Boston’s first subway had its inaugural run Sept. 1, 1897, which means MBTA’s Green Line is 115 years old.
The oldest subway in the country is also the busiest street car line in the country, carrying 232,000 people daily. The squealing train wheels, the street-level boarding, competition with cars in the street, and limited runs that sums up the Green Line today can be traced back to its early development more than a hundred years ago.
Take a look at its history, latest developments, and future plans.
The first electric passenger car rolled underground from the Park Street Station to Boylston Street at 6:01 a.m. through the tunnel, carrying 100 people.
“Over 100 persons were aboard the car when it rolled down the incline leading to the Boylston St. Maw, and they yelled themselves to the verge of apoplexy,” according to the front page of The Boston Daily Globe on Sept. 1, 1897.
According to records at the time, between 100,000 and 250,000 people rode the first subway cars on Sept. 1.
“Everything went as smooth as the proverbial clockwork, and the opinion heard on all sides was that, as far as it goes, the subway is an unqualified success,” wrote The Boston Daily Globe on Sept. 2.
The New York Times wrote, “That so conservative an American town should happen to be the pioneer in adopting this is viewed as remarkable.”
The Tremont Street Subway was operated by the West End Company, which had been running electrically powered streetcars since 1889. The subway was built to circumvent the street congestion that had plagued Boston. Previously, the West End Company ran horse-drawn trolleys.
Pictured: The crew of an open street car that ran from North Point carhouse at City Point to the Back Bay.
The West End Company wanted to find an alternative to the 8,000 horses hauling around its trains. Officials were reluctant to take on the huge costs of converting its system but changed their minds when they saw a demonstration of the new technology in Richmond, Va.
Pictured: The Park Street subway entrance on Tremont Street in 1930.
The first electric street car line in Boston began in 1889 at the Allston Railroad Depot. The rails currently exist today as part of the “C” branch of the Green Line.
Pictured: The cast-iron portal for Copley inbound evokes the Paris Metro, a Renaissance cathedral, and — most of all — the stately Boston Public Library behind it.
City officials refused to let the downtown area become blighted with elevated rail tracks so only certain areas of the city and the Common were approved for tunnel construction. America’s first subway project was estimated to cost $5 million.
It took 2½ years to transform Boston’s downtown, laying track 17 feet below the surface. The initial project was 1.8 miles long with 5 miles of track.
Workers discovered 900 bodies in unmarked graves along the Old Common Burial ground during construction. Other problems plagued the project. Nearby buildings were subject to occasional flooding. The pastor at Park Street Church called the subway an “infernal hole” and an “un-Christian outrage.”
Six months before the first subway ran, a gas leak during construction and a streetcar spark on the rail caused an explosion that ripped through the Boylston and Tremont street intersection, killing 10 and injuring 50.
Other stations along the line opened a year later in 1898 — Scollay, Adams, and Haymarket squares to North Station. These would become the basis for the eventual Green Line system. Trolley cars from 27 routes across Boston ran into the subway initially.
Officials then focused on building an elevated rail line, eventually known as the “EL,” to outlying neighborhoods. It was seen as a cheaper and less troublesome project than digging tunnels.
Neighborhoods west of Boston wanted neither the eyesores of the steel structures of the elevated line nor the disruption of the underground tunnel construction.
Railway streetcars remained the mode of transportation for these towns as other faster rapid transit options were constructed both north and south of Boston.
The Green Line has some of the tightest turns in the world. The high-pitched screeching is a result of the wheel flange making contact with the rails. Dampers are bolted on the wheels of the newer Green Line cars.
Pictured: Nancy Stenbuck of Chestnut Hill and Joanne Bloom of Brookline demonstrated how seats work in remodeled MTA trains in 1948.
Not much of the whitewashed paint remains at the “Bellmouth.”
It was brightly-lit back in the day for passengers. Boylston Street Station was painted white, with white tiles along the wall when it opened.
Before the system became labeled the Green Line, the lines were named after their destinations. The Lechmere Viaduct Line, from North Station to Lechmere Square, opened in 1912. The Boylston Street Subway that stretched to Kenmore Square opened in 1914. The extension from Copley Square to Northeastern University started in 1941.
Pictured: Old #5821 jarred many a nerve as it rattled and screeched its way though Scollay Square station.
The last part of the Green Line system opened in 1959 with the Highland Branch, between Kenmore Square out to Riverside Station and Route 128 in Newton.
Pictured: Foreman Timothy O’Donnell, left, and lineman Francis Fitzgerald inside the wire car that traveled along the tracks to repair troubled areas.
In 1947, the Boston Elevated Railway Company turned into the government-run Metropolitan Transit Authority. In 1963, the tunnel through Scollay Square and Adams Square was rebuilt, getting rid of many sharp curves, as part of the Government Center redevelopment project. This was the last major improvement of the Green Line’s tracks ever.
Pictured: PCC type trolley cars of MTA.
The MTA drew up plans to improve the Green Line. They were approved by city and state officials but did not receive funding. The project was eventually discarded
Plans included adding additional tunnels downtown to alleviate bottlenecks and extending the line into Somerville.
In 1964, the MTA turned into the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. The rail Central Subway System was rebranded the Green Line.
Eventually, Green Line routes were disbanded as other MBTA bus or train lines expanded into neighborhoods. The Green Line shrank from 10 lines in 1938 to four lines today.
Charlie on the M.T.A.
The iconic character from the beloved song “M.T.A.” (known as “Charlie on the M.T.A.”) got lost on the Green Line.
In the song, he transferred to the #39 streetcar to Jamaica Plain (now replaced by both the E line trolley to Heath Street and the #39 bus to Forest Hills) and then remained trapped in the system because he did not have a nickel to pay the exit fee.
The trolley line recently implemented a policy of keeping its rear doors closed at above-ground street stops to cut down on fare evading passengers.
The drawback is the extended unloading and loading time on the Green Line during peak hours.
Pictured: Inspector Maxine Bell checked the tickets and Charlie Cards of riders to make sure they have paid.
The MBTA debuted its mascot, a plush character named Charlie.
He’s the three-dimensional version of the cartoon on the MBTA fare card, which is itself based on a 1949 political song made famous by the Kingston Trio a decade later.
That Charlie was doomed to ride forever ’neath the streets of Boston.
The MBTA has begun installing LED signs at stations displaying estimated arrival times for all train lines — except for the Green Line.
The agency has released real-time data for the Red, Orange, and Blue lines that innovators have turned into tracking apps. Even location data on MBTA buses has been released.
But not for the Green Line. Officials blame cost and the unpredictable nature of it its on-street and off-street system.
A woman recently drove her car onto the Green Line tracks in Brookline, where it got stuck.
She blamed her GPS device for the improper turn.
Decades after the MTA proposed plans to extend the Green Line into Somerville, the MBTA is poised to begin and clear the project.
The Green Line Extension project would cost $1.1 billion and could be completed in March. Seven new T stations will be built along the route, including a new station at Lechmere. Railroad tracks and utility lines will have to be relocated. Retaining walls and noise barriers to shield neighborhoods along the route will be erected.
Officials warn that Boston’s subways could grow so packed that trains would roll past waiting commuters, unable to accommodate more riders.
The 390 million transit trips in Greater Boston last year were the most since 1946, and the T has registered a record 15 straight months of ridership growth, according to a study.
Riders who think it is crowded now should be prepared for 20 percent more company by the end of the decade.
Unfortunately, the Green Line’s electrical system and fleet cannot support the number of three-car trolleys that ridership otherwise dictates.
Unfortunately, the Green Line’s electrical system and fleet cannot support the number of three-car trolleys that ridership otherwise dictates, said officials.