Where is Westerly headed? To get a better understanding of that, let’s look at the history of where we’ve been and how we got there, starting with the Westerly train station downtown.
Rhode Island was an early adopter of many of the innovations of the Industrial Revolution, which accounts for the number and variety of old mills across the state. With these innovations came a need to transport material, goods, and people faster and more efficiently. From the mid-1800s on, many railways were built to connect the different cities and towns, but eventually, most were absorbed into the New Haven, New York and Hartford Railroad Company. Over the course of approximately 75 years, the New Haven built two different stations very near where the current station stands today before finally building the one we know and love in 1912.
The core of that building is brick, but the red clay and stucco exterior is that of a Spanish revival. At the time that the station was being built, this style was considered very innovative and was popular among designers, due to Arizona and New Mexico receiving statehood that same year and the country’s general fascination with all things Southwestern.
In 1998, the state purchased the station and gave it a $2 million dollar makeover to help restore it to its original splendor, including a new roof and a facelift for the waiting room area, as well as air conditioning and more modern electrical work. At this time, local artist Kam Ghaffari was also awarded the opportunity to create a piece of art for the corner of Canal and Railroad.
The piece can still be seen today; the stacked granite stones pay homage to Westerly’s quarries, discovered in the mid-1800s, while the three bronze salmon represent the many salmon that once swam in the nearby Pawcatuck River in the early 1700s. In fact, the etymology of “Misquamicut” is in essence “a place for catching red salmon.”
Despite the renovations and reconfiguration of the space over the years, the ticket desk remained in place all along, which makes the removal of ticketing agents from the station all the more upsetting for some residents. Amtrak’s Media Relations spokesperson Mike Tolbert explained that electronic ticketing has “materially changed the way passengers book their travel,” and reported that in-person ticket sales accounted for less than 7% of the total in 2015.
As a result, the doors to the Westerly train station were closed last October and the employment of ticketing agents was ended, although passengers can still purchase tickets online or over the phone and then board at the platform if they wish. This decision was met with opposition from local representatives, including State Sen. Dennis Algiere and Westerly Town Councilor Jean Gagnier, who expressed concerns about a lack of friendly human interaction and information for new visitors to the town and decreased overall ridership, especially at a time when the downtown scene is really beginning to thrive again.
The Westerly Chamber of Commerce, shocked by the abrupt decision, also expressed displeasure. “Any loss of services at the train station has a negative impact on the downtown economy,” Lisa Konicki said via email. “It could cause people to choose another community for their rail service. Closing the building was very disappointing news for rail customers from a customer service perspective. During the cold winter or inclement weather, the building is a welcomed comfort for those waiting for the train.”
The desire to travel and convey materials quickly and efficiently is nothing new, as we know from the inspiration to build the railroad tracks and stations in the first place, but it is this same desire which is causing a lot of commotion in nearby Charlestown and beyond. In very basic terms, the idea is to straighten out the existing railways to make for a most straightforward path between cities and allow for more high speed trains to pass through and thereby cut down on travel time for passengers.
An Environmental Impact study was released by the Federal Railroad Association (FRA) in November of 2015 but most Rhode Island residents were not made aware of the full scope of the proposed project until December of last year. The pushback by individuals, local politicians, groups such as the Charlestown Citizens Alliance, and even Amtrak itself was almost immediate, and they have joined forces with residents and lawmakers in Connecticut to oppose the measure.
While many are in favor of more high-speed trains, the concern was that the Old Saybrook to Kenyon Bypass would cut into residential areas, low-income housing units, historic farms, and Native American land in Charlestown. There were also concerns that the project would negatively impact the town’s environment and the surrounding areas by infringing on protected wildlife preserves and threatening aquifers.
In July, the FRA dropped the Old Saybrook to Kenyon Bypass after receiving negative feedback from hundreds of community members who opposed that particular segment.
Meanwhile, proponents of the project claim that the high-speed trains will provide greater and faster commuting options for a growing population and they cannot be safely built without straightening the tracks because of dangerous curves. These curves, combined with engineer error, have contributed to several deadly crashes in the US over the past two decades.
As previously mentioned, downtown Westerly is undergoing its own renaissance these days, with new bars, bookstores, and art galleries opening up all the time, and there are many unanswered questions about the long-lasting effect of the station’s closure. Will popular demand bring it back for its original purpose? Will it be rented out and become another new hot spot or a community center? Perhaps the real test will come next summer, when the tourism season kicks into high gear once again.
One thing is certain, though – despite disagreements about the best path to take, we all want Westerly to keep going in the right direction.
All black & white photos courtesy of Westerly Library & Wilcox Park