P&W was incorporated in Massachusetts on March 12, 1844 (St. 1844, c. 89) and in Rhode Island in 1844 during the May session of the General Assembly (St. 1844, May Session). The two state chartered companies merged on November 25, 1845 as the Providence and Worcester Railroad Company. In 1845, P&W acquired much of the Blackstone Canal and the land immediately surrounding it (including the old canal tow path) to begin construction of its Main Line between its two namesake cities. The Main Line opened in two sections, the part south of Millville on September 27, 1847, and the rest on October 20, 1847. The rail line from Providence to Central Falls was shared with the Boston and Providence Railroad Company (“B&P”), providing the B&P with an opportunity to extend their presence into Rhode Island. B&P built a connection from its old intrastate-only line (ending on the east side of Narragansett Bay in East Providence) over to the P&W. In 1874, P&W constructed a branch line from its Main Line in Valley Falls to East Providence where a new coal handling facility had been built. The area was named the Wilkesbarre Pier after the point of origin of the coal shipped by the Wilkesbarre Coal and Iron Company in Pennsylvania. In 1889, P&W executed a lease with the New York, Providence, and Boston Railroad that was cancelled three years later in favor of a 99 year lease with the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad (the “New Haven”). During the P&W’s lease term, many railroads in New England and throughout the region experienced economic hardships ultimately leading to their decline and fall. Between 1952 and 1963, the New Haven declined and, in 1961, it filed for bankruptcy.
The New Haven completed its merger with the Penn Central Transportation Company (“Penn Central”) in 1969. On April 6, 1970, P&W announced its intention to separate from the merged entity and commence independent operations. After a series of legal battles, the Interstate Commerce Commission approved P&W’s request on August 25, 1972 and, on November 2, 1972, P&W’s legal battle with Penn Central was resolved. On February 3, 1973, P&W embarked on its inaugural run as an independent operating entity. Since then, P&W has taken over many other lines from the former Penn Central, Boston and Maine Railroad Company, and Consolidated Rail Corporation. On April 1, 1976, for example, P&W almost tripled its operating territory and branched into the State of Connecticut. In 1982, with the support of the State of Rhode Island and shippers, P&W assumed all of Conrail’s rail freight operations in Rhode Island.
Through its various acquisitions and trackage rights agreements P&W’s rail system now spans approximately 516 miles and covers operations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island.