Wickford Tales

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Everything was peaceful and quiet and the town was asleep when one of the guards on a flatcar woke to see the station ablaze. One would think with seven fire engines and all those men that the fire would have been put out quickly. Hoses were run to the salt-water cove nearby, and the pumping of water to the fire began in earnest.

But there was too much equipment. The men and engines got in each other’s way. The hose got tangled, the men swore at each other, the townsfolk rushed home for their leather fire buckets (our three always hung under the stairs), and soon there was a hand brigade passing buckets of water to the fire, but nothing helped. It was the hottest and prettiest fire I ever saw—all colors, from the paint and tar and chemicals that had been stored in the freight shed.

The station burned to the ground, and two flatcars and engines burned also. George Cranston, who was fire chief and had rushed nearer to the fire than anyone else, was very brave. Sparks were flying, and it was terribly hot. We children, with my mother and our Russian governess, were huddled across the tracks under a big oak tree on the Reynolds’ land, looking fascinatedly at the fire.

A big brass cuspidor that had been in the men’s side of the station was on the ground. George yelled to Nat Perry, who was holding a hose nozzle, to turn the water into the cuspidor. It went in with a rush and made quite a nice fountain for a minute and washed out the cuspidor. George grabbed it and put it on his head. It was good protection from the sparks.

 

All went well for a while. Then Mother pointed to George. “Oh, look, the poor man, that thing has gone down on his neck!”

It had indeed. Probably the sweat on George’s head had made it slippery, and the heat from the fire had expanded the cuspidor. There was George, helpless, completely blind, and suffocating.

They had a terrible time getting that cuspidor off George. Someone made a hole in the top to give him more air, but the cuspidor still stuck. It would not pull off. They nearly broke George’s neck pulling. They tried to file it off, but it was well made and of heavy brass.

Finally Nick Ramsbottom, the plumber, got his torch and burned it off. George was very weak and lying on the ground by then. It was an eerie scene, the crowd of anxious, tired men around George, well lighted by the embers of the now-burned-down station.

Nick Ramsbottom’s torch burned poor George’s head pitifully, and my father told us later that George had a round ring of bright red scar around his skull. That was why he never took his hat off.

It was some years before we had another squirt.

THE SECOND RAILROAD STATION FIRE

George Cranston was a large, handsome man, one of the most influential in Wickford. He was chief of the fire department, the undertaker, and owner of the general store, about a mile up the Ten Rod Road, where he sold everything—hats, toys, bicycles, drugs, coffins, buttons, kerosene, clothes, etc. He was bighearted, able, and brave, and had a wonderful sense of humor. George was always gay and cheerful, and the only thing he hated to do was buy things for his store. That required thought, consideration, and money. He dearly loved to sell, but buying was painful.

One day a week he would go to Providence to replenish his stock. He went on the early train, the one we children took to go to school spring and fall, and the one my father always took as long as we lived in Wickford. Winters, when the weather was bad, we had governesses and studied at home.

We children and our father always got on the train at the new railroad station. It was on the little branch railroad that ran from the dock (where the S.S. Eolus , which plied to Newport, used to be moored) through our farm and other farms to Wickford Junction, where it met the main line from New York to Boston.

The new station in Wickford was not a very nice building. It was a great disappointment to Henry Congdon, the genial and faithful conductor on the branch train, and to all of us. It was a quarter of a mile up the track from where the old station had been and not a convenient place for anyone.

Why is it that most stations are as far from their public as possible? Years ago, when the steamboat landing for the Eolus from Newport was built, it was placed as far from town as it could be. True, the landing is just across the salt-water inlet to the cove and one can almost throw a stone across, but except by boat the only way to get there is through the town, across the bridge by the town hall, where the old railroad station used to be, turn to the left just before getting to the Reynolds girls’ house, down nearly to Cold Spring Beach, another left turn at Ted Lawton’s house, and down the sometimes cold, and in summer roasting, and always windy path to the landing.

 

Since the new station was built, passengers from Newport would look in surprise when the train stopped at Wickford, for they could only see a shed. The shed was the station, a nice cozy place, though, and presided over by a kindly but proud despot—Clarence Weaver—station agent, baggage man, janitor, etc.