PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Gov. Lincoln Chafee joined a team of inspectors as they ventured Thursday into an abandoned railway tunnel and surveyed the dank and dark corridor 100 feet below Rhode Island’s capital city.
The century-old East Side Railroad Tunnel hadn’t been inspected since it was sealed off 20 years ago. Chafee said he wanted to get a firsthand look at the mile-long corridor to determine whether it could be reused. While no plans are pending to reopen the tunnel, Chafee said it could possibly be used one day for buses to relieve congestion on city streets.
“It cost $2 million to build — just imagine what it would cost today,” Chafee said. “It’s in better shape than I thought — just that one section with the stalagmites.”
The tunnel was originally constructed to allow trains to pass underneath College Hill on Providence’s East Side. The last trains went through decades ago, and the tunnel’s two ends were sealed following a scuffle between local police and college students celebrating May Day.
The tunnel passes under Brown University and some of Providence’s nicest neighborhoods.
Chafee had to complete a safety-training session before descending below ground. Providence firefighters waited outside the exits in case anyone needed help. Crews tested the air to ensure it was safe to breathe.
The governor donned a hardhat and reflective vest for the tour, which an Associated Press reporter attended. Flashlights revealed colorful graffiti, pools of murky water and eerie stalactites and stalagmites formed by water leaking from the tunnel roof.
No animals were seen, though evidence of human activity was everywhere: busted television sets, food wrappers, smashed chairs and a burned-out car. The tunnel was silent, other than the drip of water falling on a discarded drum.
Work on the tunnel began in 1906 and its completion two years later was noted in The New York Times. Passenger and freight trains used the tunnel to link Providence to Fall River, Mass., and Bristol, R.I. The railway connected to East Providence via a draw bridge that now looms over the Seekonk River, permanently raised in an upright position.
Federal transportation rules require the state to periodically inspect the tunnel, according to state Department of Transportation Director Michael Lewis, who joined Chafee on the inspection. Inspectors will look for structural problems, damage caused by water and other defects.
“It’s an asset of the state,” Lewis said. “We have an obligation to inspect it.”
After an hour, Chafee emerged on the tunnel’s other side, in an area now overgrown with weeds and choked with litter.
A Democrat who announced earlier this month that he won’t seek re-election, Chafee said his participation in the inspection served an important purpose and he also acknowledged it was a lot of fun.
“You always marvel at engineers and what they can accomplish,” he said.