Writing on the wall

Writing on the wall

Majda Wahby, a freshman at Woonsocket High School, works on part of a railroad scene in a new mural located on Cass Avenue. (Breeze photos by Lauren Clem)
Cass Avenue mural by WHS students tells a piece of city history

WOONSOCKET – On the morning of April 15, 1912, the Titanic, the largest passenger ship of its time, crashed into an iceberg and sank to the bottom of the Atlantic, taking more than 1,500 passengers with it.

That’s the story everyone knows, but far fewer know the impact the Titanic left on Woonsocket. It’s a story the Woonsocket High School gifted art class, led by art teacher Diane Mayers, is determined to tell in a new mural situated at the heart of the story, a concrete wall located across from the Woonsocket High School receiving entrance on Cass Avenue.

The story revolves around Charles M. Hays, an American-born Canadian railway magnate who planned to build a railroad to rival the existing New York and New England Railroad and Providence and Worcester Railroad that ran through the region. The Southern New England Railway, part of the Grand Trunk Railway system, would connect Providence to existing tracks in Vermont and, by extension, Montreal, opening up an ice-free port in the south to manufacturers in the north. The railroad’s planned route would take it through Woonsocket, along with Sturbridge, Mass., and several towns in the Blackstone Valley on its course to Vermont.

The company ran into financial trouble, and, in 1912, Hays traveled to England with his wife and daughter to secure continued financing. On the return trip, they took the famous Titanic, a decision that would have a lasting impact on the towns along the railroad’s planned line. While his wife and daughter survived, Hays went down with the ship, taking with him any chance of its completion. Work continued on and off for a few years, but the project was eventually abandoned, leaving behind only a few remnants of its early construction, such as the concrete support on Cass Avenue.

Fast forward 100 years, and the wall has remained more or less untouched, except by occasional graffiti, and now serves as the retaining wall of a neighboring property. A couple of years ago, Mayers and her art class were approached by then-City Councilor Garrett Mancieri about creating a mural to decorate the bland concrete. Mayers, a Woonsocket native, said she immediately knew what story the wall needed to tell.

“I knew the story from my mother,” she said. “Everybody wonders what this wall is all about.”

Mayers secured permission from the property owners and enlisted the help of Jonathan Chamberland, the parent of a student, to patch the wall and prepare it for painting. Students submitted design ideas, all of them incorporating the story of Charles Hays and his ambitious but ill-fated venture.

“All these were different sketches that we put together,” she said, showing a final design that includes a train, the Titanic and a portrait of Hays.

Work has proceeded in steps, with Mayers and her husband, Kip, drawing the grid for the 14-foot-high mural earlier in the year and students spending class time outside painting on good weather days. The project, said Mayers, involves teaching new techniques as students learn to paint the different sections of the mural and write out the words of the story above them with materials designed for concrete.

“People don’t realize how much time it takes to do something like this,” she said. “They’re using all the skills they learn in gifted art class.”

Students filled in the details of the 20th century scene. Among those who worked on the Titanic were Ariel Lachance and Kanani Scurry, two graduating seniors who will attend art school in the fall. Lachance plans to attend the School of Visual Arts in New York, while Scurry will attend the Rhode Island School of Design.

“I was amazed,” said Scurry, when asked what she thought upon learning Hays’ story. “I like the concept of helping people learn that something as small as Woonsocket can be connected to something as big as the Titanic.”

Mayers said she hopes the mural pays tribute to the history of the community and said passerby have been stopping to admire the unfinished work and share their own knowledge of Charles Hays. For her, the mural is special in another way as well. She will retire at the end of the current school year, and hopes to have the work completed before then as a final project with her students.

“His dream might’ve died with him in a sense, but his story lives on,” she said.

Woonsocket High School students work on a mural on a wall that is actually an abandoned railroad support on Cass Avenue.
Anjelika Ortiz, a freshman at Woonsocket High School, works on a portrait of railroad magnate Charles M. Hays.

Comments

Wow, what a great story. I used to look at that wall every day and wonder why it was there. Now I know and what a beautiful way to share this story.