East Providence, RI to Bristol, RI and Fall River, MA

The Providence, Warren and Bristol Railroad

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The northern end of abandoned PW&B tracks. Photo by Tom Lapointe.

At its peak, the Providence, Warren & Bristol Railroad (owned by the New Haven Railroad) was an electrified commuter rail line, seeing about 100 trains daily. In 1937, the company switched over to gas-electric cars. Ultimately, passenger service was completely discontinued by 1938 due to irreparable damage done by a hurricane that year, rendering the PW&B a freight-only railroad.

The PW&B's northern terminus was at India Point Park, where it branched from the New Haven Railroad (now AMTRAK's Northeast Corridor); this junction formed a wye on the east side of the Seekonk River, with the southern leg leading to PW&B. From there, its line ran over to East Providence, then through Riverside, Barrington, and Warren, with double track between Providence and Warren, a distance of 10 miles. From Warren, the line split into two single-track branches, one going east to Fall River, MA (10 miles) via the Slades Ferry swing bridge, the other to the railroad's southern terminus at Bristol, RI (4.5 miles).

Providence's Union Station was located just west of the PW&B's northern terminus. Attempts were made to run full size freight cars over the trolley tracks to Union Station, which resulted in frequent derailments. This spurred the construction of a massive lift bridge, a mile-long tunnel under East Providence, and a viaduct, in that order, to facilitate freight cars. Both the bridge and the tunnel were abandoned and the viaduct demolished when the Northeast Corridor was re-routed to facilitate some remodeling of the downtown area in Providence. The lift bridge is still in place, and the tunnel portals have since been sealed.

One interesting technical aspect of the electrification was the power system; the power house was located approximately at the center of the system, just north of the station location by a few blocks; the foundation remains for the boilers are just about 50 feet or so off the right side of the bike trail heading north out of Warren. The overhead was a standard 600 Volt DC trolley system (single-wire, not catenary, the cars used trolley poles). To handle peak rush-hour power demands, two battery stations were built close to the Providence & Fall River ends of the line; off-peak, the batteries were "float-charged" by the power plant in Warren. During rush hour periods, the battery stations would pick up some of the load, easing the burden on the powerhouse. Amazingly, the battery house on the Fall River end, which was located just a few hundred feet west of the Slades Ferry Bridge, in Swansea MA., is still in existence as a derelict building; it is believed to have been a machine shop (not railroad-related) for a while after the electrification was abandoned.

The Slades Ferry swing bridge on the Falls River branch was a double-decker affair with automobile traffic running inside the truss, and trains running atop. The bridge was destroyed when a passing ship attempted to navigate past the swing section and collided with it. This in effect ended PW&B passenger service to Falls River, as the bridge's railroad part was abandoned. The bridge was subsequently bought by the state of Massachusetts as a highway bridge, with a lift drawbridge replacing the original swing section. The completion of the much higher Braga bridge (I-195) rendered the Slades Ferry bridge a hazard to navigation and was demolished around 1965. Only the end abutments of the bridge exist today, along with a lone rusty semaphore mast that marks the line's path.

Rhode Island's East Bay Bike Path makes use of the PW&B's former right-of-way. Where the right-of-way was double-tracked, the bike path occupies one of the main lines; the parallel main line and its tracks is often visible running alongside. The track passes the original station in Riverside, which now houses a tanning salon.

The railroad tracks just north of the PW&B's northern terminus, which was owned by the Providence & Worcester, was recently abandoned and removed to make way for the reconstruction of the I-195 George Washington bridge, which flies over the line.

Thanks to Tom Lapointe for contributing information about this route.

Thouroughly enjoyed this brief history, especially the parts that pertained to the Fall River Branch. I would note one thing, however, the sub-station on the Fall River end was located in Somerset not Swansea. It is correct that the building (although derelict now) is still standing. If you would like, I will get a picture of it and send it to you.

George H. Petrin
Somerset, MA
2/26/2009

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Nice history, but I have one addition/correction. The railway tunnel was (and is) located on the East Side of Providence (under College Hill), not in East Providence. Wrong side of the river.

James
Rowley, MA
9/13/2009

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My Dad's father was the wireman on this railroad. My Dad is 93 and still kicking. We were just talking about the trains and we don't know what a wireman did. Could you shed some light on this?? Dad was born in 1916 and rode the rail with his father a few times when he was around 8, so, early 20s. thanks, Lynne

Lynne Morgan (Darling)
orig Bristol now Beaufort SC, RI
1/23/2010

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Any idea when the last freight train ran this rail ?

No photos of any trains exist ?

There is a good photo that exists of the Nayatt station at the Barrington Preservation Society.

Dave
Barrington, RI
5/19/2010

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Hi, enjoyed the information on the Providence Warren and Bristol Railroad.

I don't remember the trains, but I recall a pedestrian overpass on Wilbur Avenue in Somerset, MA. It was a very dangerous grade crossing. In 1911 a new highway was constructed just a bit north of the Slades Ferry Bridge. This road cut through the Durfee Farm. People had a choice of using the grade crossing or using the new road. I know the Brayton Family of Fall River (mill owners) had an interest in this railroad.

I'm garnering information on the New Haven's project to eliminate grade crossing in the north end of Fall River. It began around 1901. It was indeed a major engineering project.

Thomas Travis
Fall River, MA
1/3/2011

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When did the last trains/train run on the tracks around the providence bristol area?

Bret Milot
Bristol, ri
12/14/2011

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Played at the demolished powerhouse. For the children on Park St. we had a great playground climbing on the buildings. Trying to locate a picture of the powerhouse. It had a tall tower. Stood on Park St. with my mother, about 3 yrs old, watched it being blown up. When the trains went by we would run up to the tracks so we could wave to the engineer. If anyone has a picture would appreciate seeing it. Too young to remember the building.

Rita
Warren, RI
2/18/2012

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I am doing a presentation tomorrow night (3/21) at 6:30 p.m. at the Fall River Public Library on the Fall River & Warren RR and the Slade's Ferry Bridge. My talk will cover the elimination of grade crossings in Fall River.

George H. Petrin
Somerset, MA
3/20/2012

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My grandfather told me he often used the train to get to Warren for a beer when prohibition ended sooner in Rhode Island than in Massachusetts.

We used to walk the right-of-way from South Swansea to the site of the Cole's River Bridge. Even then a good part of the gravel roadbed had been stripped away. There used to be a sort of wall between Ocean Grove and the Mildred Avenue part of town - the railroad embankment.

One correction: The battery house was in Somerset, not Swansea. The line went through a cut that parallelled Route 103 just before the Walker Street crossing. When the railroad closed the tracks were quickly removed and the cut became The Somerset Dump which was notorious for catching fire and smoldering for days, sometimes weeks.

In Ocean Grove there was a sort of station that was primarily the post office. It's still there on Ocean Grove Avenue, now a residence. It has an odd parallelogram shape. There used to be a side door next to the tracks with a boom that swung out to load/unload mail sacks. In the 1940's the Dionne family ran the post office and a soda fountain/sandwich shop that was open year round.

Les Brown
Palmer, AK
2/4/2013

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I remember a passenger train making the final journey through Barrington when I was a kid, I think it was 1961 or 1962, does anyone remember this trip and when it was.

Joel Wood
Barrington, RI
10/30/2013

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I grew up in Rehoboth, MA, and vividly remember going across the Slades Ferry bridge on our way to Westport. We always begged my parents to us that bridge and were sad when it was closed and even sadder when it was torn down.

Alicia
Philadelphia, PA
4/21/2014

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