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A Visit to the New Providence Train Station

Written in June, 1986 by Rowena Dunlap for a URI Journalism class ©

I rode the train from Kingston to Providence recently, filled with anticipation, to view the new $23.5 million train station which opened three weeks ago on June 16, 1986.

For several weeks, I had sat in my evening class at the University of Rhode Island extension building, gazing out the window at the shiny, new stainless-steel domed structure. In the evening summer sky, the dome takes on the pinkish hues cast by the setting sun. I checked the time every so often on the bold new clock face on the tower.

After ten evenings of gazing at the outside of the structure, I decided I must go see the new building. I pondered taking a stroll over to see it from the extension building but instead decided to board the train in Kingston and enjoy the ride to Providence.

One Tuesday afternoon, I went to the Kingston train station a half hour ahead of the departure time. A quaint, Victorian-era station, the outside is lined with flower boxes brimming with cascading pink petunias. Three old men were sitting on one of the benches inside taking in the day. They weren’t going anywhere: they were just doing a little conversing, people-watching and generally enjoying themselves. No one seems to mind their presence. In fact, they seem perfectly suited to the environment.

After reading all the news clippings on the bulletin board, I went up to the ticket counter and purchased a round-trip ticket for $13.00. The trip to Providence and back on the bus is only $3.50. At this point, I decided to compare the quality of the two forms of transportation. What does that extra $9.50 cover?

After boarding the train, I walked through two cars before locating an unoccupied window seat. The train whisks out of the station and I am off on my journey! For a few moments, I wriggle around in my seat seeking a comfortable position. First crossing one leg and then the other, I look for a footrest and see there are none! So I settle for dangling one foot over the other and begin to gaze out the window when I notice the spots of mud speckled all across my window. Becoming more incensed over the exorbitant price I have just paid, I realize I had better calm down and look for the bright side of things. I check out the passengers. Most are asleep, occupying two seats side by side. One woman is a foreign exchange student from England as evidenced by her conversation with another nearby woman. Some other lady keeps asking, “Are we in Providence yet?” I tell her I am headed to Providence and she is relieved to have someone to lead the way for her. I sit back, ignoring the mud speckles on the window, and enjoy the view of fields, woods, backyards, back decks of condominiums, the back sides of lumberyards and in finally, Providence.

The train slides into the station, opens its doors and empties itself of much of its load of passengers. We try to orient ourselves to our new surroundings. An Amtrak police officer points the way to the escalator up to the main floor. I feel immersed in concrete. The floors, the walls, the support columns and the ceiling of the platform are all constructed of smooth-faced concrete. Upstairs in the waiting room is one doughnut-shaped bench about 25 feet in diameter. It is smooth, blonde wood and has seats on either side, in a circle.

The walls are concrete. The floor is made up of large four by four foot slabs of slate. Dead center beneath the dome is a small, very modest circle of marble about four feet in diameter. Missing are the words to be inscribed in slate in the center of the station, beneath the dome. A circle of concrete surrounding the marble circle in the center of the waiting room marks where the words will go. The Federal Railroad Administration, which foots the bill for this $23.5 million structure, has not yet decided what these words will be. There is space for up to 94 characters.

The overriding feature of the new train station is its barren inhospitality. Though part of this due to is newness, much of it seems to be planned. Both bus stations and train stations become havens for homeless people and those with no place to go. By keeping the station as bare as possible, the police and station agents are better able to witness any problems and keep the “traffic” moving along.

For the past three weeks, the Independent Man atop our State House building has had a new view, and I imagine he may be wondering just who has landed here and how long they plan to stay in the vicinity. Modern architecture often finds itself an unwelcome intruder in an otherwise, unsettled neighborhood. This building is cold and sterile, designed by the Washington based firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, according to the strict confines of the minimalist discipline.

Now I should tell you what has become of our old generous-sized Union Station. She is boarded shut. The Union Station, opened in 1898, was designed by Stone, Carpenter and Wilson and constructed by the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad. It consisted of five separate yellow brick buildings. The east building burned down in 1941. This station was one of the first to provide track access through pedestrian subways. In 1976, the exterior was cleaned and restored to its original colors, but the interior continued to deteriorate. Pigeons fluttered through the high ceilings of the waiting room and vagrants occupied many of the high-backed dark wood benches.

My drawing instructor at the Rhode Island School of Design, Bill Heydt, often took his classes to the train station to do quick sketches of people. It was a great place to people-watch. The variety was marvelous. If it was raining and I was passing by, I would stop in, pick up a newspaper and rest for a few minutes.

Similar problems of decrepitude and old age afflicted train stations along the so-called Northeast Corridor, consisting of the stretch of tracks between Boston and Washington. In the mid-1970’s, Congress decided to do something about them. The federal government proposed upgrading the Amtrak system. Its plan included refurbishing Union Station and improving the elevated tracks through downtown.

The local planners had other ideas in mind: doing away with the old Chinese Wall railroad that blocked downtown from the State House, circumscribing acres of potentially valuable land that was being used as parking lots. Furthermore, Providence didn’t really need a station designed for hundreds of trains when Amtrak ran about 20 daily through the city. So the idea of moving the tracks and building a new station was hatched. With this move about 30 acres, 18 owned by Capital Properties, a real estate company associated with the Providence & Worcester Railroad, will be opened up for development. Recently added to the plan is a $39 million river relocation project that will rip away road decks covering the Moshassuck and Woonsquatucket Rivers. The idea is to restore a part of the city’s waterfront that railroads originally took away.

Once the railroad embankment is removed, Union Station will become stores and offices with twin condominium towers flanking a plaza to be built where the train platform is located. The state, which owns the station, is planning to sell it, beginning in September to a consortium of local businessmen. The station’s west building already has been converted into offices by the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce.

While reviewing my travel plans, I realized that had I ridden the bus to Providence, I would have gone via I-95, stopping briefly at the state airport in Warwick, and the trip would take 55 minutes instead of the rail trip of 25 minutes. On the bus ride, I would not have been able to buy a pre-packaged 85 cents brownie, but I would have had $9.50 left over to bake several pans of double fudge brownies at home!

Now that the old Union Station is closed, the vagrants have shifted positions and relocated themselves in the bus terminal. Amtrak has successfully sloughed off the bums. I will wait and see when the bus terminal decides they need a spotless new building.

The old sense of the romance of trains is completely lost on the new Providence train station. It is just slightly out of the pedestrian distance to the downtown area. That helps support the taxis and the buses. It is, however, highly visible from the windows of the State House on the hill overlooking it.

Each time a door closes, a window opens, goes the old saying. We have just lost something rather large and intangible, a grand old feeling of really going somewhere. The Union Station sparked the imagination in a very colorful way. I was afraid to use the toilets there: that child’s fear of emerging crocodiles struck me every time. One never wasted time in the ladies lounge unless you happened to be a bag-lady and had a part-time residence there and needed to comb out your matted, tangled hair.

If only seven maids with seven mops could have been hired to sweep away the debris and scour the station clean! Vivid imagination that I have, I could always see through the station’s cobwebs and grime. Bill Heydt will have to take his drawing classes to the bus station now. It is the 1980’s, I suppose people-watching will soon be dubbed loitering. In the new train station there is a sense of safety and security: there are numerous police patrolling the place. But it is oh so awfully horribly dreadfully boring!


Interviewees: 1 Amtrak Police

1 Ticket seller in Providence

1 Ticket seller in Kingston (Jack McCabe)

1 Disoriented passenger from California

Horizon magazine, April 1986

Providence Journal, with special thanks to Russ Garland and to Tim Murphy who says to say hello to Linda Levin from the Wakefield office.


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