers could make connections to express trains to cities like Hartford, Springfield, and New York.
There’s no doubt that the “Air-Line” helped Woonsocket to grow into the city it is today. Yet for all their benefits, early railroads lacked the electronic safety features we take for granted today, and sometimes accidents occurred.
On August 12, 1853, two trains utilizing the air-line route collided head-on at Valley Falls killing thirteen people and severely injuring others. The wreck was initially blamed on a conductor named Putnam who with only two weeks on the job, hadn’t been properly instructed in his duties.
Months later, in May of 1854, while reporting on the civil trial that resulted from the accident, the Woonsocket Weekly Patriot stated in part, “…as the real facts and circumstances of the disaster are brought to light, much of the blame attributed to Mr. Putnam is seen as undeserved.”
This wreck, by the way, was the first railroad accident to ever be photographed.
On July 21, 1855, a derailment occurred as a train approached the Woonsocket Depot injuring several passengers, one seriously.
A few days later on July 26, a train crashed into some boulders which had fallen on the tracks due to heavy rain just outside of Waterford. The train was wrecked, but miraculously there were no serious injuries.
Another derailment at Albion on July 11, 1870 took the life of a brakeman.
On January 18, 1893, a horse-drawn sleigh carrying twenty-four people was struck broadside at the Lonsdale crossing. Eight people were killed and sixteen others seriously injured.
Despite these incidents, the “Air-Line” proved to be a great success and until January of 2017 was still operated by the Providence & Worcester Railroad. Today it’s managed by the Genesee & Wyoming Railroad.