A railfan treat and special ride on the Boston EL. Part 1


Trainzing since 12-2003
Back in the mid-late 1960s, I had an opportunity to ride on what was still the Boston Elevated line, aka the Mainline of the BEry, later MTA, and finally what was to become the Orange Line of the MBTA "T".

During this time, my dad would bring me to work during school vacations for a day. I think it was a combination of giving me something else to do besides aggravating mom or teasing my brother, or perhaps a bit of both, and to give me a day out of the house. The trip as usual started as a commuter train ride from Bradford depot located across the bridge in the Bradford-portion of Haverhill. Bradford was once a separate town and is still an autonomous section of the "big" city.

This is a much-changed view of the Bradford depot. The depot itself just on the right is now a restaurant and the commuter platforms are across and away from the station its self. Located right in front of the station was once a crossover from the Georgetown branch, located to the left of the camera, with a third track closer to the station that split to the Bradford freight yard. This was a 4 or 5-track yard that had a dispatcher office located at the far end of the station. During that time, a local switcher stationed there that would be used to switch the various industries and paperboard plant located on what was left of the Georgetown branch. Apparently, back then there was enough traffic to warrant a small yard and switcher to keep operating 3 or 4 days a week. To the right in this picture would also have been Wilson Cement, just behind the station. Wilson was a local cement and concrete dealer that had a siding to receive hoppers and an overhead silo to fill the trucks. They had a number of these setups right up until the 1980s when they closed.

It was a cold morning and I was shivering as we waited for the train to arrive. Finally, we boarded the customary B&M "Budd Liner" train. This I remember was a multi-car lash-up probably having come down from Portland Maine as was still common back then and not the usual 4-car train. This one also had a baggage car or mail car so this was definitely not the normal commuter train.

We made the usual commuter stops in North Andover which is no longer a stop, Lawrence at the old station, then Shawsheen, Andover, and so on on it's trip to Boston. What was different about this trip was there were diesels parked at the old Lawrence roundhouse located just outside Lawrence yard that I never noticed before perhaps because it was February this time and frigidly cold so the diesels were steaming as they were sitting idling in the terminal. Located near the Union Street bridge was the roundhouse which was leveled for a skating rink and is now replaced by a trucking company shortly after this trip.

We eventually pulled into North Station in Boston. The big yard at North Station still existed and there were switchers moving about humping freight cars. We came in on the Lowell line, the former Boston and Lowell line, instead of the Reading line as is done today. The Lowell line ran up above the Fitchburg line, the yard leads, turn loops, and all the tracks so I could see the operations. This line also passed by the old Boston Engine Terminal, or BET. The original BET was recently replaced but back then it too had a huge roundhouse and turntable with the classic brick buildings. Sadly, today the buildings are those modern ones like those found in industrial parks.

After a short walk outdoors, under the overhead trolley line that goes to Lechmere, we crossed the street where we took the trolley, as in the classic PCC trolleys to Boylston Street where my dad worked. I spent the day mostly looking out the window with a telescope at the city below. Little did I know I would be doing that over 50 years later virtually. At the time, I would draw on scrap paper various trains and cities as I pictured them. My dad being graphic artist had a load of scrap paper, markers and anything else I wanted to paint, draw, or color on.

That day seemed odd because my dad acted as if he wanted to tell me something but instead kept it to himself. I could sense it, but was too young, being probably 6 or 7 at the time to really understand what was up, let alone having the gumption to ask. Well, we left early instead of the normal time at 5:00. The trip home was the usual part on the trolley, but instead of getting off at North Station, we got off at Park Street and walked the connector between Park Street and Washington Street where we picked up the Orange line. This part wasn't unusual because my grandfather worked down near Chinatown on Kneeland Street so I though we were going to visit him and take the train home with him instead.

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Nope, that wasn't the case. We continued rattling along in the old EL cars. The Orange line had different cars that those found on the Red line. They were older and had different overhead lights, interiors, and everything about them was different including the noises. We stopped at Chinatown, and a couple of other stops I don't remember, and then we were out of the tunnel and on the elevated portion of the line.

My dad said to me go ahead and go look out the window. I stood there and the motorman waved at me and stood aside so I could watch the tracks, signals, junctions, and everything else. We took this trip all the way down to Forest Hills and then returned to go north when I did the same as I stood there watching the tracks, and this time into the tunnel as well.


Here is one of the older EL cars after being refurbed in the early 1980s. This is typical of the EL on the southside, probably in Dorchester. The signals are interesting and look a lot like those made by RRS. I wonder if this is a GRS transit signal.


This is an early picture of the elevated Forest Hills from the turn of the last century if not before. Forest Hills was a terminus for the BELry and the street car line that came down Jamaica Way and Centre Street in the Jamaica Plain area of Boston. The train line on the right is the parallel New Haven line that ran to Medway via Readville. Today, this is the southeast corridor and is part of the Fairmont line of the MBTA commuter rail and sadly the station building no longer exists. The tracks were lowered, along with the orange line when the EL was taken down in the early 1990s, and placed into a cut and tunnel which didn't exist back then.

The trolley line lasted until the mid-1980s when it was mothballed during a "cost-cutting move". From that point on it sat mothballed until the early 2000s when residents in Jamaica Plain got together and forced the "T" to do something. The residents wanted the service with promised made to restore the light rail service, but instead the "T" ripped up the tracks after a long court battle with NIMBYs. Once the light rail tracks came out, the historic Forest Hills station came down anyway along with loud cries from the preservation groups. When I pulled into this station, it was much worn and worse for the wear and not at all like this, although, nicely painted if I recall. At an earlier time, I took the trolley in here from Lechmere because my parents had a friends nearby and we visited them and my dad chose to park on the north side.

Outside of looking through the front window in the tunnel and seeing the stations come up, the trip north was uneventful until we came out of the tunnel again near North Station. Remember from earlier I mentioned walking under the elevated line to Lechmere, well this EL was part of that structure. Both lines came out of the Canal Street portal and split into two directions. The trolley (light rail) line went left with a station on the upper level that was used during sporting events at the Boston Garden.


There are some of the subway cars from the era I remember riding on them. This train is heading towards Everett and will go right.

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After stopping at this station here, we continued to the right alongside the Boston Garden/North Station complex and on over the Charlestown bridge.


This is a unique structure being both a road bridge with EL above and also being a drawbridge at the same time. The bridge still exists, but is sadly slated for replacement.


At one point, there were also trolley/tram tracks on the road as well for lines that serviced Charlestown and Chelsea.

We continued as far as Sullivan Square because we ran out of time and had to return to North Station to take the commuter train home, the main station with maintenance shops and car barns for the elevated trains. At one point, Sullivan Square also had a substantial surface-line operation complete with ramps to bring the trolley lines into the large terminal. When I rode to the station back then, the ramps still existed but the track was removed on the street side. Leading up to the station were still some tracks buried in the streets and some cobblestones were still visible. Along some of the ROW were also some extant trolley poles stripped of insulators and wires, but were obviously trolley poles that once supported the wires.

Here's an early image of the Sullivan Square station. The area is much more urban today than it was back then. From what I can see here, the line hadn't been extended to Everett yet either. The open area to the right is industrial warehouses today. In fact, the whole area has been wiped out today. The station was moved closer to where the camera is positioned and now exists under the Interstate 93 bridge squeezed between a largely abandoned Pan Am freight siding and the MBTA commuter rail lines to Haverhill, Newburyport, and Rockport.


Here's an early picture of Sullivan Square station showing the EL on the left and the trolley terminal end.


The BERy Mainline in its heyday.


There's one thing worth mentioning here. You'll notice the Atlantic Avenue Elevated. This line ran as a shuttle between North and South stations up until the 1930s when the Great Depression forced system cuts. This was quite successful until that time and was a popular means to switch between the two terminals. Today, passengers are forced to switch to other means of transport to go between North and South stations, which means schlumping through the various forms of transit in order to switch from the northside to southside trains. There has been discussions on and off yet again about building the North-South connector for through trains, but even with the infrastructure in place as part of the Big Dig, this never got further than discussions.

Here's a modern map of the "T" subway lines.


Little did we know that this elevated system would succumb to future plans. In 1972, the northern section came down as part of a big plan to extend the line out to Reading. The then head of the "T" did not favor the commuter rail and had a vision of removing the passenger terminals and pushing the trains out to the suburbs. The orange line now was moved from the elevated to a new alignment along the Boston and Maine mainline through Malden, Melrose, Wakefield and Reading. When the EL came down, the bigger surrounding cities of Charlestown, Chelsea, and Everett lost their direct connection to downtown and were given the usual alternative of stinky busses. The removal of the EL spelled the doom of big Sullivan Station complex with its glass roof and multiple tracks, car barn, and servicing facilities.

The project, however, was never completed once the head of the "T" was found to be taking bribes from a contractor. The project was halted, went into bankruptcy and some of the stations are still incomplete today. Today, the line terminates at Oak Grove in Medford with the commuter trains passing by on a single-track. This bottleneck requires careful scheduling and actually impacts the number of trains that can run on the line.

The southside lasted a bit longer until the early 1990s. I had the opportunity to ride this part of the line again in the mid-1980s when I visited my then girlfriend's grandmother who lived in Dudley Square. Dudley Square had the EL above and trolley lines below. Even up until the end of service, the old tracks and wires were still present around the station, although no longer connected to anything.

This side of the service was transferred to the Southeast Corridor as it's called. This was once the New Haven Air Line that ran via Hartford, CT to NYC. Today, the line terminates in Franklin, MA at Forge Park. Many changes too along this line included the relocation of some tracks through tunnels and cuts and has become a direct line without the important local stops that once served the poorer areas of Dorchester, Roxbury, and Hyde Park. Instead, these folks, like those from Everett, Chelsea, and Charlestown, are forced to take busses or hoof it to the commuter stations located far from where they live.

Anyway, that was my long day out. As a 6 or seven year-old, this was a day to never be forgotten. Even today, I still remember seeing the motorman operate the controls and seeing the signals and tracks ahead of me. Little did I know that I was to do this over 4 decades later virtually and at that time this was stuff that dreams are made of.


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Thanks. I'm glad you liked this. This really was an amazing trip. In some ways I wish I was older because I think I would have appreciated the operations more, but even back then there was enough for me to remember and cherish forever.

I neglected to mention that at North Station there were actually 2 trolley stops. The up above one was used for sporting events and for through trains for Lechmere, and the across the street loop located under the viaduct. That line came out of the tunnel and terminated there after it passed through some complex track work that would make our AI drivers faint. When the line was still active, before the trolley-elevated came down in the late 2000s, I mentioned that to a T official. He laughed and said that those tracks give the track maintenance works fits.

I mean, this track was complex. There were two double slip switches, crossovers and storage tracks plus the loop connectors all inside the tunnel entrance.

All of this is gone today. The station entrance is now a headhouse escalator entrance on this side of the street, and inside North Station is a direct connection to both the Green and Orange lines so there's no need to cross the street or go up and down flights of stairs carrying luggage. Now to get the north-south connector in place. :)
In 2016 we spent a few nights across the bay from the airport at the Longwood Inn and we learned to catch the train at Orient Heights to come into Boston. One day we had to find our way up and down levels and line colors to make our way to Grafton Street Pub and Grill over by Harvard in Cambridge. We were meeting relatives from Framingham for dinner. It was a lot of fun finding our way!
In 2016 we spent a few nights across the bay from the airport at the Longwood Inn and we learned to catch the train at Orient Heights to come into Boston. One day we had to find our way up and down levels and line colors to make our way to Grafton Street Pub and Grill over by Harvard in Cambridge. We were meeting relatives from Framingham for dinner. It was a lot of fun finding our way!

It's quite a fun journey for those that don't do it often. The line colors make it easy and the Boston "T" system is pretty simple compared to other cities. The Blue Line too has an interesting history. That line was once a 36-inch narrow gauge line. The Boston Revere Beach and Lynn, BRB&L, aka the Narrow Gauge, ran on the same ROW until just before WWII. The line converted from steam engines pulling Laconia Car Works Parlor cars to electric around 1907-09. Instead of investing in actual interurban or third-rail as was recommended by GE and Westinghouse, the company went on the cheap and converted the parlor cars to electric. This proved to be their downfall because the trains were quite heavy and slow compared to the competing trolley lines that ran on the roads nearby. Orient Heights car barns and storage yard was once the storage yard for the Narrow Gauge, and sadly where the original cars were scrapped. One of the old Mason-Bogie steam locomotives was used for years as a static boiler for heat in the maintenance shops. I had a book on this line, but lent it out, otherwise, I'd have more info than I can remember.

After the line was closed, the ROW was rebuilt to standard gauge and what is now the Blue line was reopened to the new Logan Airport in the early 1950s. These trains are powered by overhead catenary instead of third rail due to the close proximity to the ocean because the third rail corrodes too easily. The line doesn't run catenary when it enters into the tunnels and terminates in Government Center and instead switches on the fly from catenary to third rail power at that point. The line terminates at Suffolk Downs, a former dog track now entertainment venue. The empty ROW continues north towards Lynn, but sadly has been built on in some locations. There has been talk of reopening the line to Lynn again but instead using a portion of the MBTA commuter rail which parallels the Blue line at that point. Like anything related to rails, this has too has been in discussion for years.