Saturday, August 21, 2010

Saving Boston Common

Boston streetcar traffic, Tremont Street, 1895
It's easy to look at the huge, green expanse of the Boston Common in the middle of Boston and imagine that it was always obvious that it would remain pristine and untrammeled.  But in the late 19th century, the Common came close to being pillaged to support an improved transportation system in the city.

Public transportation in Boston in the 1880s consisted of a number of competing horsecar companies, which ran horse-drawn conveyances over rails through the city streets.  The system was fragmented, and often competing horsecar lines laid parallel tracks next to each other in the congested city.  The  speed of the horsecars was about 5 mph, which limited the maximum commuting distance from the city center to about 4 miles.

There was a clear desire to speed up transit and reduce congestion but it was not clear how that was going to happen.  Cable systems were being built in San Francisco and elsewhere--but cable could not easily be adapted to Boston's topography:   winding, crooked streets, the incursions of the river and the sea, and the looming Beacon Hill.

Electric car lines installed in Richmond, Virginia in 1887-1888 seemed more promising, but it was too expensive for multiple competing horsecar companies to take on.

Eventually, an entrepreneur by the name of Henry Melville Whitney acquired 5 million square feet of land along Beacon Street in Boston and Brookline, with a plan to build housing and a street rail line along the boulevard from Brookline to the center of the city.  When the existing horsecar firms did not demonstrate interest, he engineered a buyout of all their stock, and the West End Street Railway Company came into existence.

At the time of the acquisition in 1887, West End owned 8,400 horses, and 200 miles of track.  By 1892, two-thirds of their track had been converted to electric operations, and by 1894, 90%.  Boston had faster, cheaper, and better public transportation than any other US city.

But West End was a victim of its own success.  Increased travel speed was followed by further city population growth and expansion of the city to the "streetcar suburbs" in Dorchester and elsewhere.  There was pressure on West End to add so-called "rapid transit" to its system--either by subway or elevated line.  Whitney actually won a charter for an elevated line--but study convinced him that it was not suited to the inner city.

A city Rapid Transit Commission (which included Congressman John Fitzgerald, later Mayor of Boston) was formed in 1892.  They held 51 public hearings and traveled to the major European cities with rapid transit systems.  Fitzgerald didn't like the "buried-alive" feeling of being in the London tube, though he was more impressed with the "cut and cover" subways that were very close to the surface.  The RTC made a series of recommendations which included a subway under Boston Common to reduce the major congestion on Tremont and Washington Streets.

Painting by Childe Hassam, Boston Common at Twilight
City dwellers had a significant emotional attachment to the Common, but the growing suburban population of 1893, frustrated by transportation delays, pressed for several alternative solutions:  widening Tremont Street by chopping off the end of the Common, adding an elevated line along the edge of the Common, or laying tracks directly across the Common itself.

West End's proposal wasn't much better--building a subway under the Common but seizing 4 acres for a switching yard and station, cutting down 100 trees, covering the entire subway area with cement or brick, and building 330 ventilation holes, each surrounded by an iron fence 19 feet in circumference!

There was a huge uproar from Bostonians led by the Boston Evening Transcript, and including Julia Ward Howe as a key protestor.  The Transcript said it would be like subdividing Bunker Hill into housing lots.

In 1894, the legislature held hearings and prepared an act (that would be approved by voters in a referendum later that year) that would authorize the city to build subway lines under Tremont and Washington Streets,  a transit bridge to Charlestown, and a transit tunnel under the East Boston harbor.  A private firm would also be authorized to build an elevated line from Charlestown to Roxbury.

The trolleys coming into the inner city would enter the tunnel instead of tying up narrow Tremont Street with tracks and congestion.  And construction of that first subway tunnel was just like the Big Dig--they built it in the middle of the living city!  Each night, they would dig 12 foot wide strips on Tremont Street, and then cover them and shore them up with timbers.  In the daytime, traffic down Tremont could continue unabated, and the workers could continue with digging and construction underneath.

Boston streetcar entering Park Station 1897
Amazingly enough, the project was brought in on-time (opening in 1897 and wrapping up construction in 1898) and under budget.  The city retained ownership of the line, and West End (which became Boston Elevated Railway Company in 1897) leased the right to operate the electric trains through the subway.   In that first year, Park Street Station became one of the busiest railroad stations in the world--serving 40 million passengers in its first eleven months of operation.

Boston thus became the first city in the U.S. to implement a policy of public ownership of rapid transit lines.  The relationship with the private monopoly to operate the trains continued until the 1920s, when rising costs and growing competition from automobiles resulted in losses for Boston Elevated and the city took over operations.

NOTE:  The remaining provisions from the 1894 act were quickly completed--the bridge to Charlestown opened in 1899, the elevated electric line from Charlestown to North Station opened in 1901,  and the East Boston transit tunnel under the harbor opened at the end of 1904.

 Illustration Credits and References

The two photographs in this post were found on the website of "Perfessor" Bill Edwards, Ragtime Era Nostalgia.  The first shows streetcar traffic on Tremont Street in 1895, and the second shows an open streetcar entering Park Street Station via the new tunnel in 1897.

The painting by Childe Hassam, Boston Common at Twilight, shows both the beautiful Common and the streetcars lined up on Tremont Street, and was painted in 1885-86.  Hassam's studio was here on Tremont Street.

Information about the history of Boston's public transportation comes primarily from Charles W. Cheape's Moving the Masses:  Urban Public Transit in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, 1880-1912.  Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1980.


Daisy said...

Hi Catherine, I'm working on a documentary about the first subway systems in Boston and I'm curious about your source for the photos in this blog entry -- would love to exchange email addresses and talk further! Great blog!

SantaFeKate said...

Daisy--glad you enjoyed it! I did give some notes at the end of the post about where I found the photos--not sure I have anything to add to that. There are also postcards (which were BIG in 1905) that show various subway photos--these are colorized and often very cool--you could look on eBay or other collector sites to see if there are any for sale. My email is catherine.b.hurst at