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Boston Rolls On

March 2023
1min read

The nation’s first subway system was launched here in 1897.

In 1630 this slice of Boston was part of a cluster of three hills known as Trimountain, the domain of a hermit named William Blaxton. Over the centuries the wilderness gave way, and by 1899, the year of the photograph below, only the name of the broad thoroughfare—Tremont Street—hinted at a green and hilly past.

Most likely the 1899 view was the work of Boston’s Transit Commission, which often used photographs to document its activities. While launching the nation’s first subway system in 1897, the commission made certain that no detail escaped the camera’s eye. According to Elinor Reichlin, director of archives at the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, in Boston, this picture was probably meant to demonstrate the “vast improvement of the traffic flow on Tremont Street after the removal of the surface tracks that had previously rutted the street and, more particularly, after the removal of the electric trolleys that had often made it impassable.” The wires that powered the electric cars finally came down a few months after the 1899 photograph was made.

The intersection of Tremont and Park remains a busy one, and the Park Street Station is the hub of the transit system. Passengers now use the wedge-shaped entrance (marked with a “T” in the center of the recent photograph). Although the old cottage-like vestibule (far right) is closed, it has been preserved as a reminder of the first days of the subway.

The lampposts and the cobbles that lined the road were less sacred: they have been replaced, as have most of the buildings along this stretch of Tremont Street. Gone too are the cheerful striped awnings that shaded the windows of summertime America until air conditioning made them unnecessary. Still, a Bostonian of the turn of the century who is alive today wouldn’t have too much difficulty recognizing the corner of his childhood. By contrast, the shade of the hermit William Blaxton would likely be sore disturbed.

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