Historic Structures

Westerly Train Station, Westerly Rhode Island

Date added: November 8, 2016 Categories: Rhode Island Train Station

Much of Westerly's historic period development is owed to its location on major transportation arteries that linked the major cities of the Northeast. Located on the headwaters of the Pawcatuck River, the most significant river route in southern Rhode Island, the city initially served as an important waterborne travel and shipping point for the surrounding countryside. By the mid-seventeenth century, a system of roads, including Post Road (U.S. Highway 1), was established and connected Westerly with Providence and Boston to the north and New York to the south. Settlement, however, remained sparse in the small village until the mid-nineteenth century, when the Industrial Revolution began to gather steam.

Westerly's position as a shipping center was augmented by the completion of the Stonington and Providence Railroad (S&P) through the village in 1837. The 47-mile Stonington Road was constructed only two years after the opening of New England's first railroad, the Boston and Providence (B&P). Before the establishment of those rail lines, travel between New York and Boston was difficult. The overland route along winding Post Road took several days to complete. Ship travel, while faster and more comfortable, required rounding the arm of Cape Cod, a dangerous journey during storms. The B&P line provided the first viable alternative to ship travel around the Cape. After its completion, goods were transported by rail to India Point in Providence and offloaded onto ships bound for New York via Narragansett Bay. The completion of the Stonington Road made the trip faster and safer by allowing shippers to bypass the sometimes treacherous sea passage around Point Judith at the southwest corner of Narragansett Bay and providing direct access to the relatively calm Long Island Sound.

One of four stops on the Stonington Road, Westerly gained prominence in the region as a shipping point and provided impetus for the expansion of the area's industrial production. Textile production was the leading industry, but other manufacturing facilities followed and helped sustain modest growth in Westerly throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century.

In 1858, the parent company of the Stonington Road, the New York, Providence, and Boston Railroad Company (NYP&B), extended the line from Stonington to Groton, Connecticut. The new connection made it possible, with the exception of a ferry ride across the Thames River, to travel by train from Boston to New York City. In 1872, the NYP&B added a second track to the Stonington Road and undertook a program to improve depot facilities along the line. Westerly received a new depot, which was constructed just east of the site of the original station along what is now Railroad Avenue.

The final barrier to rapid rail service along the northeastern seaboard was eliminated in 1889, when the large steel Thames River Railroad Bridge was completed from Groton to New London. The scenic "Shore Line," which included the NYP&B's Stonington Line and the line south of the Thames River to New York, soon became the favorite of intercity rail travelers along the Northeast corridor. In 1892 the rapidly expanding New Haven Railroad leased the entire line from New York to Boston.

Talk of replacing the two-story, wood-frame structure that had served as Westerly's depot since 1873 began in the late 1890s, but no concrete action was taken by the New Haven Railroad until 1911 when the railroad announced a major plan to upgrade facilities in Westerly. Included in the plans were the construction of a new passenger and freight depots, the elimination of a dangerous grade crossing at Canal Street, and the reduction of a sharp curve between West and West Broad streets.

While the track straightening and Canal Street crossing problems were significant safety concerns, planning for the new passenger depot generated the most local excitement. During the railroad era, the relative size and design of a depot was a measure of the confidence of railroad officials in the town and was considered an important element in forming a visitor's first impression of the community. Local officials often lobbied hard for an impressive edifice that would bring prestige to their town.

Negotiations for a new depot between the Westerly Town Council and the railroad began as early as 1906 when a handsome, but relatively small building was proposed. The railroad offered a more substantial building as part of its general improvement plan of 1911. Local officials, however, were still not satisfied. Finally, in May 1912, Edwin Milner, a Westerly native and an officer for the New Haven Railroad, unveiled a set of improved plans that exceeded the expectations.

The new plans called for the construction of what Milner termed a "Spanish Renaissance" style building. It was to be one story in height and measure 123 feet in length and 48 feet in width. The foundation of the building was supposed to be faced with Westerly granite, but was later changed to more economical brick. The walls were terracotta block finished with stucco and the roof was to be surfaced with ceramic pantile, which was appealing to local officials since it fit in nicely with a similar roof installed on the nearby Westerly Memorial Library. Three arcaded passenger shelters with arches, columns, and roofs that matched those of the station and a 240 feet-long platform shelter were also planned for the site.

Although no concrete source evidence has been found concerning the architect of Westerly Station, the design is consistent with other contemporary works of F.W. Mellor, who served as the New Haven Railroad's in-house architect during the period in which the depot was constructed. Mellor oversaw the railroad's early-twentieth-century reconstruction program, which produced a number of passenger stations, interlocking towers, and electrical buildings designed with Spanish Colonial and Mission style elements.

Construction of Westerly Station commenced in the summer of 1912 and was completed the following April. Work on several ancillary facilities, including a subway passage to the westbound track, continued into the fall of 1913. The total cost of improvements made by the New Haven Railroad in Westerly between 1911 and 1913 amounted to more than $500,000.

Soon after the completion of the improvement program, the Westerly Sun reported that the "town can now boast of having the finest layout for the handling of freight and passenger traffic of any place on the Shore Line division of the New York, New Haven and Hartford road between New York and Boston". In the context of local development, the station was part of a general period of civic improvement, which saw the construction of a number of impressive buildings in Westerly's downtown area, including the James A. Welch Building at 41-43 Broad Street (1911), Westerly Town Hall and Courthouse on Broad Street (1912), Westerly Post Office on High Street (1913-14), Murphy Building at 2-8 Canal Street (1913), Industrial Trust Building at 14 High Street (1916) and the Crandall Block at 10-16 Canal Street (1917).

The most significant alteration to the original appearance of the station occurred in 1952, when the masonry and steel platform canopy on the eastbound side of the tracks was removed after a flagman on a passing train was critically injured after being struck in the head while leaning out the window of one of the train 's two engines. In 1969, the Penn Central Railroad acquired all of the New Haven Railroad's assets, including Westerly Station. Two years later, after the U.S. Congress formed the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, the station became a stop on Amtrak's Northeastern route. In 1997, Westerly Station was sold to the State of Rhode Island, but remains in operation as an Amtrak station.