A Ride Through History

I’m rather enjoying being back to daily commutes downtown. It’s been particularly interesting being primarily on the Green Line – having previously commuted primarily by Red.

The Redline is perhaps the most polished of the MBTA lines. It is certainly the youngest. The section of track from Park Street to Harvard was opened in 1912. Followed by the later extension to Porter, Davis, and Alewife as recently as the early ’80s.

The Green Line, on the other hand, is the MBTA’s oldest line – making it the single oldest public transit line in the United States. While the Lechmere terminus – where I now board the train – wasn’t opened until 1922 – much of the tunnel work was initially done in the late 1890s.

So every time the train squeals while going through one of those sharp turns I think of it as a little bit of history.

Perhaps even more interesting about the Green Line tunnels, though, is that there are places where you can actually see good portions of the track. With the current re-construction of Government Center station, there’s a whole section that’s well lit and open for viewing. It’s fascinating.

The MBTA boldly claims to have ” a history longer than that of American independence,” dating the city’s history of public transportation back to the family-operated ferries of 1631.

Public transit as we know it, though, really started to emerge in the mid-1800s. While initially stage coaches carried passengers between Boston and surrounding cities, in the 1820s “omnibus” (OMNI – a bus for all, everywhere) service emerged. “Longer than a conventional stagecoach, it had lengthwise seats along either side rather than cross seats, and a door at either end. Stagecoaches went directly from one city or town; omnibuses made several stops along an assigned route.” The OMNIs were, of course, still horse-drawn.

Around the sometime, street railways – horse drawn cars on tracks – began to appear in concert with the nation’s railroad boom. As one historian notes, these street railways “were not envisioned purely to provide transportation within the city, a need as yet not pressing or obvious in the small, compact cities of that day.”

By the 1850s, there were horse-drawn street cars throughout Boston and nearby cities, with service that competed with, and sometimes duplicated, that of the OMNIs. In 1887 the state consolidated all lines into the West End Street Railway, which then oversaw the expansion of the system and the introduction of electrified street cars.

Eventually, the streets became so crowded with street cars that the “Tremont Street Subway” – now the Green Line – was conceived to alleviate traffic in the city’s busiest disctricts.


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