There are some people (and I number myself among them) who would sign up for just about anything that entails riding on a train. Throw an ice cream sundae into the offer and I’m all, “When do I have to be there?”
We got word last week that the famous Newport Dinner Train, which has been carrying diners for more than 16 years, has added an ice cream run to its schedule.
“The train leaves at 11:30 but we ask that people get there by 11,” said Azure Giroux, the newly minted college graduate from East Greenwich. “Newport is not an atrociously long distance away from your coverage areas, and living in such a small state I think that it is still beneficial to promote an event such as this, especially since it is family-friendly and appropriate for summertime.”
The Ice Cream Train, with its own special signage and schedule, made its first run last Thursday, but I couldn’t get there myself until the Saturday at 11:30 a.m. The invitation claimed it’s the only rolling ice cream parlor car in Rhode Island, which is probably true, but not the only one in the country. Railroad fans everywhere have been looking for ways to “re-purpose” surviving railways in other parts of the country as well. The Belton Grandview and Kansas City Railroad Ice Cream Social rolls out of the station each Friday during the summer months. The Ice Cream Express does the same thing in Tioga County in Pennsylvania.
“I was looking for a summer job,” said Giroux, who graduated from the University of Vermont last month. “I came to interview for the Ice Cream Train and they ended up asking me if I wanted to run the whole thing. Of course, I said ‘Yes’ because I liked the whole idea.”
So it’s no surprise that the Old Colony and Newport Scenic Railway, the non-profit organization of volunteers who maintain the tracks and stock, welcomed the idea as yet another way to get people to ride the rails along the Rhode Island Coast. The Old Colony and Newport is the working name of the National Railroad Foundation and Museum headquartered in Newport and www.ocnrr.org is a great source for the history of the 20 or so miles of track that run between Newport and Portsmouth on Aquidnick Island. The Rhode Island Department of Transportation actually owns the tracks.
The Newport Ice Cream Train fare includes an ice cream sundae and a soft drink, but there is a limited kids’ menu of hot dogs, chicken or pizza.
So far, the job has not been overwhelming for Giroux, but she expects that it will get more hectic when more people hear about it and she’s ready to meet the challenge.
“There are many possibilities,” she said. “There can be groups, schools, clubs … even special parties for kids.”
Giroux was vaguely apologetic for the ice cream coming from a couple of survivor soft-serve machines, but she needn’t feel that way at all. Everybody on the train grew up with soft serve ice cream and some of them remembered when it was called “frozen custard,” so no one was particularly hoping for the Norman Rockwell-soda-jerk-on-Main-Street experience on the train. The plain fact is: it’s the train that’s bringing us to Newport, not the ice cream. Ninety minutes of Narragansett Coast viewed from a train is a bargain at $19.95, even without the sweets.
The ride itself is like a short tour of Newport history. The first things you see out the window are the relatively modest houses that grew up around the tracks as waves of progress and recession rolled over the track. The passage through the Navy base gives you a glimpse of the U.S.S. Saratoga, slowly rusting away as it waits for the metal scrappers to finish their work. Then past more modern structures that house the high tech radar and tracking equipment that can see an approaching threat for hundreds of miles. Old-fashioned clam diggers are on the flats, then the boaters who have discovered a private patch of beach. Not everything you see from the train is beautiful but, like life itself, the view is worth the trip.
A brief history of the railroad, written by Donald O’Hanley and George Kenson, is available at ocrr.com. In it, you will learn that the Old Colony Railroad terminated in Fall River in 1854, an important commercial center. Newport wanted to join the growing grid of track spreading across the land, but there was not enough commerce to tempt railroad investors to come to the city. Newport County offered Old Colony a 50-foot right-of-way if the carrier would construct a southerly extension. In 1862, the Fall River line came to Newport under the title of Newport and Fall River Railroad. This line was merged into the Old Colony and Fall River Railroad, which was then renamed the Old Colony & Newport Railway. Regularly scheduled through service began in 1864.
The Old Colony & Newport established stations at Portsmouth Grove, Bristol Ferry and Tiverton. The railroad sponsored excursions at very low rates to attract tourists. A Sunday round-trip from Boston to Newport for a dollar was immensely popular. A railroad sponsored summer development at "The Hummock" in Portsmouth rented cheap and Fall River residents took advantage of the offer. Eventually the tenants bought the land and the island was developed economically.
But you won’t learn all that on the Ice Cream Train. You can just sit, eat ice cream and indulge in the nostalgic impulses that roll over you as you roll over the tracks.
Ice Cream Train with Candyman Conductor entertaining, Friday at 6:30 p.m.; $26.95; seniors, $24.95; children under 10, $19.95. Thursday and Saturday trips board at 11:30 a.m.; $19.95, seniors $17.95; kids, $14.95. Ticket includes ice cream and toppings and soft beverage (A kids’ lunch menu of hot dog, $4.50; chicken nuggets, $4; and pizza, $3.50, is available.)
It’s wiser to make reservations and to arrive 30 minutes before departure, but, if space is available when you arrive, chances are you won’t be turned away.
The Ice Cream Train
19 America’s Cup Avenue
Newport, RI 02840