JP History: The Last Streetcar to Arborway

By Franklyn P. Salimbene

Salimbene, a longtime Jamaica Plain resident who is a board member of the Arborway Committee for Public transit, Inc and a senior lecturer in law at Bentley University, recently penned a personal reminiscence of the last run of the Arborway streetcar. Below is the first part of the story. The second and third parts will appear in the Feb. 10 and Feb. 24 issues of the Gazette.

Saturday, December 28, 1985

It was the last streetcar, or was it? Stepping off the car at South and Custer streets that very early December morning certainly had a death-like feel to it. It was winter, it was cold, and it was dark as the door of the car closed behind me. I stepped onto the sidewalk and watched the two-car train of Presidential Conference Cars (PCCs as they were called) move off into the distance toward Forest Hills. As it rounded a curve in South Street heading to its final destination at Arborway, the sound of its wheels on the tracks echoed off the three-decker houses that framed its route on either side. The streetcar line, traditionally referred to as the Arborway line, was slated for “temporary suspension,” but the sneaking suspicion in the neighborhood was that the line was slated for closure. And nothing in the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s recent history of streetcar line abandonments—Lenox Street, the Tremont Street shuttle, and Watertown—promised anything else.

Despite this foreboding, the last run of the Arborway streetcar from Jamaica Plain to Park Street in Boston’s central subway actually began with a bit of celebrity. The suspension of Arborway service had been well publicized. In the process, the MBTA, the “T” for short, understood the interest of many in keeping the line running and their fears for its future. The T was girding for battle, but that night in a bow to history, the T put on a double, a two-car consist of PCCs, instead of the single car service usual for the last run of the day.

Scheduled to leave the Arborway at 12:07 on Saturday morning, December 28, 1985, cars 3235 and 3261 were hitched together waiting at the passenger pick-up point in the Arborway Yard. The cars had seen 40 years of service in Boston having been purchased from Westinghouse just at the close of World War II. They appeared as beacons of light in the darkened yard. With doors open and interior lights ablaze they waited ghost-like for the starter to signal their departure. Not unexpectedly many more than the usual number of riders appeared in the yard, a number of them with cameras. Flashbulbs started flaring; some posed for photos with the cars as backdrop, a Hollywood gala perhaps with 3235 and 3261 as the celebrities on stage. The final run was to be recorded for posterity with many transit historians, fans, and just plain old riders participating in the send-off. The scene was a bit surreal, almost like an early morning launch of the space shuttle from a darkened pad at Cape Canaveral.

At the appointed time the crowd boarded the cars, cameras and all. The numbers filled the first car 3235 fully, standing room only. The second car, 3261, was not so full, but at least there was room for those who would board as the cars traveled the 5.7 mile route from Jamaica Plain to Park Street Station in the central subway. The subway was the nation’s oldest, built in 1897 in a prescient and effective attempt by the Boston Transit Commission to free the city’s electric streetcars from traffic and other roadway constraints along Boylston and Tremont streets in Boston’s downtown.

At that time the horse drawn era of streetcar service was breathing its last while electric service was on a rapid rise. By 1897, electric streetcars from across the city and its environs were chalking up about 30 million revenue miles annually. Within four years that number would rise to almost 40 million astonishing miles. (B. H. Clarke & O.R. Cummings, Tremont Street Subway, p. 11) Many of those miles ended in downtown Boston next to the Boston Common, the famous old cow pasture of the revolutionary period. By the late 19th Century, however, the Common and the streets adjoining and leading to it had become the center of Boston’s commercial activity. The cows had long gone, but electric streetcars cars from all over the greater Boston area were daily converging along the one-quarter mile stretch of Tremont Street adjacent to the Common. Photos from the period show three sets of tracks in the street and long queues of streetcars lined up as if in a parade of electric traction. It has been said that the cars were lined up so thick and close in those days that one could run the length of Tremont Street from Boylston to Park on the roofs of the cars without ever having to set foot on the pavement. (Clarke & Cummings, p. 15)

The subway was built to relieve this congestion and give the streetcars space to drop off and pick up their passengers out of the way of horses, wagons, and the multitude of pedestrians on the street. The subway itself was a triangulated 1.8-mile affair with a southern portal at Tremont Street and Pleasant Street, which later became known as Broadway. The northern portal was at Haymarket Square, and the western portal was on Boylston Street next to the Boston Public Garden, a neighbor of the Boston Common. (Clarke & Cummings, pp. 32-33) Today the northern portal has been extended a bit beyond Haymarket to North Station near the site of the old Boston Garden while the western entrance, now actually four of them, has been extended several miles, three of them to a point beyond Kenmore Square near Fenway Park and one at Northeastern University, the one used by the cars to Jamaica Plain. The southern entrance was abandoned in 1962 with the end of service to Lenox Street in Roxbury and its subsequent, short-lived successor, the Tremont Street shuttle. While today the northern and western portals serve Boston’s four remaining streetcar lines that run to parts of Cambridge, Newton, Brookline, Allston, Brighton, and the northern tip of Jamaica Plain at Heath Street, in 1897 the three portals also served cars from Arlington, Somerville, Ashmont, Milton, Dorchester, Roxbury, Charlestown, Everett, Malden, Medford, Chelsea, Watertown, and all of Jamaica Plain. (Clarke & Cummings, pp. 22-23)

The main station in the midst of this new subway system was then and remains today Park Street. The station was laid out underground on about an acre of land under the Boston Common near the Park Street Church. It had a 4-track configuration, which remains to this day. Two outer tracks were available to cars heading north to and from Scollay Square and Haymarket Square Stations and the northern portal. The inner tracks were used by cars terminating at Park Street from the west, among them the line to Jamaica Plain. On the surface, the station’s presence was marked by two stately granite headhouses. The total cost of the station’s construction, headhouses and all, was estimated at $350,000, and the number of passengers using the station during its first year of operation was projected by the Hotel & Railroad News Company of Boston to be a staggering 24 million. (Clarke & Cummings, pp. 26-27)

So it was that on September 1, 1897, as announced by the Boston Globe in the banner headline “First Car Off the Earth,” Park Street Station was opened. The Globe reported that an “Allston electric” was the first car to descend the incline at the western portal, falling “off the earth” to reach the underground Park Street Station.

The subway was an instant success despite the misgivings of some who feared the disturbance the subway might cause to the souls buried at the Old Granary Burial Ground as the streetcars heading north from Park Street snaked their way beneath and among the remains of John Hancock, Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, and others from Boston’s historic past. Despite the fears, however, huge numbers of people riding 27 carlines used the subway to Park Street. With such large numbers of riders and lines meeting on the underground acre, it was so confusing for riders to find their cars that in 1899, the Boston Transit Commission decided to hang a large destination board from the station’s ceiling to indicate the berths at which the lines into Park Street would load. A photo of that board taken at the time clearly shows Jamaica Plain as one of those destinations. (Clarke & Cummings, p. 22) So it was to this station, Park Street, in December 1985, almost 90 years after the subway opened, that 3235 and 3261, joined together as companions in service for one last time, would run.

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