The Ebbing Excitement Surrounding the Opening of Boston’s Tremont Street Subway, 1897

Have you visited Boston?  Do you have ancestors who lived or visited here?  Since you’re reading a blog called Forgotten New England, chances are good that you, or someone on a branch of your family tree, has ridden Boston’s subway.  Boston’s subway, or ‘the T’ as its locally known, makes a very walkable city even more accessible.  The T is also the first, and oldest, subway system in the United States.

Much fanfare heralded the opening of the Tremont Street Subway, now part of the T’s Green Line route, during the months leading up to its opening on September 1, 1897.  Prior to its opening, Tremont Street had been so thick with horsecars and foot traffic that residents of the city quipped that you could make better time walking across the tops of the electric cars and carriages than by trying your luck battling elbows, feet and horse traffic at street level.  Residents of Boston were justifiably excited by the prospect of pushing all of that mess underground.

A scene showing the construction of the Tremont Street Subway, in 1896 (via Wikimedia Commons)

From the Boston Daily Globe, Front Page, September 3, 1897

Soon after the Tremont Street Subway opened, the novelty of this change to the daily commute quick wore off.

And that excitement appears to have lasted . . . one day.  Like anything, the novelty soon wore off.  As early as September 3 – two days after the opening of the Tremont Street Subway, a Boston Daily Globe reporter wrote that the number of passengers had already dropped on the subway.  This development wasn’t entirely unwelcome.  The crowds of curious “pleasure riders” hitching rides on the new subway cars had already begun to chafe at the evening rush-hour commuters just wanting to get home.

By the afternoon rush of the second full day of subway operations, the Boston Globe writer reported that subway cars coming through the Park Street station actually had room for people wishing to get on, and get off.

Perhaps hastening this “cooling off” in pleasure riding interest in Boston’s subway system were the cooling temperatures outside.  As early September greeted Boston in 1897, temperatures dipped both outside, and in Boston’s subway system, which he described as ‘chilly’.

Oddly, another reason might have been the system’s exit turnstiles, which were called out as one of the system’s greatest inconveniences.  Although they stood some seven or eight feet in height, no one could figure out their purpose.  Fares were paid to conductors aboard the subway cars or through tickets that had already been purchased.  The only purpose that the turnstiles seemed to serve, riders guessed, was to slow people’s exit from the subway, and to make the platforms even more crowded.  With their considerable height, they obstructed the view past the exit and apparently resulted in some passengers being struck in the face by the revolving bars as they struggled to escape.  In addition, at the Boylston Street station, the turnstiles at the Tremont Street side reached almost to the edge of the platform, leaving little room for passengers to negotiate their exit, as others were jockeying for prime positions for boarding the next incoming subway car.

By Boston Daily Globe (Sign at Park Street station) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A copy of a newspaper page from the day of the Tremont Street Subway's opening, (via Wikimedia Commons)

One other confusion persisted into the first week of subway operations.  No one seemed to understand where the subway cars stopped on each platform.  Riders waiting at the Park Street station lined the entire platform, not understanding that the incoming subway cars pulled as far ahead as possible.  As the slowing cars pulled ahead of the waiting passengers, they then scurried down the platform to board their cars, not ‘paying much attention to any who happened to be standing in their way.’

Maybe the subway experience of 1897 isn’t so much different from that of a modern-day commute.  Boston’s Green Line route, even today, still retains a lot of its Victorian-era charm – some intentionally, through the placement of posters showing scenes of the Victorian-era city, and some not so intentionally, like the stop-and-go lurching of an electric car trolley that likely feels quite similar to what our ancestors experienced for the first time, more than a century ago, under the streets of Boston.

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One response to “The Ebbing Excitement Surrounding the Opening of Boston’s Tremont Street Subway, 1897

  • Karen K

    Ryan, I have yet to come across an entry in your blog that’s not fascinating.

    I was born in Boston, as was my dad and his mother and her parents– to think that my great-grandparents may have ridden on this subway! I was only 3 when we moved away, and I’ve not visited, so I have no firsthand experience with the T. A visit to Boston is in order soon, though, I hope!

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