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Rural Urbanism: A Trolley Tour of Whitinsville, Massachusetts

There's a great enthusiasm for trolleys, even the bus kind, when you consider that 95% of U.S. commuters drive alone.


All Aboard to Providence!
During one of my many trips to Rachel's hometown of Whitinsville, MA, I got to be a part of a "trolley tour" of the town. Rachel was off shooting a bat mitzvah, so I was left to fend for myself for photos, but I think I got some nice shots. I grew up in a town the size of Providence outside of Philly, so I'm really fascinated by Rachel's experience of growing up in such a small town New England environment. Urbanism isn't just about big cities. It also tells us a lot about what makes traditional small towns so enjoyable to walk around in.

In a largely car-oriented society, recreational experiences are often the closest we get to experiencing the nation's history of transit. The Whitinsville trolley tour, offered by the Northbridge, MA Historical Society, is yet another example of Americans showing their almost subliminal yearning for transit, biking, and walking to become a bigger part of their town life.

One of the highlights of the tour was when the trolley bus pulled into the surface lot of the "China P." Chinese restaurant, where Whitinsville once had a train station. Just at that moment, a train decided to whiz by going south.

A pipe organ in one of the Whitin mansions.
"Trains boarding for Providence just arriving, folks" said tour leader Ken Warchol, a retired public school teacher, in character as town founder Paul Whitin. As the train kept whizzing past unabatingly, Warchol added, "Well, looks like we missed that one, but maybe we can wait and catch the next one." Tour participants, mostly seniors, were absolutely abuzz about the passing train. A middle-aged woman with kids in tow asked Warchol, "Did you plan that? That's so cool!"

Of course, the train in question was not local passenger service. It's been decades since Whitinsville had commuter rail, which at one time served the town to Worcester, Woonsocket, Pawtucket, and Providence.

Just across from the former rail station is the Linwood Mill, one of the former Whitin machine shops, which the developers in the town recently converted into a beautiful apartment complex on the Mumford River. At our feet stood some of the last remnants of the town's trolley tracks, which used to pass from the train to the town center, and past the mill housing.

A fireplace detail
Whitinsville, part of Northbridge, lies north of Woonsocket on the way to Worcester. It isn't exactly Fox News Country, but it swings pretty conservative for a New England town: nearly 55% of voters cast their ballots for Romney in the 2012 election, a ten point lead on Obama (The six states of New England have a 100%-to-the-member Democratic House and Senate delegation, with all six states going for Obama in his two bids). Conservative leanings even show in the few remaining independent votes; Libertarians took three times as many stray votes as Greens. 

The trolley tour subtly if unintentionally carries a flavor of these cultural leanings. The guide, who admittedly is in character the whole time as a 19th Century industrial baron, continually refers back unironically to the family's five generation paternalistic grasp on town life as an unencumbered benefit. After mischievous workers decided in the 1940s that they didn't want to be paid in town script anymore and unionized, the Whitins gradually moved much of their operations south out of New England. But in 1920, at its industrial height, Whitinsville was not only the national but also the global leader in production of textile machinery. Some manufacturing still remains in the village, alongside creative reuse of the many mill buildings.

But the tour reminded participants of how much things have changed since then. 

"We used to believe in thrift" says the ghost of Paul Whitin, through Warchol, "We always encouraged our workers to save their money in the town bank we built." He turned a bit scolding, "We heard about your generation. There just isn't any money in this country anymore." At another point in the tour, referencing Paul Whitin's father-in-law, Independence fighter James Fletcher, Whitin says, "The Americans didn't want to be told to pay so many taxes. They had a Tea Party in Boston." He pauses. "We heard that you had a Tea Party too". 

This cemetery dates from the American Revolution
The Whitins, who in the early 19th Century discouraged alcohol use, perhaps accidentally contributed to their workforce's active walking habits. Warchol says that workers leaving the mills would walk the mile-plus journey down present day Linwood Avenue, then referred to locally as "the road to sin city" in order to drink at the taverns in neighboring Uxbridge. Betsey Whitin, a strong believer in the temperance movement, would have the drunk returnees arrested on their arrival back to the town.

"Betsey didn't like alcohol, and when the town considered becoming 'wet' in the 1840s, she gave a great speech at the Town Hall against it. And the town voted the measure down," said fake Whitin.  He  laughingly added that 1840s elections didn't exactly follow a secret ballot, offering an example from as late as 1900 of the Whitins instructing Democratic-leaning townspeople that William McKinley had better win the election over William Jennings Bryan, or else the mill would have to close. The town registrar, who watched each vote as it was cast, reported at the counting the Northbridge had gone for McKinley.

One of many mills along the Mumford River
There were some advantages to paternalism. During the Panic of 1873, when a deep depression hit the country, the Whitins retained laid off workers as helpers to remove rocks from the stone-strewn New England soil and build a stone wall along Castle Hill Farm. The wall and the farm property still stand. Although townspeople still use the land for soccer fields and community gardens, real estate development, perhaps in a sprawly 1950s style, threatens the future for the farm to stay rural.

John Crawford, a self-proclaimed townie and member of the Northbridge Historical Society, has spent a lot of effort trying to preserve the farm, one of the few remaining agricultural properties in a municipality that at mid-century boasted more than twenty. Crawford said that Uxbridge School District had considered building their new high school on the property, but that plans had fallen through. A real estate company has unfinished plans to build on the property. Crawford is hoping that the soft economy will given town preservationists time to find a non-profit organization in Boston that is interested in buying it at its current $2.5 million price tag. 

Another Historical Society member, Mary Barlow, said that enthusiasm for the return of transit couldn't be stronger right now. She thinks the town would greatly benefit from a restarted Worcester-Providence commuter line. Northbridge is already somewhat within range of the Grafton train station to Boston, but historically Central Mass has had more north-south orientation towards Wormtown and Rhode Island than to the capital of the Bay State.

The Mumford
"I think what happened was that at one point our country became very wealthy all at once," said Mary Barlow, a member of the town historical society, explaining the growth of the car. "As people experience the price of oil, I think we'll see the redevelopment of rail and other options again."

Town enthusiasm for transit might come as a surprise in the present political climate, in which a government shutdown threatens Amtrak and Tea Party enthusiasts in several states have rejected funding for regional rail projects connecting major cities. But Middle American support for transportation reform shouldn't surprise anyone. Our blog has pointed out that there are many soundly conservative arguments for developing more non-car options to go from place to place.

Brushing against one of these financial reasons, preservationist John Crawford mentioned that one of the key challenges of trying to save Castle Hill Farm is the financial strain the town finds itself in. 

"We'd love for the town to be able to buy the property as a land trust, but there are a lot of expenses coming up that are going to hit the town all at once. Highway projects, upkeep on the fire station, additions that are needed to the schools. No real planning is being put into these expenses, and they're going to hit all at once, and the town won't have money for something like Castle Hill Farm."

Northbridge has always been a crossroads. Even before rail, Northbridge was the first stop on trips between Boston and New York on the Central Turnpike, and was equally busy from arrivals on trips from Worcester to Providence. Present day Route 122 was then called the Providence-Worcester Turnpike. The neighboring Northbridge village of Rockdale would house lodgers for the night for five cents.

A small bridge from 1923 is about to be dismantled. Can it
be creatively reused for biking/walking access?
As I walked back to Rachel's parent's house after the tour, I noticed construction on one of the small bridges over the Mumford River. The new bridge will replace the old one, which construction workers said is to be torn down. I couldn't help but wonder whether retaining the old bridge as bike or pedestrian infrastructure might ultimately prove more cost-effective than spending state money to tear it down. Providence is of course retaining one of the historic spans of the Washington Bridge for people on bicycles and foot at some expense, but in New York State the Tappan Zee Bridge is going to remain for biking and walking because the expense of keeping it would be similar to tearing it down. Exactly what the financial situation would be for this tiny bridge remains a matter of speculation, but having better pedestrian and bicycle access would certainly be a plus for this town, which is located along the eventual route of the East Coast Greenway.

All along Church Street, the main thoroughfare of historic Whitinsville, neon green runners and even a few cyclists flowed up and down the way. Who knows what potential could exist for the town if transit development and farm preservation met to help protect this gorgeous historic enclave in the Blackstone Valley.

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