The South County Bike Path, now renamed the William C. O’Neill Bike Path, after the Rhode Island State Senator who originally helped to purchase the path, connects the towns of Kingstown, South Kingstown, Wakefield and Narragansett in southern RI. There are access points to bus, train and ferry connections, which make the bike path easy to reach.
Actually, according to a brief history written by Bob Votava, chairman of The Friends of the William C. O’Neill Bike Path, when the path was first opened to the public to be used as a bike path, it was called the Kingstown-Narragansett Bike Path, then the South County Bike Path, and now it is the William C. O’Neill Bike Path. Once a part of the Narragansett Pier Railroad, which ceased running in 1968, town planners suggested that this existing path be utilized as a public school rail train to bring students to and from local public schools, since studies showed that every child was within walking distance from the railroad.
When this novel idea was presented to the Town of South Kingstown’s school superintendent, it was rejected as too visionary and futuristic, but it was 1968 – nowadays, it might be a lot more likely to be embraced as a way to prevent congestion on local roads. Then, in 1981, the old railroad was purchased by Town Councilman Anthony Guariello. With State Senator William O’Neill, they advocated its use as a public bike path, and for State funding. At the time, several other bike paths throughout the state of Rhode Island were competing for limited resources, and it was 1995 before the South County Bike Path was able to convince the State Department of Transportation that South Kingstown deserved to be next on the list of construction monies. Once their dream became a reality, the Friends of The South County Bike Path was created.
Over the years following 1995, the Friends worked with the Town of South Kingstown, the Rhode Island State Department of Transportation and the RI Governor’s Office, and both State and local elected officials to promote the new bike path. Federal representatives who have been helpful include the late Senator John Chafee, Senator Lincoln Chafee, and former Congressman Bob Weygand. Construction of Phase I was completed in 2000, followed by Phase II in 2003, for a distance of 5.6 miles. Phase III is scheduled to be advertised for construction in 2009. Phase IV is in the preliminary review stage, and the outcome depends on the communities advocating for it to be built. Congressman Weygand and the Friends viewed Phase IV as ending at the South County Museum, which is in Narragansett and neighbors the Atlantic Ocean.
The William C. O’Neill Bike Path, being located on the former Narragansett Pier Railroad, connects villages from Kingstown south to Narragansett Pier. The bike path, being such an important connection, links a series of cultural and historical resources and give the visitor a glimpse into the life of previous eras. Most of the buildings along the path have been converted to another use different from their original purpose, but the architectural distinction remains and has been carefully preserved. The historic 1802 Helme House in Kingstown became the current South County Art Association. The old Kingstown jail is now the Pettasquamscutt Historical Society. The Washington County court house is now called the Courthouse Center for the Arts. The former Kingstown Train Station is now an Amtrak station and a railroad museum to benefit the Friends of the Kingstown Station. An old cemetery, the historic Tefft cemetery became Tefft Historical Park, and is owned by the South Kingstown Land Trust. A former commercial building, a historic stone structure in the village of Peace Dale is now occupied by the Museum of Primitive Art and Culture and is South County’s oldest museum. The Saugatucket River, which runs beneath the bike path in historic downtown Wakefield, offers views of former mills that ran in the area, and is now managed by the Saugatucket River Heritage Corridor Coalition. Also in downtown Wakefield, the Hera Gallery has been in operation for 27 years, and was a laundromat back in the 1950’s. In Narragansett, the former Canonchet Farm is now the South County Museum. All of these heritage sites are prominently shown on the map of the bike path, which is available at the Friends of William C. O’Neill Bike Path website: http://southcounty.com/bikepath
The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority, or RIPTA, provides racks for bicycles on its buses all year round. For more information, visit http://www.ripta.com
For more information on some of the historical sites along the bike path:
South County Art Association
2587 Kingstown Rd., Kingstown, RI 02881
Pettasquamscutt Historical Society Inc.
2636 Kingstown Rd., Kingstown, RI 02881
Courthouse Center For the Arts
P.O. Box 186, 3481 Kingstown Rd., W. Kingstown, RI 02892
Friends of Kingstown Station
P.O. Box 191, W. Kingstown, RI 02892
South Kingstown Land Trust
313 Main Street, Suite C., Wakefield, RI 02879
Museum of Primitive Art and Culture
1058 Kingstown Rd., P.O. Box A, Peace Dale, RI 02883
Saugatucket River Heritage Corridor Coalition
313 Main Street, P.O. Box 209, Wakefield, RI 02880
327 Main St., P.O. Box 336, Wakefield, RI 02879
South County Museum
100 Anne Hoxsie Ln., P.O. Box 709, Narragansett, RI 02882
All information about the bike path is from a brochure about the William C. O’Neill Bike Path. For more information about the area in general, contact the South County Tourism Council at 401-789-4422, or visit http://www.southcountyri.com/