Facebook Page

November 30th, article in the South County Independent Newspaper in Rhode Island

Station museum would preserve rail history


By Dan Orchard

Independent Staff Writer


WEST KINGSTON - Frank Heppner remembers the days of steam engine locomotives. Long before bullet trains were even a consideration and back when the East Coast depended on the fruit-block trains of Southern California to deliver fresh apples after the autumn harvest, Heppner was a 10-year-old with a passion for trains. From 10 miles away he could hear the great boilers roar as the engines for the South Pacific Rail pulled 100 ice cars out of San Francisco. He and his friends would hop on their bikes and pedal to the tracks to watch the engines chug by.

For Heppner, the best spot for train-watching was atop a grassy ledge where the tracks cut right through a hill. He couldn't see the train off in the distance, only a pillar of smoke as the locomotive snaked through the trench. Then the ground would rumble and the roaring would rise until out of the bend charged a 5-million-pound steel machine running as smooth as a Swiss watch.

With a cigar in his mouth and one hand on the throttle, the engineer looked out from his pulpit on his orange and red locomotive, raised his gauntlet-gloved hand and waved to the boys as he passed. Sometimes if he was feeling good he even blew the whistle.

"I looked at the engineer as he passed and I thought, 'That's what God must look like, because only God could have that kind of power,'" said Heppner as he sat beneath a painting of a South Pacific locomotive in his office at the University of Rhode Island.

Whether they are steam engines carting apples in the 1950s, box cars housing hobos in the Depression or passenger cars carrying you into New York City's Penn Station for the first time, trains have a romanticism associated with them. That is why Heppner and the other members of the Friends of Kingston Station - the volunteer organization that restored the station in 1974 and in 1998 - are seeking approval from the state Department of Transportation to build a R.I. Railroad Museum at the Kingston Station.

According to their proposal to the DOT, the museum would inform the public, especially children, about the history and technology of railroads in Rhode Island and their relationship to other modes of transportation. In addition, students and faculty from the University of Rhode Island would use the facility to research the history and technology of rail transportation.

The Friends envision the construction of a museum in several phases, beginning with the half of the station that is used by the DOT as a temporary storage area. After attempts to lease that space to a small business or gift shop failed, the Friends came up with the idea of starting a museum.

Working with the New England Museum Association, the Friends would use the station to display photographs, antique equipment and model trains that tell the history of the Rhode Island rails.

"From the time the first train of the Boston and Providence Railroad chuffed into Providence in 1835, railroads have played an important part of the economic and technological life of Rhode Island. Locomotive works such as Mason, in Providence, normalized the American industrial revolution established by Samuel Slater in Pawtucket in the 1700s," the Friends said. "More recently, the establishment of the American train speed record of 168 mph between Kingston and Davisville demonstrated that rail technology in America has emerged from a long sleep."

Eventually, the Friends would like to build a separate building - perhaps a reconstruction of the old freight station - on adjoining state land. The new facility would be a technology center, housing locomotive simulators, computer dispatching and communication equipment and displays on power plant principles.

Heppner suggested that a miniature steam train could even connect the two buildings.

Down the road, the railroad could be linked the South County Museum in Canonchet Farm by way of the South County Bike Path. The bike path, which already runs along the route of the old Narragansett Pier Road, would then begin and end at a museum, said Heppner.

Besides its historical significance, Heppner said the station would be an ideal location for a museum because it is still operational.

"Over 50,000 train tickets a year are sold in the Kingston station, and there are an equal number of individuals dropping off or picking up passengers," the Friends said. "Each rail patron is a potential visitor to the museum."

Heppner said Amtrak's diesel equipment will become obsolete now that the tracks in the Northeast corridor have electricity and bullet trains have been introduced. Amtrak, however, still will need maintain a few of the surplus engines at different locations in case they are needed during a power failure or other maintenance problem.

"Why not store the rescue engines here," Heppner said, pointing to a space on a map of the station where a short length of track once ran and could run again. "Instead of dead museum displays we'd have fully operational historic engines. Amtrak is going to have to pay for the maintenance anyway, so it would be mutually beneficial."

While diesel engines might not have the nostalgic interest of a steam locomotive, the Friends said that the recently phased out F40HP diesel locomotives and Amfleet passenger cars represent the only passenger trains Rhode Islanders under 30 have ever known.

"Maybe kids today are going to be nostalgic about diesel trains just like we are about the steam engines from our age," Heppner said.

Heppner said that Amtrak supports the concept of a museum and that the proposal was submitted to DOT in early November.

"That's the turning point," Heppner said about the proposal. "If we get the lease, then get out of our way. We're going to have trains in South County."

Heppner said the Friends have a credible reputation with the DOT from the work the group has done on the station. The organization was founded in 1973 by a handful of residents who were appalled that their beloved station had fallen into disrepair. During one week in 1974, 180 Friends scraped, painted and refurbished the station and eventually placed it on the National Register of Historic Places.

Considering their job complete, the group dissolved. Over the next decade, however, the station was not maintained to the group's standard, and after a fire in 1988 threatened to destroy the station forever, the Friends re-formed.

The second phase of renovations was not finished until 1998. But fearing that if they dissolved again history would repeat itself, the Friends remained intact. Because they are all interested in the history of the railroad, a museum seemed like the next logical addition to the station.

"Kids these days don't experience the power of steam locomotives," Heppner said, recalling his childhood memories. "But maybe with these new high-speed trains barreling through the countryside . . . maybe that awe will return and we will have a new generation of fanatics. Not so much because of power, but because of speed. Speed is addictive, too."

used with permission from the writer and editor