Original Boston rapid-transit plan called for two downtown lines, mostly above ground

Proposed el system for downtown Boston

Proposed el system for downtown Boston. See it larger.

In 1892, a state commission developed a series of plans to deal with the complete gridlock that downtown Boston had become. It proposed banning vehicles not making deliveries from downtown streets during business hours, reducing the number of grade crossings for the numerous railroad serving Boston, constructing a trolley tunnel under Tremont Street and the Common, and creating a 13.4-mile elevated rapid-transit system serving downtown and nearby neighborhoods and suburbs.

The Rapid Transit Commission called for mostly elevated lines and stations and only reluctantly supported subway tunnels where absolutely required due to impracticalities of above-ground lines, such as at Park Street Church, because it felt riders would not want to descend into and ascend out of deep holes in the ground, in part because of how cold it could get in stations deep underground:

The best medical opinion deprecated the shock which would attend the plunge from the temperature of our sunny streets in midsummer to the icy chill of these damp sub-cellars. To be sure, it was replied, "But they may be artificially heated," - and so undoubtedly they may be, and they may be satisfactorily ventilated, perhaps, by and by; but as tunnels are now operated, and in view of the temperament and habits of our people, so little inclined, so far as we can learn, to go far underground with electric light when they can go above in the sunlight, we thought it very doubtful if such a means of transit would attract any considerable patronage in competition with the ordinary street car; and we feared that it would fail to relieve the surface to any perceptible extent, or to quiet the demand for some overhead system of transportation.

Tthe commission proposed two rapid-transit lines through the heart of the city, with extensions at their ends for riders coming in from or going out to outlying neighborhoods or suburbs - and with connections to each other so that trains from one line could cross to the other.

The commission proposed an elevated line up Washington Street from Waltham Street in the South End to Park Square via Waltham and Tremont streets to Park Square, from which it would cross over Boylston and Charles Street and onto the Common, which it would dip underground about where the tennis courts are now for a tunnel to Park Street - with "abundant light and air from frequent openings to the surface." The tunnel would continue to Scollay Square - basically today's Government Center - where it would rise back up into the air and continue to Causeway Street.

The other line would start near what is now South Station, head up to Post Office Square, up past the Custom House and Quincy Market and then up a widened Cross Street (back when Cross Street was more than just a glorified parking lot at the entrance to the North End) to Causeway Street.

The lines would have nine stations: Two on Kneeland street, one near what is now the South Station complex, one between Harrison and Washington; Park Square; Tremont Street under the Common, across from West Street; Scollay Square; Bowdoin Square; The "Northern depots" (today's North Station); Haymarket Square; Quincy Market, Post Office Square and Atlantic Avenue near what is now the entrance to South Station.

The commission proposed extending these lines with lines out to outlying neighborhoods and suburbs:

  • An elevated line heading from Park Square to Dudley Square in Roxbury via Tremont, Waltham and Washington streets - with the possibility of extending that all the way to Franklin Park.
  • A line into Cambridge from Causeway Street via the bridge over the Charles River dam, and from there down Third, Main and Mount Auburn streets into Harvard Square - a line the commission said could be extended further west at a later date. The commission said it would not be averse to having this line branch off after the dam to head down Somerville Avenue to Union Square.
  • A line from Fort Point Channel to City Point in South Boston by way of Dorchester Avenue and Broadway to East 3, Emerson and East 4 streets.
  • A line to Charlestown from Causeway and Haverhill streets to City Square, via a bridge that has since been torn down, and then down Main Street to Sullivan Square. The commission said not long after, the line should be extended to Chelsea, which was "suffering great delays and inconvenience" from not having any direct land routes to Boston and from having so many grade crossings from the Boston and Maine.

The commission said it appeared at the time that Brighton was adequately served by street cars and that the proposed trolley tunnel under Tremont Street and the Common would be enough to reduce delays, but that extending an el down Commonwealth Avenue would be easy enough should conditions change.

The commission pooh-poohed complaints about how an el running through part of Boston Common - and widening Tremont, Boylston, Beacon and Park streets by taking land from the Common - was a bad thing.

For one thing, the commission wrote, the greater good demanded it - Boston was becoming choked in its own traffic; there were places downtown where one could walk faster than any street car:

The great thoroughfares which the needs of the city will shortly require cannot be brought to a full stop at the line of the Common. When different public interests conflict, the lesser in importance must give way. To adopt the reverse course would be to allow sentiment to run mad, or in this case to make a fetish of the Common.

For another thing, the commission said, part of the reason to resist carving up the Common was because it provided necessary respite for the lower classes living in "crowded and unhealthy tenement-houses" downtown, but the projected success of the new rapid-transit system would bring so many new workers downtown that the current tenements would "dissipate almost to the point of extinction" and so there would no longer be much need for a place for poor people to get "breaths of fresh air," because they would all move to nicer homes in less congested district at the farther ends of the transit system.

In fact, the commission criticized those who would preserve the Common as standing against the interests of poor tenement dwellers:

To defeat such a social reform by an alleged desire to safeguard the interests of the poor would be to signally mistake the shadow for the substance, and to lose the latter in an effort to keep the former.

The commission also considered what we would now call the north/south rail link - and promptly rejected it. The commission concluded there was little demand for a connection between Roxbury and Chelsea, and that the tourists who would be the main beneficiary of a through line in Boston mostly wanted to spend a day or so touring the city and so would not really be bothered by having to get from one station to another.

Map from the New York Public Library digital collections.

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Comments

Did you write this up knowing

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Did you write this up knowing there'd be ridiculous delays on the eMbarrassmentBTA today?

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Nah

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In fact, I spent so much time engrossed in this report, I was blissfully unaware of any T delays - and you know I never miss a chance to try to come up with new rhyming headlines.

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Oh, yes, very cool

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What's interesting after reading the Rapid Transit Commission report is that back then, trolleys were NOT considered rapid transit, they were just street cars that, while convenient (the commission wondered if people would give up street cars that stopped pretty much every block for faster elevated or underground trains that only stopped every few blocks), were anything but rapid, and that they were as distinct from rapid transit as, oh, the Orange Line is from the Acela today.

Of course, today, we celebrate the Tremont tunnel as the first subway tunnel in North America, and we don't really have street cars anymore (the E Line kind of runs street-car service past Brigham Circle, but the cars are way bigger than the street cars back in the day, and the Mattapan Line runs those cute PCC cars, but on a converted freight line, not in the street).

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rapid transit

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Even now, trolleys should not be considered rapid transit, except for the D line and *maybe* the underground parts.

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Beg To Differ

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On Mattapan line, anyway. It's a swift trip from one end to the other; much faster than a walk, of course, and I'd probably wager on the trolley vs. car or bus during rush hour.

And, of course, it IS the "High Speed Line"!

Suldog
http://jimsuldog.blogspot.com

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Whether we call it a trolley or not

The important distinction is whether it sits in car traffic. By that metric, yeah, the Mattapan High Speed is closer to rapid transit than the B or C lines.

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Additional Context

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I found the PBS American Experience “Race Underground” to provide vivid context around what the street traffic patterns were like at the time. It’s available on PBS streaming or Netflix, and others and is filled with photos, newspaper clippings, and motion pictures from the period. Just watched it last night!

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More even than that

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Yeah, I wondered what those commissioners would've thought about today's Common shadow wars.

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They existed back then, too

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Chicago introduced legislation to ban the construction of buildings over 150 feet in 1892. NYC was slower to take action, implementing new zoning practices in 1916 that restricted height.

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Mostly for fire reasons that height was limited

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A steam driven pumper couldn't get water up higher, not that there were ladders to get firemen up high either. Keep in mind fires were much more common back then. People smoked more, and sprinkler systems non existent.

Water pressure wasn't sufficient to serve tall buildings. NYC required water tanks on roofs for all these reasons.

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these laws exist for a reason

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in most large cities because developers don't care about residents, just $$$. Without this, cities would be dark all the time with very little natural light reaching the streets. The set designers for the Michael Keaton Batman movies actually referenced these laws for NYC, designing Gotham as if these laws didn't exist. People live in cities too, not just commuting in for work.

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Complaining

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Complaining about vehicles in Downtown: A Boston tradition since before 1892!

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Pardon me for asking, but...

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Exactly what type of gridlock would have occurred in 1892??

Too many horses and buggies? o.O

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More street cars, actually

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Lots of buggies and carriages, yes, but the real problem was the Boston area had a dense street-car network and it all converged on the narrow streets of downtown Boston. The reason for the nation's first subway tunnel wasn't to speed travel from the hinterlands, but to ease the gridlock on Tremont Street caused by all those street cars:

The quiet little town of 1800 little dreamed of the scene which a century would unfold. Her primitive lanes had been traced by the cows, and were worn by a few foot-passengers and an occasional cart. They are now traversed continually by electric monsters which would have astonished our ancestors, and which render the old-time ways almost impassible to their descendants.

And then the commissioners get really poetic, in discussing conditions within our small downtown that could only be solved by getting people out of street cars and into what we'd call subway cars today:

Hither, every morning, the great arterial streams of humanity are drawn, and thence every evening they are returned to the extremities of the city and its suburbs, as the blood pulses to and from the human heart, or the tides ebb and flow in the bay. It is necessary to emphasize this feature in our conformation, as it renders the problem in Boston essentially unlike that of New York. There the flood runs mainly up and down along a narrow channel morning and night. Here the tide presses in from every point of the compass toward a common centre when the day is young, and falls back again as the sun goes down. ... The territory assumes roughly the shape of an hour-glass. The bulbous extremities, north and south, taper into a wasp-like waist between Tremont and Washington street, near Court street. This compression has a somewhat analogous effect upon the traffic to that which the slender glass tube connecting the bulbs has up on the sand in the hour-glass. The human tide from north and south compressed into this narrow strait is gorged and dammed and struggles slowly through. And the difficulties of the case are increased by the fact that this congested district, though shaped like an hour-glass, is not built symmetrically upon a central axis, but is bent by Beacon hill into a curve.

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Brooklyn and Queens were farmland at the time

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Pictures of the open space during that time are amazing. It took building elevated railways into Queens to foster development and give relief to diseased, overpacked, Manhattan tenements. Steinway Piano was one of the first companies to move out to Queens and had to supply its workers with housing and company stores.

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Parts of Brooklyn were ...

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But the city of Brooklyn, which around that time was not the same as Kings County, was as urbanized as anything across the river - in fact, it was the third largest city in the country (Brooklyn and Kings County only became the same exact place in 1896, just two years before Brooklyn got swallowed up by New York City).

Just sign me Brooklyn born and (mostly) raised.

But to your main point, yes, the expansion of street-car and then subway lines in Brooklyn and Queens did much the same as they did here in transforming sleepy hamlets into "street-car suburbs."

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Can we pick our favorite sentence?

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Mine is:

The human tide from north and south compressed into this narrow strait is gorged and dammed and struggles slowly through.

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