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.
Image: "South Station and Atlantic Avenue Elevated", T.E. Marr, 1904.
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.
Image: "Approach tracks and trainshed of South Station in Boston, Massachusetts in 1904", Detroit Photographic Co.
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.
Image: "South Station, Boston, with the Atlantic Avenue Elevated in front", Detroit Photographic Co., 1905.
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 Olmsted to design the landscaping along the Boston and Albany line.
Image: "South Station: New York, New Haven & Hartford R. R. Built 1900", Thomas E. Marr.
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.
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.
Image: "Inside the South Station shed", Leslie Jones, 1930.
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.
Image: "Boston Herald Sketch of South Station", George B. Francis, 1898.
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.
Image: "South Station Passenger Concourse", Daniel Brody, 1970.
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.
Image: "Draftees leaving from North Station for Ayers, MA", Leslie Jones, 1917.
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.
Image source: Steve Rosenthal, PCA Architects.
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.
Image source: "Power car #2017 on the head of an Acela Express train at Boston's South Station", Stephen Colebourne, Wikipedia, 2012.
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.
Image: "South Station Headhouse", 2017.
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.