This article by Allston-Brighton historian Dr. William P. Marchione appeared in the Allston-Brighton Tab or Boston Tab newspapers in the period from July 1998 to late 2001, and supplement information in his books The Bull in the Garden (1986) and Images of America: Allston-Brighton (1996). These articles are copyrighted in the name of the author. Researchers should, however, feel free to quote from the material, with proper attribution. firstname.lastname@example.org
1835: The Year of the Railroads
An event of transforming importance to the future of Boston and New England occurred in 1835---the inauguration of the region’s first steam-powered railroads, three of them in a single year, and all headquartered in Boston.
Each of these pioneer railroad lines ran from Boston to a major population center to the north, west or south: the Boston & Lowell stretched northward, to the regions key textile center, the Boston & Providence southwest to the principal port of neighboring Rhode Island, and the Boston & Worcester due west to Massachusetts largest interior city. With the opening of these lines in mid-1835, Boston became, temporarily at least, the railroading capital of the nation.
While these were not the first steam powered railroads to be built in the United States (that distinction belongs to a South Carolina line), railroading in America was nonetheless a Boston idea. The pioneer railroad in the United States, the Granite Railway, a horse-drawn line established in 1827 to carry stone from the Quincy quarries to to dockside on the Neponset River, was founded by Boston entrepreneurs.
Moreover, the city's financiers played a key role in the building and management of railroads all across the nation in the 1830 to 1850 period.
Why were Bostonians so deeply interested in building and owning railroads?
As America spread westward in the early 19th century, Boston was finding it harder and harder to compete, lying as it did in the northeastern corner of the nation, a location ideal for engaging in oceangoing trade, but increasingly remote from the nation’s interior markets and resources. While New York City (which by the 1830s was both the nation’s largest city and most active port) was linked to the interior by a system of natural and man made waterways---the Hudson River, the Erie Canal (completed in 1825), and the Great Lakes, Boston was separated from the nation’s developing heartland not only by formidable distances, but also by the intervening barrier of the Berkshire Hills. Only by the building railroads, especially a western line linking New England to the Hudson, could Boston remain reasonably competitive.
In addition, the New England region's own developing industrial economy required speedier modes of transportation than could be furnished by horse-drawn vehicles moving along interior roadways, or even canal boat plying man made local waterways such as the Middlesex and Blackstone Canals.
The opening of the B&L, B&P, and B&W lines in 1835 marked the first step in the creation of an elaborate network of trackage that by the 1850s linked Boston to the nation’s interior markets and resources. By mid-century some 3,000 miles of railroads would exist in New England alone.
It should be emphasized that many elements of the state's population were initially quite doubtful about railroads. In the 1830s steam power was as yet a relatively new and uncertain technology. Early railroad proposals visualized freight and passengers being drawn by teams of horses, with all of the problems reliance upon animal power would entail. As late as 1828-9, a committee of the Massachusetts State Legislature recommended that the state deal with its transportation problem by constructing an elaborate system of canals, to be funded from the proceeds of a state lottery.
The Boston business community, however, was highly supportive of railroad construction idea, the proposal for a western line (via Worcester) being especially popular. In 1829, pro-railroad Bostonians met in Faneuil Hall to urge that the city government itself undertake the construction of a western line, and that it appropriate a million dollars to that end.
Not only was there disagreement about whether a western railroad was feasible, but also over who should pay for its construction. In 1830 Massachusetts Governor Levi Lincoln proposed that the state build a line that would pass through Worcester (his hometown), but this proposal was defeated by a powerful combination of those intent upon keeping taxes low, those with vested interests in existing transportation facilities (turnpikes and canals), as well as legislators from towns that the contemplated railroad by-passed.
In the end, proponents of railroad building resorted to private financing through state incorporated stock companies.
The first such corporation to be formed was Boston & Lowell, founded on June 5, 1830. The fast-growing industrial city of Lowell, founded in 1822, had need of a mode of transportation more reliable than the the Middlesex Canal (built in 1803), which froze in the winter months. The prime movers in the establishment of the B&L Corporation were the Boston Associates, under dynamic entrepreneur Patrick Tracy Jackson, the group that had founded Lowell back in 1822.
Despite the B&L's earlier incorporation, however, it was the Boston & Worcester, chartered on July 23, 1831, that established the first regular service in Massachusetts.
Not all communities, it should be emphasized, wanted railroads built in their midst. Railroad technology was still quite primitive in the early 1830s. These steel behemoths were noisy, dangerous mechanisms. They belched huge quantities of smoke and cinders into the air (sometimes setting fire to surrounding property), and were susceptible to frequent explosions, derailments and collisions. Any community through which a railroad passed could expect to experience property damage and loss of life.
Originally slated to extend through Watertown and Waltham, the B&W ran into considerable resistance and had to be shifted southward through more rural Newton. Then because the town of Brighton objected to the route as altered, the route was shifted from the center of that town to the margin of the Charles River. In addition, when the owners of a local turnpike company objected to the probable impact the railroad would have on their business, the route through Framingham Center had to be moved southward.
Construction of the B&W began in August 1832, passing over the open water of Boston's Back Bay via a 170 foot long trestle and embankment. By mid-April the line was already running passenger trains from Boston to the Davis Tavern in West Newton. By July 1834 it had reached Wellesley Hills. It reached Westborough in November and opened for regular service all the way to Worcester on July 4, 1835.
Much of the credit for the rapid completion of the B&W Railroad must go to the line’s visionary President, Nathan Hale, sometimes referred to as "The Father of the American Railroad." A prominent newspaper publisher, owner of the Boston Daily Advertiser (the first New England daily), Hale repeatedly advocated the building of a western railroad in the pages of his paper. He held the post of President of the B&W from 1831 until 1850.
Hale also played a key role in the creation of the Western Railroad, built between Worcester and the New York boundary in the 1836-1841 period, which in combination with the B&W (the combined lines were afterwards called the Boston & Albany) provided Boston and the whole New England region with the lifeline to the west that was so important to its long-term economic health.