Monday, April 27, 2015

Stories of Massachusetts

When a researcher called looking for items written by the Massachusetts Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration, one work, listed above caught my eye. The Stories volume was compiled on behalf of the Boston School Committee and sponsored also by the Massachusetts Department of Education. It was published in 1940/1941. Topics in the work include: The Great Boston Fire of 1872, Garrison the Liberator, The Building of the Constitution, and The Other Oliver Wendell Holmes.  But, one story, is particularly timely: The First American Subway. With the T, so much in the news, a look at its beginnings is an interesting endeavor.

Some points from history about the Boston subway:
  • During the years 1892-1894, the General Court passed legislation to set up the Boston Transit Commission whose task it was to find how the congestion in Boston could be lessened.  A “Tremont Street Subway” was proposed.
  • Even though people were using cars pulled by horses and there was only one electric line, the idea of a subway was met with great opposition, especially by the business community fearing commerce would be disrupted. An Anti-Subway League was founded, but their wishes were thwarted by a city vote in July of 1894 where those wishing the construction to go forward were successful, though only by 1000 plus votes.
  • During these early years, the Chief Engineer Howard Carson visited Europe, staying in London and Budapest to study their systems. He found that the air quality in the London Tube was poor and made sure to develop a better system for the city of Boston.
  • On March 28th, 1895, construction on the subway began at the meeting of Boylston and Charles Streets.  The Chief Engineer was joined by Governor Greenhalge, members of the Commission other dignitaries and interested parties.  There were also hundreds of laborers wanting to find work.
Governor Frederic T. Greenhalge,
Picture 1-55, State Library of Massachusetts.
There were several crises during the construction, including the finding of the bodies and burial places of hundreds of the dead. These were reburied.  Also, in March of 1897, a gas leak caused the deaths of 10 workers who were digging at the site.
  • In September of that year, the subway was opened to much amazement. On opening day, the Park Street to the Public Garden ride was taken by between 200,000 and 250, 000 people.  In awe of the new transportation system, it was the turnstyles which added to some consternation as well as to bewilderment.  Young couples in particular, it is documented, did not like the need to be separated from one another!!
Over the years, of course, the Boston subway system has grown and grown. The T is a very proud accomplishment for the city, though problems have surfaced over the last months of very unprecedented weather. What will happen in the future to this vital part of the life of the city is to be determined.  Our government leaders are and will be deciding what to do.  There will be new initiatives and legislation coming and coming soon.

To track all of the additions to this transportation system and to follow the current situation, a visit to the State Library in person or remotely can help.  For legislation passed each year, for example, one can visit our Acts and Resolves section on our website. Items on transportation which are online can be located in the Digital Collections section.

To find a wealth of material, one can visit us here in the State House. We are located in Room 341 and our Special Collections is in the West Wing, Room 55.  Please go to our website at: You will see the link to Digital Collections on the left.

Pamela W. Schofield
Legislative Reference Librarian
State Library of Massachusetts