East Side Train Tunnel

In use for almost 70 years, the East Side Train tunnel burrows beneath College Hill and once connected Union Station to East Providence

About this Property

#Reason for Closure

The tunnel and viaduct connected all rail traffic from Fall River, Massachusetts, and the eastern shore of the Narragansett Bay with the main shoreline route of the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad. Passenger service on this line was short-lived and discontinued in 1937. From then until 1981 the tunnel and line was used only for freight traffic.

Rail service dwindled as highways took over day-to-day transportation. In the 1950s, the second track was removed as freight service also dwindled. The continuation into Bristol was abandoned in 1976, and by 1981 the last train traversed the tracks. The ownership of the tunnel transferred from the Providence and Worcester Railroad to the State of Rhode Island in 1981, and the tunnel was closed as part of the Northeast Corridor Improvement Project shortly after.

When construction began in 2000 to renovate 101 North Main Street and construct a new building at 2 Thomas Street, the steel doors covering the tunnel entrance under Benefit Street were painted and the old track area in front of it was cleaned up and made into a surface parking lot.

#Current Events

In 2003, Brown University and the Mayor of East Providence, Rolland Grant, and Robert Manchester (a Brown Alum) considered putting trains back into the tunnel and linking East Providence and the East Side and Downtown once again, with proposed underground stops at Thayer Street and Benefit Street. This proposal was fun to think about but clearly went nowhere.

In 2020 the tunnel still sits under College Hill, largely forgotten. Both entrances are shut with welded steel doors.

#History

Compiled from various sources

This tunnel was conceptualized in 1903 as a means of giving easy rail access to Union Station in the center of Providence. The tunnel connects the Seekonk and the Providence rivers, or Downtown Providence and the East Providence waterfront industrial district. The “Scherzer Rolling Lift Bridge” crossed over the Seekonk River to continue the railroad tracks into East Providence. Before Waterplace park changed downtown, a large concrete pier supporting a steel viaduct took trains out of the west entrance through what is now the Citizens bank headquarters building and behind Union Station. Many of the stones from this viaduct and embankment, once it was demolished, were reused as pavers in Waterplace Park.

The East Side Railroad tunnel — not to be confused with the East Side Trolley Tunnel, which was built in 1913 and is used now as a bus route from South Main street to Thayer street — was begun in 1906. Crews working east from Benefit St. and west from Gano St. met below Cooke St. on April 7, 1908, a day earlier than expected. The tunnel officially opened on November 15, 1908.

It is 22 feet high, 31 feet wide, 5080 feet long, and the reinforced concrete roof is a set of “three-centered arches varying from two feet at the crown to four feet at the skewbacks.” 200,000 yards of material was excavated, and the cost of the project, which included the bridge over the Seekonk river and the approach to Union station was two million dollars. No casualties were reported during construction. The Benefit St. Armory was moved to its present location to make way for the tunnel. At its most shallow, the top of the tunnel is 30 feet below ground, while at its deepest under Prospect Street it is 110 feet below.

A somber ceremony marked the closing of the Fox Point railroad station, in which a procession followed the last “transfer car” downtown. The Fox Point station had served the city for 73 years but had been made obsolete by this new tunnel that brought trains directly in to the newer Union Station on Exchange Terrace.

Originally the tunnel had two tracks, one of which was electrified, as the line to Bristol and Fall River was served by electric interurban cars until 1934. The tunnel also provided a route to Boston for trains that did not need to stop at Pawtucket. Traffic patterns changed, the second track was removed in the 1950’s and the tunnel became a route for freight trains only. The line to Bristol was abandoned in 1976. In 1981 ownership of the tunnel itself was transferred to the State of Rhode Island and the last train travelled through it shortly after that.

In 1982 and ‘83, as part of the Northeast Corridor Improvement Project, the viaduct/bridge over Canal Street was demolished along with corresponding bridges over Gaspee Street, and Promenade Streets behind Union Station. Union Station was taken out of service as a transportation hub and the new Amtrack Station was built closer to the State House.

Sources

  • “East Side Railroad Tunnel, Benefit Street to Seekonk River, Providence, Providence County, RI”, Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey, captured September 23, 2020. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ri0396/

#Urban Legend

On May 1st, 1993, a group of students gathered at the western portal below Benefit St. for a Beltain-May Day party (Beltain is the original Celtic Halloween celebration). They lit fires, put on animal masks, and pounded on drums until early the next morning when college security officers attempted to break up the revelry. “There was an argument about jurisdiction – the students telling the security officers that they had none at the tunnel. One participant was playing a drum as they were being told to leave and wouldn’t stop. One of the officers tried to take his drum sticks and a fight started between them. The officers retreated and called for Providence Police to help.”

By the time police arrived, the party had gained more attendants and they refused to disperse. The situation escalated quickly. The police tried to gain control of the situation with tear gas and the students answered with rocks and bricks. “The cops formed a riot line with locked arms and walked through the kids. A friend of mine breached the cop line. They beat him down and arrested him.” The police charge in the next day’s paper that they had encountered “satanic rituals”. As a result the tunnel was closed with thick corrugated steel, pierced at each end only by a locked door.

Thanks to Erik Gould and Undercity.org for some info. Quoted material from an account e-mailed to us by Kevin.