The Last Streetcar to Arborway, part II

A streetcar on the Mattapan line on Jan. 29. The Mattapan streetcar is the sister of the streetcar that ran in Jamaica Plain.      Courtesy Photo by Franklyn P. Salimbene

A streetcar on the Mattapan line on Jan. 29. The Mattapan streetcar is the sister of the streetcar that ran in Jamaica Plain.
Courtesy Photo by Franklyn P. Salimbene

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 second part of the story. The first part appeared in the Jan. 27 Gazette and third part will appear in the Feb. 24 Gazette.

Back in Jamaica Plain after leaving the Arborway Yard for Park Street, the two cars would make a journey through much of Boston’s history and its 20th Century success. The 5.7 mile route ran through the center of Jamaica Plain, described by Sam Bass Warner, Jr., as the fashionable 18th and 19th Century summering home of Boston’s rich and famous. (Streetcar Suburbs, p. 41) They built elegant and stately homes with pediments, grand staircases, floor to ceiling windows, and luscious gardens that survive to this day, most prominently among them perhaps the 1760 Loring Greenough House, which today sits across from Jamaica Plain’s Civil War Monument erected in 1871. While these houses have stood as long-time witnesses to the back and forth of Jamaica Plain’s streetcars, they were joined and later cramped by scores of triple-deckers built in the late 1800s and early 1900s, testament to the influx of lower middle class working families, second generations from Ireland and elsewhere. These triple-deckers, quickly constructed mostly from New England’s plentiful pine, were able to house three families, one above the other, in an unfortunately boring straight line of rooms running from kitchen in the back to parlor in the front. They lined the streetcar route along South Street, the narrow street at the far southern end of the line, just before it reached the Arborway Yard. They along with their more stately neighbors stood as testimony to the success of electric streetcar service, for it was the streetcar that made possible summering or living at one end of the city in Jamaica Plain and working at the other end downtown. Jamaica Plain had become a “streetcar suburb” and then some.

Further testimony to the streetcar’s success was the level of its ridership in Jamaica Plain. In the years prior to 1985, with fears building that the MBTA would abandon the Arborway carline, several groups in Jamaica Plain organized to defend against the prospect. One was the Arborway Committee organized in 1975, which was led by Paul Ruenzel of Bishop Street on Sumner Hill and Michael Reiskind of South Huntington Avenue. Another was the Central Improvement Association, Inc. Although not a very active player in the effort to save the line as things played out, the Association was led by Ellen T. Small, a quiet, yet forceful, buxom woman with an affection for large colorful brimmed hats, who in early 1984 wrote to the T’s General Manager James F. O’Leary questioning his commitment to maintaining streetcar service. O’Leary’s response, while filled with promises that the T wished “to provide residents of Jamaica Plain with a level of dependable transportation consistent with the community’s transit needs,” probably best translated as—“we’re getting ready to abandon the streetcar for a bus,” affirmed, perhaps inadvertently, the stunning success of Arborway streetcar service. In his letter to Small, he informed her that the service was carrying approximately 20,000 daily riders, 6000 of those during peak service, and that on an annual basis the line carried six million riders back and forth over its 5.7 mile route from Arborway to Park Street. Later, it was confirmed through ridership counts and the T’s own Arborway Transit Study commissioned in 1987, that O’Leary’s figures were inaccurate. He significantly undercounted the number of daily riders by approximately 30,000. (Arborway Transit Study, p. 5)

The large Arborway ridership was the product not only of residents commuting to and from work in downtown Boston, but also doing their shopping in the local Centre Street business district through which the line ran. As with any conurbation of residences, whether rich or poor, a business district grew to provide residents with goods and services. Stretching from the northern end of South Street for about one-half mile north along Centre Street, the business district included locally owned food, clothing, hardware, and drug stores. In1897, these small establishments were housed in a string of single story wooden buildings joined together and separated only by the cross streets that intersected with Centre—Eliot, Thomas, Burroughs, Myrtle, Pond, Harris, Seaverns, Green, and St. John’s. By 1985, much of the streetscape that 3235 and 3261 traveled had been transformed from the more bucolic face of the late 19th Century. The wooden buildings, horse drawn delivery carts, and the buggies of the more well to do were gone. Most buildings were now made of brick and concrete, automobile traffic had boomed, and several chain stores had become part of the fabric of the street—Woolworth’s, Friendly’s Ice Cream, Dunkin’ Donuts, and the First National Stores supermarket. The unmistakably consistent feature throughout the transition, however, was the streetcar—tracks, catenary and all.

Some newer locally owned businesses also made their appearance in the 1970s and 80s. The most prominent was Today’s Bread, operated by the indomitable and fearless Elizabeth “Betty” VanderSnoek. Almost as a dare to those who might be inclined to thievery, Betty was known to hand carry in her pocketbook the day’s bountiful proceeds from sales at her shop to the local branch of the First National Bank of Boston on Centre Street. She would even stop along the way to chat with some of the locals while her bag burgeoned with cash. I once asked her why she took the chance. She answered, “No one’s going to bother me.” She was right—no one did.

Betty along with her daughter, Terry Bruce, opened Today’s Bread in the 1980. She put down her stake at a time when Jamaica Plain was undergoing a period of drastic change caused in large part by the companion catalysts of a school busing order issued by federal judge W. Arthur Garrity and the phenomenon known as “white flight,” i.e., the departure to more suburban climes of those with the desire and wherewithal to move from the agitation caused by the judge’s order. The shop she purchased had previously been the site of one of the local drug stores and is today the location of the Bukara Indian restaurant. Situated at the corner of Centre and Burroughs with large windows that reached all the way down to ankle level, the shop provided the best view of Centre Street activity. That activity included not only Jamaica Plain’s streetcars running by the shop every six to eight minutes in both directions, but also automobile traffic, lots of pedestrian movement, and the occasional interruption of all street activity by the emergence from the local Centre Street fire house (today’s JP Licks) of Engine 28 and Ladder 10 responding to an alarm.

Perhaps because it offered the best view of the street, Today’s Bread also became the gathering spot for conversation and news. So well known was it as an attraction that during the 1986 gubernatorial campaign, Michael Dukakis, then governor running for re-election in Massachusetts, stopped by Betty’s shop to shake hands and ask for support. I happened to be there that afternoon with tea and newspaper when the Governor came over. By this time, the carline had been in “temporary suspension” for about six months. As anyone knows who ever met Dukakis, he has a rather low key style about him. He’s personable and conversational. He’s also not full of himself, demonstrated by the fact that this day he arrived alone at Today’s Bread—no entourage, no script. As his Secretary of Transportation and Construction, Frederick P. Salvucci, O’Leary’s boss, was calling the shots on whether Arborway streetcar service would be restored, I engaged the Governor on the subject. He responded with a question that would continue to overshadow the entire discussion about restoring the streetcar line. It was the standard ploy that fueled the City Lines conspiracy among General Motors, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California, and others in the 1940s, (United States v. National City Lines, 186 F.2d 562 (7th Cir. 1951), which resulted in the abandonment of many of the nation’s streetcar systems in favor of diesel-powered buses. He asked in obvious ignorance of the ridership success of the line, “Well, do you think the streetcars can maneuver in this traffic?” Of course I did, and so did Betty, who although not present the day the Governor appeared in her shop, not only spoke out in favor of streetcar service at the many community meetings that followed, but also allowed supporters to place “Restore the Arborway Trolley” posters in her commodious shop windows. And because of her leadership in the business community, many other shop owners did the same.

So in late December darkness as 3235 and 3261 made the last post-midnight run along a darkened Centre Street, the cars passed Today’s Bread and close to Ellen Small’s Hagar Street residence, all the while stopping to discharge and take on passengers. The mood inside the cars was an interesting and perhaps contradictory mix of sentiments. There was quiet and there was laughter; there was gloom and there was excitement. All, however, had the sense that we were experiencing history.



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