Back in July, I was convinced by some friends to teach a short class on the history of the Boston T to middle school students. This is the second of three blog posts covering the material I discussed. An additional useful reference for this topic is the series of historical maps of the T that the Traveler made a while ago.
The Orange Line
A map of the original route of the Orange Line through downtown.
The Main Line Elevated
The Orange Line was the first of the T’s lines to be built to provide rapid transit service and, unlike the other lines, it serves completely different track than when it opened. Although its first grade-separated project was the Tremont St streetcar tunnel, the Boston Elevated Railway’s primary goal was to build a rapid transit line through Boston using high-platform, higher capacity “el cars” like those that had been in use in New York for years, rather than streetcars.
In 1901, the Boston Elevated Railway’s “main line” opened from Dudley Square to Sullivan Square, following an elevated line through Charlestown, the Tremont Street Subway (each station had short high platforms added to serve the rapid transit cars), and an elevated line down Washington Street. A second route through downtown was provided by the Atlantic Avenue Elevated, which connected the Washington Street and Charlestown Elevateds with a route along the waterfront that connected South Station, the ferry terminals, and North Station.
In 1908, the current Orange Line tunnel under Washington St downtown was completed and rapid transit service in the Tremont Street Subway ended. The south end of the Washington Street Elevated was extended to Forest Hills in 1912 and the north end of the Charlestown Elevated was extended to Everett in 1919.
Demolishing the Els
However, relatively soon afterward, Boston began to tear down its elevateds. The Atlantic Avenue El was demolished first, in 1938, due to low ridership, particularly since there was no longer significant ferry service to the waterfront. This eliminated the one-seat ride between Boston’s two major train terminals. The route from Everett through downtown to Dudley Square and Forest Hills, however, remained in 1967 when the MBTA renamed it the Orange Line. As the old elevated portions of the line were loud and shadowed major streets, there was a movement to replace them with non-elevated track. However, subway construction was considered too expensive, so the northern and southern ends of the line were instead relocated to commuter rail rights-of-way. In 1975, the Charlestown Elevated was torn down and rapid transit service to Everett ended. Instead, the line was extended north to Malden and Oak Grove, with an unused third track intended for potential express service if and when it is extended further north.
In the 1950s and 1960s, work was done to prepare the Northeast Corridor intercity and commuter rail embankment for conversion into an eight-lane highway called the “Southwest Corridor”. When this project was killed due to opposition in the neighborhoods it went through, the land was instead converted into a park with three mainline rail tracks and two new Orange Line tracks, allowing the Washington Street Elevated to be demolished in 1987.
The loss of rapid transit service along Washington Street was a particular loss because Washington Street north of Dudley Square is the main transportation corridor into downtown from the south, as it follows the old Boston Neck, which used to have its south end at Dudley. A number of heavily used bus lines from southern Boston terminate at Dudley, which is the busiest bus station in the US without a rapid transit connection. The Silver Line bus lanes built on Washington Street were intended to serve as a replacement, but residents tended to consider them inadequate and derided the project as the “Silver Lie”.
The Blue Line
The East Boston Tunnel
Like the Green Line, the Blue Line was originally constructed as a streetcar subway. In 1904, the East Boston Tunnel opened as the first under-ocean subway in the world, replacing ferry service that had previously connected East Boston’s streetcar network to downtown. The line ran from Maverick to near Government Center and, like the Tremont Street Subway, carried streetcar lines that ran on the surface in East Boston. In 1925, though, ridership had become high enough that the tunnel was retrofitted for high-platform rapid transit cars powered by a third rail, with the East Boston streetcars terminating at Maverick for transfer to the tunnel service. The fact that the Blue Line’s tunnel—and in particular, the turn-around-loop at Bowdoin—was originally built for streetcars constrains the line to use very short rapid transit cars, roughly the same length as that of Boston’s streetcars, in order to have a small enough turning radius for some turns.
The Revere Extension
The East Boston Tunnel wasn’t the first rapid transit service to East Boston, though. From 1875 to 1940, a narrow gauge railway called the Boston, Revere Beach, and Lynn Railroad ran from Lynn to a ferry terminal in East Boston. By the 1890’s, it was providing steam-powered rapid-transit service service for commuters from Lynn, Revere, and Winthrop (where it had a branch line). In 1928, it was electrified, though this didn’t prevent it from declining due to the Great Depression and the spread of cars.
After the railroad went bankrupt in 1940, Massachusetts bought up its right-of-way to Lynn for an extension of rapid transit service through the East Boston Tunnel. In 1952, service opened to the current terminus at Wonderland, though there are still vague plans to extend the line to Lynn, and the 1992 renovation of the commuter rail station there included provisions for a Blue Line station. The Blue Line is almost unique among rapid transit systems in the US that it uses both third rail and overhead power. The East Boston Tunnel, which was built for streetcars, isn’t tall enough to allow for overhead wires along with taller rapid transit vehicles. On the other hand, third rail power along the beach in Revere would cause corrosion problems from the salt spray. As a result, Blue Line trains switch from third rail to overhead power while stopped at Airport.
The extension of the Blue Line to Revere also finally provided the Blue Line with its own storage and maintenance yard, at Orient Heights on the site of the old Boston, Revere Beach, and Lynn yard. Previously, cars needing maintenance had to be hauled up a portal at Bowdoin and along unpowered trolley tracks on Cambridge St to the Longfellow Bridge, where they could be run on the Red Line to its shops.