SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Friends of Kingston Station preservation group wants to ensure that the history behind this small train depot is preserved for researchers and others interested in knowing more about the nearly 150-year-old historic building in West Kingston.
It recently donated to the South County History Center thousands of documents collected for more than 50 years during preservation efforts for this Amtrak line station, once a destination point for the very wealthy heading to Newport and with their Pullman cars in tow.
“Over the years, over 10,000 hours of volunteer time have been invested in preserving and improving Kingston Station,” said Frank Heppner, chairman of the Friend’s group. The many documents are the products of their dedication and donated time for this building now on the National Register of Historic Places, he added.
Built in 1875, the wood-frame Kingston Railroad Station still stands in its original location on an almost flat site at the east side of the Northeast Corridor Amtrak railway line in the village of West Kingston.
Its large paved parking lot Is crowded often with vehicles of travelers and nearby University of Rhode Island students who meet trains taking them south to points in Connecticut, New York City and beyond as well as north to Boston with stops in between.
Trains here became a luxury when compared to the 1830s when this principal route of travel from Boston to New York was by stagecoach to Providence or from Providence to New York by overnight steamer.
Rough stagecoach rides and rougher seas off the Rhode Island coast soon made it apparent that another form of land transportation would be welcome, according to a history about the station.
While a small depot station in Kingston for stage coaches had been around since about 1837, the introduction of railroad service gave brought more people into it. The postcard picture country rail station is typical of the many small or intermediate-size rural depots built throughout the United States in the latter half of the 19th Century.
Most around the county have fallen to disuse or demolition. Kingston Station is also the only surviving building erected by the New York, Providence, and Boston Railroad and still in active use.
Wanting to keep this station from the same fate, the Friends of the Kingston Station was established in 1972 by Barbara Dirlam, and Father John Hall. Their primary motivation was historic preservation, Heppner said.
“The station was owned and operated by the Penn Central Railroad, then in bankruptcy, and it was soon clear that not a nickle would be forthcoming from them for restoration,” he said, noting that the State of Rhode Island also had no financial interest in the station and no interest in restoration.
“So, if the station was to be renewed and brought to a state reflecting its importance, the work would have to be done by volunteers,” he said.
Heppner also said that government agencies, concerned with different aspects of the efforts by the group, wanted indemnity should a volunteer get hurt while helping.
“All of these concerns produced a blizzard of paperwork, thousands of documents, much of it saved by a young station agent named Jack McCabe. These documents are among those that will now be stored in the History Center,” he said.
Heppner explained that “they are enormously important, (also) because they demonstrate how volunteer work has dramatically changed in the last 50 years. What was challenging in 1975 has become almost impossible to deal with today.”
The first volunteer restoration was completed in 1977 at a cost of about $12,000 and the second restoration came in the mid-1990s, both organized by the Friends, he said. The group along with assistance from Rhode Island’s congressional delegation and others put together a multi-million another effort, Heppner added.
Their work has also convinced Amtrak to keep the Kingston stop as part of regular train service, he said.
The documents related to the preservation were kept locked in the basement of the station. They had always been available for inspection by the public on request, but since the closing of a railroad museum at the station in 2015, the Friends presence at the station has almost disappeared, Heppner said.
In addition, the aging group needed both a repository for these historical artifacts should no younger people come into leadership and carry the torch for historic preservation.
Erica H.Luke, executive director of the South County History Center, said that the donation of papers related to the station will help add to her center’s effort to be a resource and provide easier access.
“This collection will primarily be used by researchers. We anticipate that it will support the study of many subject areas, including railroads in southern Rhode Island, local Gilded Age development, rail-trails, and of course the station itself along with the Friends group,” she said.
Heppner hopes it also serves another purpose.
“As the original Friends’ members move into retirement, it would be wonderful if a new generation heard about the station, and became involved in preserving it for the next half century,” he said.