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.

Through the Years

While it was already the largest, South Station quickly became the busiest train station in the world, handling about 38 million passengers in 1913, ranking higher than its second nearest competitor, Boston’s North Station, which handled 29 million and New York’s Grand Central Station, which handled 22 million that same year.

Following the heights of the early 1900s came a long period of further consolidations and decline in train travel. 

Within 30 years of its opening, South Station’s metal train shed and the two-story metal-covered midway were demolished due to deterioration. Around that same time, interior alterations were made to passenger waiting rooms and service areas.

During World War I, a government takeover of rail helped stem the industry’s financial problems. Despite financial difficulties, passenger numbers still held strong. Then, in 1929, The Great Depression added to the station’s declining fortunes.

During World War II, trains were filled with soldiers traveling for military purposes. In 1945, swollen by GIs returning from war, South Station again made history when over 135,000 visitors poured into its halls each day.

Saved from Demolition 

Soon after the war, the rail industry continued its descent, with the former rail kings faltering financially and the New Haven Railroad declaring bankruptcy. Automobile travel continued to climb in popularity with increased car sales and new highway systems. Boston, was no exception, with the old elevated Central Artery sprouting up in the 1950s, giving new, easier access to the city by automobile.

By the mid-1960s, South Station, the once grand and immaculate example of luxury and innovation, was a tired example of neglect and urban blight with the annual passenger count dipping to about 4.5 million, compared to the 38 million it served back in 1913.

The east wing of the station was torn down in the mid-60s to make way for a post office distribution center. The west wing went unused, the main waiting room was closed and 18 of the 28 platform tracks were destroyed.

In 1965, the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) took over ownership of South Station for the price tag of $6.95 million. This was less than the Boston Terminal Company, the original developer, had paid for the land alone.

After acquiring the property, The BRA made plans to demolish the old station to make way for a new, modern facility with a people-mover on an elevated passageway connecting the station to Dewey Square, a direct passageway to the MOPED and an indoor sports arena.

Although not totally demolished, a wrecking ball did eventually remove a half-dozen tracks and a large portion of the building’s U-shaped edifice, spanning from the Fort Point Channel to the remaining edge of the South Station terminal building that stands today.

During the 1970s a local grassroots movement emerged in an effort to save what was left of the old station; which was a portion of its headhouse and its grand waiting room. As a result of their actions, South Station was added to the National Register of Historic Sites and the wrecking ball was thwarted.

Renovation & Revival

In 1978, the MBTA bought South Station for $6.1 million with plans to restore what was left of the historic site.

That restoration project, which began in 1984, included the reconstruction of the headhouse and 11 station tracks with high-level platforms. It also included construction of a new bus terminal and a parking garage. The renovations took five years to complete, just in time for the station’s 90th anniversary in 1989. The cost of the project, $195 million, was six times that of the original station.

During the past two decades, South Station and rail travel on a whole have seen significant changes and improvements.

Amtrak’s high-speed Acela train, which debuted in 2000, served as the jumping off point for the possibilities of high-speed train travel around this country. The popularity of service caught on quickly with business travelers between Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. as an alternative to congested, expensive and delay-ridden air shuttles between the cities.

Amtrak also improved its regular Regional service, offering lower cost travel, as well as additional service, with connections all over the country.

The MBTA continued to expand its commuter offerings as years went on, including many portions of the former Old Colony Line routes, most recently the Greenbush line in 2007, with service between Boston and Scituate.

Today, the station has become a true intermodal center, with an adjacent bus station and direct connection to the MBTA’s Red Line and Silver Line.

Extending South Station’s intermodal reach, The MBTA’s Silver Line now provides a direct connection to the Black Falcon Cruise Terminal in South Boston, as well as Logan Airport across Boston Harbor in East Boston. Passengers can now travel from Logan’s terminals to South Station in about 10 minutes.

In addition to its travel offerings, South Station features many concession and retail choices, as well as its frequent entertainment and community events.

The building also stands as a living museum of rail history with historic wall plaques documenting achievements in the station’s history and even a wall exhibit featuring old South Station souvenir memorabilia. The station also features permanent art fixtures including Jeffrey Schiff’s "Destinations" comprised of 25 cast bronze destination plumbs hung above the main entrance of the station and Mayer Spivak’s "Muscle Bound for Miami" near the Amtrak information desk.