Restoring a giant

Restoring a giant

The Blackstone Viaduct, pictured here in an undated historical photo provided by the Blackstone Historical Commission, was completed in 1872.
Bike path work on Blackstone’s historic viaduct to begin this summer

BLACKSTONE – The immense granite structure that runs behind St. Paul Street seems, in many ways, an odd relic of the town’s industrial past. The Blackstone Viaduct spans a distance roughly from Canal Street to the Blackstone River, unfolding across an area once home to canal raceways and mills. On the way, it crosses backyards, residential streets and the property of the Polish American Citizens Club, at times straddling swing sets and landscaping under its massive archways.

For residents, it’s a reminder that the neighborhood was once the site of a bustling mill community that required trains to transport people and materials across the canals and roadways beneath. And beginning this summer, the viaduct will once again become a town centerpiece as the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) breaks ground on the restoration of its stone archways into the new home of the Blackstone River Greenway bike path.

Olivia Dorrance, spokesperson for the DCR, confirmed to The Valley Breeze last week that the department plans to begin construction on the project this summer and proceed in two phases. The Blackstone Viaduct actually consists of two pieces, a seven-span viaduct that crosses Mill Street and a separate, single-span viaduct visible from Canal Street. Next to this single-span viaduct, an unused railroad bridge crosses Canal Street, creating a path toward an existing bike path bridge over St. Paul Street.

In the first phase of work, the DCR plans to restore the Canal Street railroad bridge, developing one side of the double structure as a route for the bike path. The state also plans to restore the single-span viaduct by repairing the granite and concrete structure and refacing its surface to create a uniform color. This phase of construction, said Dorrance, is currently out to bid, with work expected to begin this summer and be substantially complete by winter or spring of 2020.

In the second phase, the DCR plans to take on restoration of the seven-span viaduct, the primary structure once used by trains traveling to Blackstone from the east. The finished viaduct, said Dorrance, will include a drainage system to protect the structure long-term and railing to preserve historical aesthetics while protecting pedestrians. During the second phase, the agency plans to extend the bike path along the top of the viaduct and across the Canal Street bridge, where it will connect to the existing Blackstone River Greenway. To the east of the viaduct, the path will turn south along the Blackstone River and connect to the already completed bike path at the Rhode Island state line.

“At this time, the agency is working on construction access easements,” said Dorrance. “The second phase is currently at 90 percent design completion.”

The current plan is the result of long efforts by local preservation advocates to have the viaduct recognized as a historic treasure. In 2010, an initial survey commissioned by DCR reported the viaduct was not structurally sound. As a result, early plans for the Blackstone River Greenway, part of a larger Providence-to-Worcester bike path network, involved knocking down the viaduct to create an open space where the path could cross over the state line into Blackstone at ground level.

However, for residents familiar with the structure’s history, that plan wasn’t enough. Within a few years, a group that included members of the Historical Commission, Board of Selectmen, Planning Board and the late David Barber, president of the Blackstone Canal Conservancy, had formed to advocate for the viaduct. In 2015, the group succeeded in convincing the state to hire Gill Engineering to take another look at the structure. The second survey found that the viaduct was in fact structurally sound and could be used to support the new bike path.

“They listened, and they had a second engineer look at it and it came back in favor of what we were fighting for,” said Mary Bulso, a former Historical Commission member who was involved in efforts to save the viaduct.

“It’s really a treasure for the town,” she added.

According to records on file at the Blackstone Historical Museum, the viaduct was completed in 1872 as part of an east-west rail route running from Walpole, Mass., to Thompson, Conn. For much of its history, the railroad was owned by the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, which dominated rail travel in the northeast in the 1900s. The railroad traveled through Franklin, Mass., and Bellingham, Mass., – a route now home to portions of the Southern New England Trunkline Trail – before crossing the Blackstone River near the Park ’n Shop plaza and continuing over the viaduct on to St. Paul Street. After crossing St. Paul Street, it arrived at the Blackstone Depot, which it shared with the Providence-Worcester Railroad, a separate route.

In 1966, the MBTA discontinued commuter service on the line, and in 1969, the depot was demolished. In the 1980s, the DCR purchased the viaduct and accompanying railroad for recreational use. Since then, various segments of the route have been transformed into biking and walking paths, including the 3.7-mile Greenway segment stretching from Canal Street to Uxbridge, Mass., that opened in 2017.

With plans for its restoration underway, members of the town’s Historical Commission said they are relieved to see the viaduct return to active use. The complete structure is 25 feet high and 1,600 feet long, with a width of between 50 and 100 feet.

“It’s going to be a wonderful thing to ride your bike or walk over it,” said Carolyn Powers, a member of the Historical Commission.

For others, it’s a relief to see a key piece of Blackstone’s history preserved. Bulso, who is working on a book about the town’s history, said that the viaduct and its accompanying railroad were the preferred travel route for many historical figures, including Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who addressed residents from the tracks during a rail tour of the area.

Following the restoration, the viaduct will provide passage for a new type of traveler, visitors coming by bike from Rhode Island. It’s the latest development for a structure that has been central to the town’s transportation for close to 150 years.

Restoration work on the Blackstone Viaduct, pictured here behind the Polish American Citizens Club, is scheduled to begin this summer as part of the construction of the Blackstone River Greenway. (Breeze photo by Lauren Clem)