While nearby beaches offer sun and waterfront fun, another local attraction gives to some a welcome change from oceanside lounging to exploring wooded forests, biking, hiking and sightseeing off-the-beaten path.
Although not so secluded, tourists and residents alike — regardless of weather — find enjoyment on the William C. O’Neill Bike Path. Sometimes called the South County Bike Path or to locals just “the bike path.”
However, it’s far more than just a cycling route.
Joggers, pet owners strolling with their pooches, mothers and fathers pushing babies in carriages, walkers of all ages, hikers squishing leaves on nearby wooded trails, in-line skaters, skateboarders, bikers and even impromptu graffiti painters can be found on it.
“Bike path is a misnomer, as it is a ‘multi-use path.’ It is designed to be used by walkers, bicyclists, skaters and folks in wheelchairs of all ages and abilities,” said David Smith of Narragansett, who with wife Rosemary, have walked on it most days for the last 14 years.
They are among the hundreds — though there’s no official count except for the frequent observations of users — that jump on the path somewhere along its 7.2-mile run from the Kingston train station to the Narragansett Community Center.
Many even do the round trip of slightly more than 14 miles as part of a rigorous exercise routine.
“We are in our seventies and use the path as one of the many places we walk to maintain our health,” said Smith.
He and his wife “always enjoy seeing the variety of people who make use of the path. It was especially useful during the pandemic shutdown as the bike path provided a safe and inexpensive place to recreate,” he told South County Life magazine recently.
Kevin and Denise Miller, both 61 of East Greenwich, go a few times a year to South Kingstown to jump on the path for a bike ride.
“You have a bathroom at one end, there’s a town along it and there’s something to see like ponds and woods,” said Denise about what brings her back.
In other words, say many users, it has a little something for everyone. Nearby business owners in Wakefield, where the path crosses Main Street, tout that customers drop by and help boost business.
Bob Votava is chairman of the Friends of the South County Bike Path, a support group of sorts for the path’s development. Votava and the association took interest 1996 when the late state Sen. William C. O’Neill began advocating for the path and seeking public money to build it.
Initially called the Kingston-Narragansett Bike Path, and then the South County Bike Path, it is located on an easement for the former Narragansett Pier Railroad.
After the railroad stopped running in 1968, the first alternate use suggested was not a bike path, but instead a public-school rail train, according to a history of the path that Votava wrote.
“This very ingenious idea for bringing students to and from South Kingstown’s public schools was put forth by a former community organization called the Citizens Advisory Committee,” he said.
“The rail line passed by every school except two, and a study showed that every child was within one-half hour walking distance from the railroad,” he wrote.
In 1981 a local mill owner Anthony Guarriello purchased the railroad, Votava wrote. “Both he and state Senator O’Neill agreed that a bike path was the logical use for the easement, which could safely bring children to school by foot or bicycle.”
O’Neill, also president of the Rhode Island state senate, successfully advocated for the concept and helped to secure state funds — at a time when demand was high for paying for other bike paths across the state — to build a part of it.
Timothy O’Neill remembered his father’s advocacy for the path. The path was named in 2002 after the late state senator.
“My father always recognized the importance of preserving our natural resources and he was health conscious due to his diabetes. It was a natural fit for improving cycling infrastructure to meet both of those goals,” he said.
O’Neill said that his father saw a need and an opportunity. Using his political influence, along with Guarriello’s financial help and support, the two men worked to coordinate the private sector and both state and federal resources to get the project started.
The late state senator is a 1985 graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. The school’s dean, Doug Elmendorf, commented about this kind of effort.
“Alumni of the Kennedy School apply the skills and knowledge they’ve learned here to make other people’s lives better,” the dean told South County Life.
“Sometimes that means forging an international agreement or setting a national policy, other times that means helping individuals you meet or improving your local community. We are proud of our alumni’s commitment to service,” he said.
Theodora Skeadas, president of the Harvard Kennedy School New England Alumni Association, also praised efforts like those of O’Neill.
“Our mission is to foster a community of alumni to continue the school’s public service mission through programming and projects that inspire graduates to expand their knowledge, network, and impact communities wherever they might be,” said Skeadas.
She understands the boots-on-the-ground meaning of local involvement in communities. She is executive director of Cambridge Local First, a nonprofit network promoting 500 locally and independently-owned businesses in Cambridge, Mass.
Beneficiaries of the Efforts
A bike ride, walk or roll on a skateboard or in-line skates reveals many natural sights few would see without this nature trail.
Many of the rural miles of the path that run through South Kingstown cross over country roads and pass by schools, businesses and homes that border it. Along some parts, the clucking and crowing of hens and roosters echo to passersby as well as the hum of machinery vibrating in the air.
It’s more than just a paved path. The woods alongside offer several indentations of blazed trails for hikers. A bridge or two cross over streams and wooden stairs take those venturing to an upper elevation for further exploring. With so many wooded areas, the invitation is there for pioneers of new trails.
Large swampy areas, such as the Great Swamp, can be easily admired for a bit or simply gazed at while moving by. It comprises 3,300 acres of wetlands, forest area and agricultural land. It also hosts the highest concentration of osprey in the state.
As the path winds and curves with up and down elevations, there’s a two-mile cutoff to the University of Rhode Island. Students can use the paved cutoff to reach the main thoroughfare.
At one bridge over a large pond area is a sign “White Horn Brook and Genesee Swamp.” Onlookers often pause with cameras or binoculars to look at birds, fish turtles and other wildlife lazily hanging out, often in plain view, on hot summer days. Some use benches to take in the scenery and talk.
In a scene that could be a Norman Rockwell painting from an era gone by, young boys and girls are often seen with fishing poles’ dangling lines and waiting for the tug of a lucky strike.
Other benches line the path with their various dedications, such as, “In the Memory of C.C. Southwick From His Loving Family.”
“It gives you time to think about things and to admire nature,” said Joan Skuce, 52, of Wakefield, as she walked along the path in her native of South Kingstown.
She recalled its former use with trains once carrying the wealthy from New York and other states to a hub in Narragansett where they switched to transportation taking them to their Newport mansions.
Later the track was used to bring lumber to the local lumber yards in Wakefield and it also provided occasional passenger service.
“What’s nice about it,” said Skuce, “is that you don’t have to deal with cars.” Jogger Tara Miller, 23, also of Wakefield, agreed.
“I like the distance and the scenery when I run,” she said.
Weaving around some walkers and bike riders, skateboarder Cody Marth, 22, of Wakefield, said he has been gliding along the path with its rising and falling gradient for about five or six years.
“It’s easier and quicker than the sidewalks” for getting in a good uninterrupted ride, he noted. He also likes some of the steeper grades near the Route 1 underpass for a fast ride.
As that decent happens, multi-colored painting of characters and different designs jump out in the shadowy underpass. With town permission, often groups of self-styled graffiti painters are there with spray paint cans, buckets of different colored paint and cloths for touch-ups as they repaint murals on both walls.
Along the path visitors may also run into John, who preferred not disclosing his last name, who lives in a tent in South Kingstown. He tows around Ginger, his blind 14-year-old aging beagle companion in a dog trailer behind his bike.
Rocco Maffei of Narragansett sat atop his black Trek bike as he cruised to the path’s intersection with busy Main Street. He paused for a moment before crossing.
“I go from Mumford School in Narragansett to Kingston and back. It’s the joy ride I try take to five days a week,” he said with a laugh.
As he stood holding his bike, getting ready move to cross Main Street, his eyes turned briefly to Brickley’s ice cream shop on the corner Main and Robinson streets.
It is one of many businesses just a few steps — or pushes on bike pedals — from the path that find the draw to tourists and locals a boost.
“I would say it’s very beneficial over the course of the summer season,” said Steve Brophy, owner of Brickley’s.
“People will make the route from the train station into town of vice versa and stop for ice cream. You can see the bikes all over the place. It’s very good for businesses in town,” he said.
Up the street a few blocks is Stedman’s bike shop. Owner Jim Walsh said it is a natural fit for tourists and residents having different interests.
“The value of it to the community is that it’s a great way around the traffic on Main Street and to get around more safely,” Walsh said, noting that many of his regular customers for purchases or repairs use the path.
For him, the path is especially helpful because potential buyers of bicycles can take them for a test ride — without the hassles of car traffic — on the path.
“It seems to help businesses in the area. People come down from the path, they go to Brickley’s or El Fuego, or Belmont to do shopping,” he said, naming some nearby businesses.
Right on the path in Peace Dale is Mythic Bike works that does repairs. Even on Boston Neck Road in the North End of Narragansett — far from the bike path — an NBX Bikes staff member said they fix and sell bikes of many customers who use the path.
Long-time South Kingstown resident and now executive director of the Southern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, Joe Viele, called the multi-use path a feature attraction for the entire South County area.
He said that he has seen increased use of the path by local residents as well as summer tourists going to the town’s commercial district and nearby shops in the village of Peace Dale where the path runs behind many storefronts.
“Tourists find areas that they may have not discovered without the path,” he said. Viele knows a bit about that area. He moved to South Kingstown in 1973 when 17 year-old and lived with his family in Peace Dale near the railroad tracks that are now part of the bike path.
“I worked there (near the railroad tracks) for over 45 years, so I saw the whole transformation from an operating railroad to what we have today, a very active asset that provides many different uses to our community,” he said.
Votava, of the Friends of the South County Bike Path group, said that continuing the path from the Mumford Elementary School-Community Center area in Narragansett to the nearby beach is the plan. He’s unsure, though, whether that plan will take shape.
He is 82 and doesn’t ride much anymore. He, along with walkers David and Rosemary Smith, are the more vocal advocates for fulfilling O’Neill’s dream of having a path that goes directly — or at least close — to the Narragansett Beach area.
O’Neill also had the intention to provide residents and tourists a safe car-free way of going to the beach by biking, walking, skating or any other similar way.
“To complete it, it will take two phases. You need design it and then build it. The design needs to figure out getting through wetlands, trees and other natural resources,” Votava said, adding,
“We need to figure out first, essentially, where to go and what’s the cost.”
O’Neill’s son, Timothy, said he was familiar with those discussions. Some proposals have included using roads rather than a dedicated path, he added.
“It’s a compromise due to the wetlands in the Canonchet path. That would have been ideal, but cost prohibitive,” said O’Neill, who noted he uses the path his father championed at least three times a week for exercise.
Mike Deluca is director of Narragansett Community Development, which will oversee further construction. He said the expansion is on hold until town officials resolve finding an acceptable route.
Whether and when the William C. O’Neill Bike Path is fully completed, it has already largely fulfilled the vision of the man who used his influence to drive its creation.
He believed in using government to make life better for people, said his local friends and classmates at Harvard’s school of government. It is a legacy that Kelly Novakovich, 31, and who was born many years after O’Neill began his efforts, understands well.
The Richmond resident sat one recent day on a bench across Wakefield’s Main Street and within eyesight of the memorial to O’Neill.
She looked over at it. She and her husband and their two young children — a six-month-old daughter and a two-and-a-half-year-old son — had come on Saturday with friends to bike on the path.
“It’s a safe space for us. My son learned to walk here and to ride a bike here,” she said.
She said that she’s been to other paths, but likes this one the most. The atmosphere, the downtown area, the shade in various parts, the parking and many other conveniences make it an attractive go-to spot.
“When we come, we make an event of it. We have breakfast and just have a good time,” she said.