The Last Streetcar to Arborway

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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.

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 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.

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?

Used with permission of Franklyn P. Salimbene, Jamaica Plain, MA [copyright holder]

Senior Lecturer in Law, Bentley University

Chair, Arborway Committee for Public Transit, Inc.

This article was originally published on Jamaica Plain Historical Society's website, and has been republished on Jamaica Plain News with permission from Franklyn P. Salimbene.