The Last Streetcar to Arborway, part III

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 third part of the story.

Having traveled through the business district, some 1.5 miles along the route to Park Street, the cars would soon enter that part of their journey that was home to much of Boston’s medical establishment. Bearing left from the narrow precincts of Centre Street the cars rolled onto broader avenues—South Huntington and then Huntington. Of Boston’s many historical and contemporary contributions to American society, its medical institutions stand at the forefront. And the Arborway line serviced many of them. Beginning with the large ugly hulk of the Veterans Administration Hospital on South Huntington Avenue, the line passed numerous nursing and convalescence homes. Further turning sharply right onto Huntington Avenue, cars 3235 and 3261 would stop within a block’s distance of the New England Baptist Hospital, the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the Harvard School of Medicine, and the Boston Children’s Hospital. Much of the Arborway line’s late night ridership, which was never really fully counted in T studies, was the result of the 11:00 p.m. shift change of medical personnel in the area. Even by 12:40 a.m. when 3235 and 3261 arrived at the stops that served the area—Brigham Circle and then Longwood Avenue—there were passengers waiting to board and drop their 75-cent fares into the coin box at the front of the car next to the operator’s seat. They moved into the car mingling amongst the cameras of those on their historical odyssey

At the Longwood Avenue stop, the medical area along Huntington Avenue morphs into an educational and cultural center. Beginning with what at the time was Boston State College, the alma mater of the reputedly thin-skinned and vengeful Thomas M. Menino, Boston’s longest serving mayor and the man who would become the chief architect in permanently ending Arborway streetcar service, 3235 and 3261 passed Massachusetts College of Art, Wentworth Institute of Technology, and the unmistakable white brick buildings of Northeastern University, the largest of Boston’s many institutions of higher learning. Between the stops at Longwood and Northeastern the cars also passed Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, set back from the avenue with its majestic columns, circular driveway, and grand open space centered on Cyrus Dallin’s Native American statue, “Appeal to the Great Spirit.”

At Northeastern after taking on several late-night student partiers the cars descended into the Huntington Avenue subway at its western portal leaving a darkened night sky for darkened subway walls. The cars were now within a mile and a half of Park Street Station on their final inbound run. This portion of the subway opened on February 16, 1941. The inspiration for this subway extension from the Public Gardens was the same as it had been for the construction of the original subway in 1897—to take the streetcars off the street and provide them with their own underground avenue. The new subway removed cars from traffic along Boylston Street between the Public Gardens and Clarendon Street in Boston’s elegant Back Bay and from Copley Square where two architectural masterpieces of the 19th Century stood as sentries on its east and west, H.H. Richardson’s Trinity Church and Charles McKim’s Boston Public Library. The new subway also included two new underground stops through which 3235 and 3261 traveled.

The first was Symphony Station, used by patrons of Jordan Hall at the New England observatory of Music and Symphony Hall, home to the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Pops. The second station was Prudential, originally named “Mechanics” for the Mechanics Hall that had been located above it. In 1964, the station was renamed “Prudential” after Boston’s first and indisputably its ugliest modern skyscraper, the 50-story Prudential tower. Built in the late 1950s on an abandoned railroad yard, the tower is so hideous that it has been said that the best view today of the Boston skyline is from its observation deck because from that vantage point one cannot see the tower itself.

Leaving Prudential Station and passing through the Copley junction the cars reached Copley Square Station. Here the Arborway line joins the other three lines of the T’s streetcar system, known today together as the Green Line. All four lines have the same general characteristics—subway lines running from Park Street as far as their respective western portals and surface lines beyond that. Of the four, the Arborway line, designated the “E-line,” is the only line beyond its portal that ran in-street in mixed traffic. Both the Commonwealth Avenue line to Boston College, designated the “B-line,” and the Beacon Street line to Cleveland Circle, designated the “C-line,” left their respective portals near Fenway Park and ran the full length of their routes in the median strip of broad city avenues. The Riverside line, much newer than its three subway companions, was built in the late 1950s along an abandoned railway right of way that ran through Newton. It was designated the “D-line.” Many visitors to Boston noticing B, C, D, and E lines ask about the “A-line.” That line, which had provided service from Park Street to Watertown Square running through Allston, Brighton, and Newton, was abandoned in 1969, despite the Herculean efforts on many Brighton residents led by the resilient Fred Moloney. The abandonment occurred at about the same time that the T decided without much foresight to dub it the “A-line.”

Beyond Copley, having met their late night Green Line companions along the way, 3235 and 3261 journeyed to their rendezvous with destiny stopping at Arlington Street and Boylston Street before entering the underground acre that is Park Street Station.

With Park Street being the final inbound stop the standard practice required all passengers to empty the car and alight onto the station’s north-bound platform. On this night, however, realizing that many were along for the final historic ride, the operator allowed passengers to remain on board as the two cars negotiated the reverse loop at the far northern end of the station and emerged on the opposite platform for the very last outbound run to Arborway. Gliding up to its berth on the inside track at the far western end of the station, the doors opened to take on the last passengers of the day. For several minutes 3235 and 3261 stood together in silence awaiting the starter’s signal to leave the station. At 1:00 a.m., the signal was given. The doors closed, and in a final farewell to Park Street, the operator of 3235 gave one long blast of the car’s whistle as he pulled out of the station. The chords of that whistle reverberated off the white tile walls of the now near-empty 90-year old terminus; we were headed for Jamaica Plain.

Retracing our route through the subway and out along Huntington, South Huntington, Centre, and South, whatever sense of celebration there was had dissipated. Most of us as we rode into the quiet of the night felt in our hearts that this was to be no temporary suspension of service. We knew that the T was setting the stage for abandonment and planning the permanent bus 39 service to a community that identified with and had flourished because of the streetcar. As the T’s predecessors, the Boston Elevated Street Railway and the Metropolitan Transit Authority had done beginning in the late 1930s and accelerating through the 1960s, the T was about to abandon another streetcar line.

Like the line itself, 3235 and 3261 were also fated. They along with the other 34 “wartime” and “picture window” PCCs assigned to service at the Arborway Yard would be scrapped or sold. Only eleven of them would be rebuilt and put back into service. These eleven “historic cars” operate today on the quasi-suburban Mattapan-Ashmont line. As for the last two Arborway cars, 3235 along with four of its sisters was sold in 1991 to the Keokuk Junction Railway in Keokuk, Iowa, and 3261 along with 13 others was sold to the Vintage Electric Streetcar Company of Windber, Pennsylvania.

So riding in the last streetcar to Arborway, having traveled the line for the umpteenth time through Jamaica Plain’s history and by Boston’s monuments, I knew that something beneficial for Jamaica Plain, something that had defined it was about to be lost forever. As my stop approached at South and Custer streets, I pulled the cord and rang the bell for the driver to stop. The doors opened and out I stepped. It was 1:25 a.m., Saturday, December 28, 1985. As the doors closed behind me and the streetcar moved on, I paused on the sidewalk in the cold night air listening to its sounds as it made its way to oblivion. Is there a chance to save it, I wondered? Was this truly the last streetcar to Arborway?



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