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History of the Station

The Boston Terminal Company


The Boston Terminal Company, formed to develop South Union Station, was comprised of The New Haven Railroad, The Boston and Albany Railroad Company, The New England Railroad Company, The Boston and Providence Railroad Corporation and the Old Colony Railroad Company. Due to railroad industry consolidation, by the time of the station’s dedication, there would only be two players left out of the original group of five.


For location of the new site, the company decided on a $9 million, 35-acre expanse adjacent to Fort Point Channel, which was also the site of the New England Railroad terminal.


The land and construction of the station was funded with successful public bond sales and stock purchases from each of the five rail companies that made up the Boston Terminal Company. The City of Boston spent $2 million to reroute streets and utilities and constructed a seawall along Fort Point Channel in order to hold back the tides.


Architecture, Design & Construction


The look and feel of the new South Station, designed by the architectural firm of Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, was inspired by the style of famed Boston architect Henry Hobson Richardson, most known for his design of Boston’s Trinity Church. Richardson had also designed nine railroad stations for the Boston and Albany Railroad and had collaborated with famed Boston landscape designer Frederick Law Olmstead to design the landscaping along the Boston and Albany line.


Norcross Brothers, who were contractors on most of Richardson’s projects and also owners of several quarries that supplied granite for the architects, was chosen to build the new station. Construction of this major undertaking took about two years.


The building itself was comprised of five stories in neo-classical revival style. Three double doors, a design element that still exists today, opened up into the newly designed Dewey Square, named for Civil War and Spanish American War Hero George Dewey.


The station’s exterior clock, manufactured by the Edward Howard Clock Company of Roxbury, was topped by an imposing eagle statue with an eight-foot wingspan. The clock stands as the only remaining double, three-legged escapement mechanism in New England.


For the comfort of passengers, the trainshed for the station’s 28 platform tracks was enclosed by a massive roof with protection from the elements.


Inside the station, large, arched windows looked out onto Summer Street. The main waiting room, 225 by 65 feet, featured marble mosaic floors, polished granite and enameled brick and plaster walls. Coffered ceilings and its walls shone brightly from 1,200 incandescent lights.


Concessionaires of the times offered up flowers, confections, daily papers, fruit, tobacco and more. The lunchroom had 200 stools and counters made from Tennessee marble and mahogany, while three large dining rooms, a kitchen and additional serving rooms offered accommodations for private parties or receptions. A 34-by-44-foot women’s waiting room featured rocking chairs, lounges, tables and chairs, cribs and cradles. Another surprising feature for the time were 45 bathrooms with automatically flushing toilets.


Other amenities included a shoe cleaning and polishing chair, a private telephone exchange for use by the terminal, bike racks, check racks and separate employee facilities including separate ticket booths, apartments for car inspectors and dressing rooms for porters and gatemen.


Dedication & Opening


It was December 30, 1898 and Boston’s new South Union Station was big news in the city and far beyond. In the presence of 5,000 invited officials and guests, Boston Mayor Josiah Quincy, III was joined by New Haven Railroad head Charles P. Clark, to introduce his city and the world to the largest rail station ever built .The following day, New Year’s Eve 1898, amid a typical Boston snowstorm, an estimated 10,000 attended a public sneak preview and further dedicatory events.


excerpts from Boston Herald


“Ladies and gentlemen,” said Mayor Quincy to the crowd, “we meet here today at the formal opening and dedication of a great building unique in many respects, not only by far the largest structure in this city but one of the greatest in the area which it covers ever erected by the hand of man anywhere in the world.
"This great terminal station laid out upon such a comprehensive scale so liberal in its accommodations and so complete in all its equipment will here after rank as one of the great buildings of this city – a source of pride to its citizens, as object of admiration to strangers. 
“In place of the old city gate through which the stranger could pass only by permission, we open today in Boston this wide and spacious gateway of unrestricted freedom of the City of Boston.”

The station opened for service on New Year’s Day 1899. The first train, filled with 12 tons of Boston-based newspapers, headed out to Newport, Rhode Island at 4:38 a.m.


By the time the inaugural day of service had ended, 62 trains had departed the new station. In its first week of operations, the station welcomed 250 daily trains and by the fall of 1899, South Station was handling almost 740 trains each day.

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