Retired biologist dissects RI’s railroad history

Retired biology professor Frank Heppner has garnered a host of awards and other accolades during his long career in the College of the Environment and Life Sciences but now he can add something different—author of a book on a unique slice of Rhode Island history.Heppner’s book Railroads of Rhode Island is out with about 500 copies sold so far and while the book deals with all of the state’s railroads, big and small, one does not have to be a railroad buff to enjoy it—intertwined in its 200 pages are heavy doses of Rhode Island history and lore, much of it reinforcing the state’s unofficial moniker, Rogues’ Island.“The book started through the Friends,” recalls Heppner who was one of the founders of Friends of Kingston Station about 40 years ago. The group, after an arduous and twisting series of efforts, succeeded in saving the venerable Kingston station from demolition. Today, the station which serves 150,000 railroad passengers a year is a beautifully crafted relic of the past, reflecting the nostalgia of the golden age of railroading in the U.S.

One day a representative of The History Press, publisher of paperbacks that capture local history, approached the Friends and asked whether there was anyone in the membership who might be able to write a book on railroads in the state. Heppner decided to give it a try.

It took 18 months to write the book –there was no advance involved and no help from the publisher such as directing him to resources. The publisher was great to work with, he says, but essentially History Press just offered style editing (as opposed to factual editing and design work).

The model railroad in the railroad museum in the Kingston Station includes replicas of some buildings that once stood near the station including a tall fertilizer plant. Frank Heppner and other members of the Friends of Kingston Station spent many months making this display.
The model railroad which depicts the area around Kingston station includes some humorous touches too–one house looks like Dorothy’s in The Wizard of Oz, complete with a dead witch squished under the house’s foundation.

Heppner said he had to use the Internet a lot but he quickly re-learned what he taught his students—when it comes to the Internet, “trust but verify.”

“I was able to do most of the work at home. But gathering photographs was a surprise. A lot of resources charged for publishing rights,” he says, adding that despite that hurdle, the book has ample photos. Private collections –such as a post card and photo collection owned by Edward J. Ozog—represented a treasure trove and the price was right.

Heppner’s book details all of the short lines in the state.  Perhaps the tiniest was one that consisted of narrow gauge rails and human-pushed cars for retrieving flowering shrubs out of The Great Swamp. It was dubbed the Rhododendron Railroad. Built by Dr. Lorenzo Kinney Sr., famous URI botanist, the railroad was used to ferry azaleas and rhododendrons out of the swampy area to be shipped to estates out of state. Kinney and his son, (Jr.) did considerable research in propagating and collecting the flowering shrubs.

Another interesting find locally had to do with the Seaview Railroad, a trolley line which ran from East Greenwich and terminated on Main Street in Wakefield. The line ended abruptly at the point where it had to cross the Narragansett Pier Railroad which feuded with the Seaview because of competition. The original plan of the Seaview was to provide a South County link  to enable someone to board a trolley in Boston, and, using various linked trolley lines,  travel all the way to New York City—the advent of  motor vehicles put the long-range trolley lines out of business.


Frank Heppner with a copy of his book on railroads in Rhode Island. He is a founding member of the Friends of Kingston Station which saved the venerable structure from demolition.

One surprising thing that Heppner discovered was that the Seaview had plans to extend a spur down to Point Judith at the turn of 20th Century because it was thought a major port was going to be built in Galilee. A major railroad was interested in the possibility of linking up with the Seaview but that plan never materialized.

Heppner’s book traces the routes and the business deals that flurried around railroads throughout the state ending up in major consolidations. Many of the deals that were brokered were tainted and the book weaves a tapestry of railroad building, merging and demolition amid a considerable amount of Rhode Island’s colorful history.Of course, the right of ways of some of the short lines that existed in the state in the past today are preserved as bike paths and for really interested readers it helps to be in front of a computer with Google Earth on the monitor when reading and tracing the paths the railroads took. The tracks may be long gone, but the traces on the landscape are still visible in many cases.

In retirement, Heppner stays busy with the operations of the Friends of the Kingston Station which he says “is incredibly boring and involves doing a lot of waiting.” Half of the station is leased by the Friends as a railroad museum and Heppner holds court there Sunday afternoons greeting some estimated 1,500 visitors a year. The other half of the station is leased to Amtrak. The station is built on state land but traffic enforcement is by town police. Amtrak will do some maintenance, the state Department of Transportation will do other things and there exists an anonymous “fairy” who performs other maintenance chores as well to keep up the station’s appearance, says the author.

Heppner says there are plans to expand the parking lots and to build the station platforms higher so that passengers don’t need to climb steps to board trains.  Another change will be the construction of a bypass track so the super-fast Acela trains can whisk through when slower trains are stopped at the station.

Heppner comes from a railroading family. His father was a doctor for the Southern Pacific Railroad in San Francisco. He built his first model railroad car from scratch when he was 13 and continues building much more elaborate ship models today. He calculates he has ridden some half-million miles on trains in 23 countries and maintains memberships in railroading groups other than the Friends.

Heppner remains puzzled about the economics of the local history book publishing business. His book retails for $20, the Kindle version is about $9 and he figures when all is calculated he earns about 51 cents on each book that is sold and less on the Kindle version. “I don’t know how they can make money,” he says, adding he is hoping he can break even on the venture—he calculates about $500 in expenses for such things as print cartridges, paper, fees and postage.

Heppner has given a few book talks and signings and has received a fair amount of positive feedback. So far he is disappointed that no one has come forward to debate some of the book’s contents

So the book is not about riches for Heppner—it’s something much more, coupling a lifelong passion for railroads with a curiosity about his adopted state’s history.

In the back of his mind, Heppner has an idea for another book about the culture of Rhode Island. He probably will not get rich at that either but he says the challenge may be worth it.