Thursday, December 10, 2015

Revolution on Wheels, Part Three - The Railroad

As the American States were forging political novelties in their first century of union, technological novelties were joining an ancient machine - the wheel and axle - to a new machine - the steam engine - to transform the Continent.

While the advantage of rolling rather than dragging heavy objects over the ground had been understood since pre-history the wheel and axle did not become useful in bulk transportation until quite recently when strong lightweight axles could be manufactured to couple carts to wheels. Therein lay the solution for reducing friction: a minimal rotating contact point nearly perpendicular to the ground. It also offered advantages in traversing irregular surfaces, if the wheel radius were sufficiently large compared to the irregularities.
Railroad car, Thacher Island, Rockport
Photo courtesy of the Thacher Island Association1
These physical potentials were greatly enhanced by applying them over smooth rails. The principle can be seen today in the restored Thacher Island tramway that once hauled coal from dock to power station for the Twin Lighthouses. Interestingly, the world's first railroad was developed to haul coal from a Welsh mine in 1804. By mounting a steam engine to a carriage on iron rails Richard Trevithick invented the locomotive engine to power the system.
An early Massachusetts locomotive, 18472
The first public steam railway opened for service in England in 1825. American entrepreneurs began operating in 1830. Visionaries in Massachusetts foresaw rail networks to move freight and passengers with the new speed, comfort and economy. They anticipated profitable returns.
The first four executive officers of the Eastern Railroad2
It was a time of profound social engineering that explored relationships between the public interest and private enterprise. The industrial era ushered in new questions on population movement and the supervision of capital and competition. The Legislature considered applications for a relatively new type of economic engine, the corporation. Their charters, at that time, were grants from the Commonwealth to operate for limited purposes within a specific floor and ceiling of capital.

Wood-burning steam engine2
Three pioneer railroads in Massachusetts demonstrated the promise of rewards by 1835, the year that Eastern Railroad obtained its charter to connect Boston with the North Shore and the New Hampshire border. "During this decade, the railway interest was subject to great vicissitudes. At the beginning of it, the railroads were regarded as public benefits, but quite uncertain as paying investments."3
The first timetable of the Eastern Railroad2
Initially passengers had to detrain at East Boston and continue by ferry across the harbor to a shuttle at Lewis Wharf that completed the ride to the Boston terminal.
The Legislature as well as market forces had to mediate among the interests of waterfront owners, coastal navigators, and river traffic to sort out access to the city.
In the beginning, Eastern Railroad passengers crossed Boston Harbor by ferry2
The decade of the 1850s spawned innumerable initiatives, consolidations, and machinations in railroad evolution. Creativity and skullduggery flavored the lives of corporations as they did the society they served. A common route into Boston was achieved for the various northern and eastern rail lines.
An intersection of technologies, mid-nineteenth century2
The 'iron horse' crossed marshes and tunneled under the City of Salem. Its tracks reached Gloucester in 1847. Turbulent times, overextension, miscalculations and embezzlement crippled the Eastern Railroad before it could continue to Rockport. Local private investors during the 1850s were unable to raise sufficient capital to do it alone. At last the townspeople themselves assumed financial sponsorship for the extension with an agreement to build and staff their own Rockport Railroad as an adjunct to the Eastern. 
Locomotive 'Excelsior'2
Citizens thronged to a day of free passages between Gloucester and Rockport when the line was inaugurated on November 4, 1861. A holiday spirit suffused the Town decorated with bunting. Those present at the dedication heard from Eastern Railroad directors that their company's transports, once regarded as folly, were now carrying a million passengers a year into Boston, knitting together the city and the country. They congratulated the community on its enterprise and perseverance.

Rockport incurred substantial risk and indebtedness with this investment. Benjamin Hough, a civic leader from Gloucester, noted at the dedication that "only he who had had his experience in travelling in stage coaches could appreciate the conveniences and comforts of a railroad--the payment of dividends was a consideration small in comparison."4

The Rockport Railroad paid regular dividends to the Town during its ownership, leading the Eastern Railroad to purchase the line in 1868, returning the Town's original investment in full.
Carts and carriages at the Rockport railroad station
Photo courtesy of the Sandy Bay Historical Society

A spark of cosmopolitan values had been lit in Rockport when a group of literati from Boston and Cambridge, led by Richard  Henry Dana, summered in Pigeon Cove boardinghouses during the 1840s. The notion of railroad facilities prompted Swampscott speculator Eben Phillips to begin purchasing  during the 1850s seaside tracts in the Halibut Point area along with local partner George Babson.  One day in May 1874 they sponsored an excursion train with half-price fares leaving Boston at 8:15, carriages from the Rockport station getting prospective buyers to Ocean View (Phillips Avenue) by 10:00, with free chowder collation at the Big Tent. Three hundred people came. Thirty lots sold on the spot.

Phillips subsequently purchased land in the South End for which he proposed the subdivision Paradise Cliffs, along present day Marmion Way. Rockport extended Boston's Gold Coast.
Railroad car interior, Rockport 1905
Photo courtesy of the Sandy Bay Historical Society
It became possible and desirable to live on Cape Ann and work in the city. On January 18, 1899 the railroad began a twelve-week experiment with its 'Theatre Train' carrying 150 passengers on a forty-five minute run leaving the Gloucester depot at 6:20pm and departing after an evening's entertainment from Boston's Union Station at 11:10.5
Rockport railroad yard
Photo courtesy of the Sandy Bay Historical Society
Many proposals were put forward to generate passenger spurs from the Rockport line into Long Beach, the South Village, Pigeon Cove, and around the Cape itself. Granite producers long advocated a rail link from their quarries to the rail system, but the idea of freight trains moving through its streets didn't sit well with the public. And the Rockport Granite Company owned the chokepoint to competitors at the Keystone Bridge. Explorations to route tracks alongside Poole's Hill, to the rear of quarries and out beyond Pigeon Cove proved cost-prohibitive.6 

Train and crew, Rockport5

Meanwhile a lighter-weight supple form of centrally-powered rail transportation gained popularity in the form of trolleys, like fingers into the community as compared to the muscularity of railroad arms. As we shall see in the next essay the street railways launched the novelty of mass public transportation in the latter nineteenth century and developed networks to inter-connect distant areas as well.


1.  Twin Lights of Thacher Island, Cape Ann, Paul St. Germain, 2009.

2. The Eastern Railroad; a Historical Account of Early Railroading in Eastern New England, 2nd ed., Francis Bradlee, 1922.

3. "History of the Railways of Massachusetts," by Hon. Edward Appleton, Massachusetts Railway Commissioner, in Walling's Atlas of Massachusetts for 1871.

4. Cape Ann Light and Gloucester Telegraph, November 6, 1861.
5. Town on Sandy Bay, Marshall Swan, 1980.
6. Cape Ann Advertiser, January 23, 1879.

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