During the mid-1800s, the business of railroads in the United States was booming with over 29,000 miles of rail tracks in operation by 1860; a growth spurt that would continue for years to come.
With Boston at the forefront of rail development, it seemed only natural that it would become home to the largest and busiest rail center in the entire world.
At the time, railroad companies offering service to the Boston area had separate train terminals, creating a problem for passengers who had to navigate themselves and their luggage between those terminals in order to make connections.
The solution became two central train terminals for Boston: one to handle travel north of the city (North Union Station, opened in 1893) and the other to handle travel south and west (South Union Station).
The Boston and Albany Line
In 1867, when railroad mergers and acquisitions were the norm, the Boston and Worcester and the Western Railroad merged to form The Boston and Albany Railroad.By 1870, the Albany and West Stockbridge and the Hudson and Boston Railroad were also brought under the Boston and Albany Railroad umbrella. The line would eventually service the entire Boston to Albany route. When fully realized, the service would push west, benefiting Massachusetts business interests, as well as east to benefit New York interests. The line still exists today in the form of Amtrak’s Lakeshore Limited and the MBTA’s Framingham/Worcester Commuter Line.
The Early Years
The Boston and Worcester was the first commercial line in New England, with its premier service between Boston and Newton beginning in 1833. The line quickly extended that year, heading west to Wellesley and Ashland, then to Westborough in 1834 and finally to Worcester in 1835.
The Western Railroad was founded to connect the Boston and Worcester Railroad to the Hudson and Berkshire Railroad on the New York State Line. The Albany and West Stockbridge Railroad was incorporated as the New York portion of the Western Railroad in 1834. The Eastern portion of the line to the Connecticut River in Springfield opened in October of 1839, with the western portion traveling through the Berkshire Hills, opening in portions between May and September of 1841.The first train ran along the route in October of 1841.
At a price tag of $6 million, the tracks between Worcester and New York State were completed in three years and the two ends of Massachusetts were finally joined by rail. To make the connection, seven stone arch bridges, the first of their kind in the U.S., were built across the Westfield River with imported stone cut to fit together with little or no mortar.
Boston and Albany acquired the New York and New England Railroad in 1883 and opened “The Circuit” commuter loop in May 1886, a line connecting northwest to the Boston and Albany mainline. This service provided service between Boston, Brookline and Newton Highlands, north to Riverside and a loop back to Downtown Boston.
The Railroad Beautiful
With all these new rail lines came the need for terminals to house them. With that in mind, Boston and Albany Director, Charles Sprague Sargent, set out to create the “Railroad Beautiful.” He commissioned the services of Boston architect Henry Hobson Richardson, who is known for work on the Trinity Church in Boston’s Copley Square. Sargent, who had studied botany and horticulture, also brought on landscape designer Frederick Law Olmstead, who created the Arnold Arboretum with Sargent, to beautify the route. Richardson’s goal was that each station along the line would serve as a gateway to the town in which it was located and its architecture would offer easy train pathways and shelter for passengers. Following Richardson's death, the firm Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge took over the duty of building stations along the route and worked with Olmstead on landscaping aspects.
As the 1900s rolled around, commuter rail took on service east of Worcester and intercity rail continued west. Amtrak took over intercity trips upon its founding in 1971 and the MBTA acquired the line east of Framingham in 1973. Service west of Framingham was suspended two years later, when its subsidy was discontinued. However, in 1994, rush hour trains started to serve Worcester again, with that service expanding by 1996. Eventually, the former Circuit commuter line was incorporated into the MBTA and became known as the Highland Branch of the Green Line’s D branch.
The New Haven Railroad
Of all the rail companies, The New Haven Railroad probably had the most impact on the early history of rail in America.
Founded in 1872, the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad Company was the result of a merger between the New York and Hartford and New Haven Railroads. More commonly known as the New Haven, this rail company and its many owners and managers set out and succeeded in expanding its reach to become the biggest transportation entity in the Northeast. This was achieved through a series of acquisitions and mergers of rail lines and track miles, steamship, trolley and truck companies. The New Haven, at one time, even pondered entering the airline business. In the rail industry, The New Haven acquired 25 railroad companies and over 2,000 miles of track, offering passenger and freight service in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts. The latest technology was always of interest to the company, which was the only entity to operate steam, diesel and electric trains simultaneously.
An Electric Plan
The New Haven was in the forefront of experimentation with electrical lines in the late 19thCentury. The plan was to run an electrified system of trains based in South Station.
It even built a separate space, now known as the Ghost Terminal, underneath South Station, designed to handle 25,000 daily commuters. A two-track loop was built along with an elaborate underground suburban depot replete with platforms, a waiting room and men’s and women’s restrooms. However, the New Haven's attempt at electrification failed and the terminal was then abandoned. During the 1940s, the tracks were removed and a small garage, expanded baggage facility and post office extension were put in its place. At one time, the space even housed a bowling alley. Today, it serves as a storage facility.
Not all the work behind electrification was lost, however and the New Haven’s efforts eventually led to the route between New York City and New Haven being put under electrical catenary wires during the second decade of the 20th Century. The New Haven Railroad changed hands numerous times during its history. When financier J.P. Morgan took over at the turn of the century, his goal was to gain control of much of the industry, as well as other travel entities, such as steamship, trolley, truck and bus companies. His efforts would eventually lead to near financial ruin for the line, as well as a criminal investigation and charges of antitrust violations.
As Bill Reidy, of the New Haven Historical and Technical Society points out, “Back in the turn of the century, railroads were the only way to get around by land, so it was easy to build an empire."
As time went on, the financial state of The New Haven continued to decline, with a reprieve of the ailing line coming in the form of the government takeover for the war effort during the first World War.
As the war ended in 1920, the government control also ended and there was new management and development of the New England Transportation Company, a bus and truck subsidiary of the New Haven. This year also saw the height of rail transportation, with over one billion passengers riding the rails.
However, the effects of the Great Depression soon followed and the New Haven filed for bankruptcy protection in 1935. Once again showing its technological innovation, that decade saw the line introduce the first streamlined diesel-electric passenger train to New England called the Goodyear Zeppelin Comet. The Comet broke speed records, reaching 110.5 miles an hour on a one-mile stretch near Kingston, Rhode Island. By the time World War II came around, the New Haven’s diesel locomotives proved important to the war effort, resulting in the War Production Board releasing rationed materials to the railroad so it could continue to grow into the most modern passenger train fleet in the country.
Post-WWII, the New Haven saw a bit of an upturn and emerged from bankruptcy. However, the 1948 takeover by Frederic Dumaine basically served as the beginning of the end of the fabled New Haven line. What followed were budget and jobs cuts, several unsuccessful management team changes and the ultimate draining of cash reserves. By 1961, The New Haven was again bankrupt. The New Haven was eventually absorbed into the PennCentral Transportation Company, an entity that was formed from a 1969 merger between the Pennsylvania Railroad and the New York Central Railroad. The Penn Central eventually became part of the government-formed Conrail system in 1976.
The Old Colony Line
The Old Colony Line, which dates back over 185 years to the frontier days of rail, is still a familiar name in present day Boston. To commuters it means transport, Monday through Friday, to sites southeast of Boston. Through the years, The Old Colony Line, has persevered through financial struggles, cutbacks, shutdowns and controversies. In its earliest days, the Old Colony provided a connection point to Southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island. It was one of many rail entities gobbled up by the enormous New Haven Railroad empire during the late 1800s, when the latter signed a 99-year lease guaranteeing dividends of seven percent of Old Colony stock. Over the years, the Old Colony lines were relocated and expanded, all the while continuing to serve the communities of Massachusetts’ South Shore and Cape Cod. At its height, the Old Colony served many sites in those areas that are without rail service today including Provincetown, Newport and Fall River/New Bedford.
The Post-War Years
Following the end of the World War I, traditional rail could no longer handle the increases in commuters working in Downtown Boston. That’s when the Boston Elevated Company (predecessor to the MBTA) began to offer more rapid transit to those commuters, resulting in the shut down of many Old Colony stops. A reorganization plan soon called for the abandonment of 88 Old Colony stops with service reduced by 250,000 miles annually. The line was eventually split into the three main branches; The Boston Group, the Cape Group and the Western Group.
In 1940 came more bad news for the Old Colony when the ailing New Haven Railroad reorganization plan did not include the line. The following year, proponents of the railroad were granted a two-year period in which to prove the value of the line.
By 1948, following a 40-percent fare hike, service cutbacks and still-existing deficits, the end to the Old Colony Line was again announced, with service planned to end on October 1st of that year. However, proponents once again delayed service cancellation, with a one-year extension for the line. At the year’s end, the line’s fate was in question yet again, due to political wrangling on Beacon Hill, financial problems with area rapid transit lines and differing opinions among rail leadership. State government delivered some good - and bad - news, deciding on a subsidy for the Greenbush, Plymouth and Cape branches of the Old Colony, but also deciding to end service between Boston and Taunton, New Bedford and Fall River. That subsidy was not continued and the Old Colony Line was shut down on June 30, 1959.
Under the MBTA
In 1965, the newly formed MBTA took title to the Old Colony from Boston to South Braintree for extension of rapid transit. Fast forward to the 1980s, when highway congestion in Boston caused daily rush hour traffic jams of record proportions. As the powers-that-be were planning the Central Artery Project, getting cars off the road became more of a priority and commuter rail became more important, resulting in the eventual revival of the Old Colony Line.
In September of 1997, the Old Colony rode again to Plymouth/Kingston and Middleborough/ Lakeville. In 2007, the Greenbush branch of the Old Colony Line, which extends to Scituate, was reinstated following years of controversy over funding and projected ridership numbers.
For those Old Colony lines that were not reinstated, some are used as scenic tourist railroads, such as in Newport. Others have been transformed into rail trails. The future of the Old Colony Line could include further restoration of another former branch, in the form of the South Coast Rail Project that would restore service from Boston to the Fall River and New Bedford area.