A ‘big humbug’: The public debate over the nation’s first subway system

Long before the MBTA operated the Green Line, its creation was a big political issue in Boston. —The Boston Globe

By the late 1800s, electric-powered street trolleys had become the centerpiece of Boston’s rapid transit system. State and city leaders saw a need for more, though. In the early 1890s, two new ideas were proposed to help reduce heavy congestion around Boston Common.

The first: Build an elevated railway connecting parts of the city. The second was spurred on by a massive blizzard’s effect on the city (fittingly enough, given this past winter): Build the nation’s first subway system.

The subway idea proved divisive, stirring a debate across the city and the region about traffic, costs, and the political process.


“I regard the subway as a big humbug,’’ said State Rep. J.J. McCarthy of Charlestown, the most prominent critic of the idea.

A sampling of The Boston Globe’s archives shows some of the arguments for and against putting a rail route under Tremont Street, some of which may sound familiar to modern ears.

An expensive “public fad’’

Anti-subway merchants said they were in support of the elevated rail plan—but only if they were privately funded so as to avoid being “a burden and a source of increased taxation.’’

The subway legislation called for the creation of a corporation that would build and manage the system. The corporation had the ability to issue bonds to raise money, with an upward limit of $20 million (or $591 million today).

“I understand that this subway is the latest public fad,’’ said Gen. John Swift at a State House hearing. “But I believe it is altogether too expensive a fad to be paid for by the public purse.’’

McCarthy doubted the subway’s financial projections. Part of his concern, he said, was due to a tunnel project years earlier in Western Massachusetts that had vastly exceeded cost projections. (Heard that one before?)

“I have no faith in the accuracy of the engineer’s figures, especially on a work of this kind,’’ he said. “The Hoosac Tunnel is an object lesson, as the expense was nearly 20 times the amount first estimated for that work.’’


Yet in the end, incredibly in today’s world of inflated infrastructure projects, the subway actually came in under its $5 million budget, or $150 million today, said Doug Most, a Globe editor whose book The Race Underground charts the construction of Boston and New York’s subways.

“Ruinous’’ effect on merchants

Some of the subway’s biggest supporters were business leaders. But a coalition of anti-subway merchants collected more than 12,000 signatures on a petition they sent to the legislature, declaring themselves “unilaterally opposed to the construction of any subway in any portion of Boston.

Among their concerns? That “construction would seriously interfere with travel and traffic, proving ruinous to hundreds of merchants.’’

Some critics said they doubted downtown traffic would be eased by the subway, and others argued traffic wasn’t even all that bad to begin with—most of the time, anyway.

“The subway [is] proposed to go under Tremont Street, where there is no congestion, unless it is caused by the anarchists and socialists who are allowed to gather crowds on the Common,’’ complained Rep. Franklin Barnes of Chelsea.

“Dark and damp and smoky’’

Still others said they felt an underground railway would be dark, and kind of gross.

“It is doubtful … it can be conducive to perfect sanitary conditions,’’ said Frank Davidson.

To that, a businessman named Thomas Perkins told The Globe that new technology should ease those concerns.

“In London where the plan has been tried it is to a certain extent dark and damp and smoky, but it seems to me, and I see it has been claimed by the advocates of the subway, that by using electricity for lighting and as a motive power, all that would be obviated,’’ he said.


“A mongrel bill’’

In early July 1894, the state legislature passed a bill creating a corporation to develop new rapid transit—including both the subway and elevated rail.

The law required local approval at the ballot box for work to begin. Just three weeks later, on July 24, Bostonians narrowly approved of the plan in a special election: 15,428 to 14,209.

McCarthy called for a repeal of the law over the next year. He was supportive of the elevated railway, but he had several issues with the subway.

“As it was submitted to the people it was a double proposition, for an elevated road and a subway, a mongrel bill, and 95 out of every 100 people who voted for it at the time were in favor of an elevated system,’’ he told The Globe.

McCarthy also complained that the Boston vote happened so quickly after the legislature passed the law.

“What cause for such haste?’’ he asked. “Only the fear that the people would vote this scheme down.’’

The repeal effort made its way to a State House hearing in early 1895.

Several people, including lawmakers from Boston, spoke against the plan. That didn’t stop the city’s lawyer, Andrew Bailey, from essentially delivering the already classic Boston response at the hearing: You’re not even from here.

“Can’t these gentlemen who oppose this act go to the city of Boston and ask if the city wanted the act repealed?’’ he said. “If you can find a more uncalled for interference with the city of Boston, I should like to have you name it.’’

Eventually, the repeal effort fizzled. The Tremont Street subway—the foundation of the Green Line—opened in 1897.

The city’s business leaders, among the subway’s biggest champions, prevailed in their prescient view of the power of an underground railway.

“It would give us practically an extra street,’’ said B.F. Dutton, of the then-prominent downtown retailer Houghton & Dutton. “My theory always has been that the real estate owners along the course would sooner or later make their buildings conform to this new street underground … thus enabling a great many more people to do business on the street with this subway than they otherwise would.’’

Except where otherwise noted, this article is sourced from several 19th century Boston Globe articles and the legislation that led to the creation of Boston’s subway system. Newspaper images from The Boston Globe, 1894 and 1895.

This is what the MBTA used to look like

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