Boston and Lowell Railroad
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Map of the Southern Division as it was in 1887, just before it was leased by the Boston and Maine Railroad, including the original Boston to Lowell mainline
|Locale||Boston to Lowell, Massachusetts and beyond into New Hampshire and Vermont|
|Dates of operation||1835–|
|Track gauge||4 ft 8 1⁄2 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge|
The Boston and Lowell Railroad is a historic railroad that operated in Massachusetts in the United States. It was one of the first railroads in North America and the first major one in the state. The line later operated as part of the Boston and Maine Railroad's Southern Division.
In the early 19th century, Francis Cabot Lowell and his friends and colleagues established in Waltham, Massachusetts, the Boston Manufacturing Company—the first integrated textile mill in the United States. After Lowell's death in 1817, his partners searched for a new location with greater waterpower to expand textile production and add calico printing. In 1821 they purchased property adjoining the Pawtucket Falls on the Merrimack River, and in 1823 the Merrimack Manufacturing Company began producing cotton cloth in the village of East Chelmsford. In 1826, the area was incorporated as the town of Lowell, Massachusetts, named in honor of Francis Cabot Lowell.
Before the railroad, there were several ways of moving goods between Lowell and Boston. The Middlesex Canal, which opened in 1804 and linked Boston with Concord, New Hampshire, was usable except during the winter months. Stagecoaches ran on the road between Boston and Lowell. Large horse-drawn wagons carried freight. These sufficed for some time, but as Lowell grew and more industrialists built mills there, problems with both modes soon overwhelmed them.
The canal was a very efficient way of moving large amounts of heavy goods cheaply and with minimal labor. Unfortunately, the canal would freeze in the winter and the towpath was muddy in spring and late fall. This made it impractical for a burgeoning mill town that needed year-round freight transportation.
Stagecoaches provided the passenger aspect of the transport, moving 100 to 120 passengers per day. There were six stagecoaches in operation at the time of the building of the railroad, for a total of 39 fully loaded round trips per week. This was sufficient passenger service for people who had to make an occasional trip but was much too expensive for daily use or what we would now call commuters.
One of the first railroads in North America was the Granite Railroad in nearby Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1826. It was a 3-mile (5 km), horse-powered railroad, built to move large granite stones from the quarries in Quincy to the Neponset River in Milton. As was believed to be the most sturdy method at the time, it was built on a deep foundation of granite, setting a precedent for all railroads that could afford it.
The investors in the Lowell textile companies decided they needed to do something about their transportation situation. They looked toward the railroad in England for inspiration. A railroad could run year round, was expandable with as many tracks as they might need, and could use the new locomotives that were being highly praised in England.
Patrick Tracy Jackson led the task of convincing the state legislature that a railroad was a good idea, and later building the railroad itself. The former proved very difficult, as the investors of the Middlesex Canal were very much against building a new form of transportation designed to replace their canal.
Because there was no provision in Massachusetts State law for chartering railroads prior to 1872, all railroads had to be chartered by special acts of legislature. This made it slow and inefficient to charter a railroad because the politicians had to agree; the issue would become partisan. This also meant that the legislature would not let the investors build the line unless they could show it was completely necessary.
The investors were successful because they convinced the legislature that the canal was inherently incapable of providing what they needed: reliable, year-round freight transport. Investors in the Boston and Lowell Railroad received a charter on June 5, 1830, with no provision for reparations to the Middlesex Canal's investors. It was a favorable charter because in addition to the right to build and operate a railroad between Lowell and Boston, it gave a thirty-year monopoly on the right to have a railroad there. The people along the road and in terminal-end cities bought large amounts of stock, financing half the company.
Building the railroad
The Board of Directors of the Boston and Lowell Railroad, armed with a charter, now had the task of surveying and building the line. They brought in James Fowle Baldwin, son of Col. Loammi Baldwin, who had engineered the Middlesex Canal, to do the surveying, and charged him with finding a gently sloped path from Lowell to Boston, with few grade crossings and well away from town centers. This latter point ended up being quite inconvenient later on. No one had any idea of the future possibility of railroads acting as public transportation, or if they did they were not paid any attention by the builders or financiers of the road.
The right-of-way that Baldwin surveyed did well in each of these characteristics. The path sloped up at a gentle ten feet per mile at the maximum, and there were only three grade crossings over the entire 26-mile (42 km) distance. The path was close to the older Middlesex Canal path, but was straighter - as boats can turn more sharply than trains. To achieve this superior linearity it needed small amounts of grade elevation in places. The route ignored Medford center entirely, going through West Medford instead, and totally bypassed Woburn and Billerica. This would have to be corrected later with various spurs (the one to Medford being built off the Boston and Maine Railroad), but were always sources of annoyance to both the riders and the operators.
The proposed route was accepted by the Board of Directors of the Boston and Lowell Railroad, and work began on the building phase. The road was begun from both ends at once, and some sources say that they both started on the right hand side of the right-of-way, missing in the middle and having to put in an embarrassing reverse curve to tide them over until they built the other side. Yankee and Irish laborers were hired to construct the railroad, which was made especially difficult and because the Directors wanted to make the road using the best techniques then known. This, for them, meant laying imported British iron rails with a 4-foot-deep (1.2 m) wall of granite under each rail. They did this because it was commonly believed that the train would sink into the ground if the rails did not have strong support.
The first track was completed in 1835, and freight service began immediately. The solid granite roadbed proved to be much too rigid, jolting the engine and cars nearly to pieces. Repairs on the locomotives (there were two at the time) would sometimes take most of the night, trying to get them ready for the next day's service. The much poorer Boston and Worcester Railroad could not afford a granite bed and so was built with modern wooden ties. This turned out to be far superior, so the owners of the Boston and Lowell decided they would upgrade their entire roadbed to wood when they added a second track.
The original Boston terminal was at the north corner of Causeway Street and Andover Street (halfway between Portland and Friend streets), at the westernmost edge of the current North Station. The bridge over the Charles River to access it was the first movable railroad bridge in the United States.  The original Lowell terminal was at the south corner of Merrimack Street and Dutton Street.
The quantity of freight traffic on the Boston and Lowell Railroad was large from the start (as was expected) with Lowell's textile companies bringing in raw materials and sending out finished goods. The high level of passenger traffic, however, was not anticipated. People were fascinated with the "cars", and loved that they could travel from Lowell to Boston in 45 minutes.
Trains traveled at over 60 miles per hour (97 km/h) on unwelded rails which were laid on a granite roadbed, which made for an extremely bumpy ride. Passenger complaints about the rough ride were another reason that the Boston and Lowell Railroad switched to wooden ties.
The Boston and Lowell was faced with a new problem; it had a reputation for speed which made it very popular and highly competitive with stagecoaches. Many people wanted to go not only from Lowell to Boston but to places in between. The Boston and Lowell ordered another locomotive and cars for local passenger rail in 1842, and had them make six stops along the route. Passenger rail proved to be almost as profitable as freight.
The Boston and Maine Railroad
Another railroad was chartered in the early 1840s whose fortunes would be closely tied to those of the Boston and Lowell. This was the Boston and Maine Railroad. This railroad ran down from Portland, Maine, through a bit of southern New Hampshire, to Haverhill in northeastern Massachusetts, connected to the Boston and Lowell in Wilmington, and then used Boston and Lowell track to Boston. This route was conceptualized in 1834, but took a long time to be built, mostly because, unlike the Boston and Lowell, it did not have a secure base of funding like the Lowell textile companies. It took two years to get to Andover, another year to get to Haverhill, three more to get to Exeter, New Hampshire, and did not get to Portland until 1852.
This extra traffic on the Boston and Lowell Railroad, especially with the line still over granite, provided the extra impetus to double track and upgrade. In 1838, the B&L began two years of extensive track improvements, first laying a second track on wood, and with that one built, going back and re-laying the old track on the more forgiving wood as well. Boston and Lowell traffic continued to increase, and even with double tracks the schedule became tight enough that the Boston and Maine trains, as renters, began to be pushed around to annoying hours, often having to wait over an hour in Wilmington before being allowed to proceed on to Boston.
The B&M soon tired of what they perceived as selfishness and decided to build its own track to Boston from Haverhill so that it would not have to rely on the B&L. The B&L tried to fight the B&M in court but failed because the monopoly granted in its charter was only good for traffic between Boston and Lowell. The shortcut, part of today's Haverhill/Reading Line, was started in 1844 and was in use by 1848. While the B&M was building it, they were still running their trains to Boston on the B&L. This made for a lot of conflict, with the B&L trying to squeeze every last penny out of the B&M before it lost the opportunity. The B&M tried to deal with this in court, and got the judge to forbid the B&L from raising rates until the case was done, but by the time they were close to an agreement, the bypass was complete.
With B&M business gone, the B&L realized how much they had been relying upon their renters. Additionally, the Lowell mills began to decline somewhat and there was less freight traffic for the line to move. Over the next four decades, the B&L declined until the more successful B&M leased it on April 1, 1887.
The B&L built or leased many branches to serve areas not on its original line. Immediately before its lease by the B&M in 1887, it had five divisions—the Southern Division (including the original line), the Northern Division, the White Mountains Division, the Vermont Division, and the Passumpsic Division. Additionally, it leased the Central Massachusetts Railroad in 1886.
The Charlestown Branch Railroad was not itself taken over by the B&L, but as originally built in 1840 it was a short spur from the B&L to wharves in Charlestown. In 1845 the Fitchburg Railroad leased it and incorporated it into their main line.
- Mystic River
The Mystic River Branch served the Mystic River waterfront on the north side of Charlestown.
- Woburn Loop
The Woburn Branch Railroad (aka the Woburn Loop) opened in 1844, connecting Woburn to the main line towards Boston. The Horn Pond Branch Railroad was a short freight-only branch off the Woburn Branch to ice houses on Horn Pond. The northern loop, built in 1885, continued the line back north to the main line at North Woburn Jct. in South Wilmington. The Horn Pond branch line was abandoned in 1911, the northern loop in 1961, and the original line in 1982.
- Lowell and Lawrence
- Salem and Lowell
The Salem and Lowell Railroad was chartered in 1848 as a branch from the Lowell and Lawrence at Tewksbury Junction to the Essex Railroad at Peabody, along which it used trackage rights to Salem. The line was opened in 1850 and operated by the Lowell and Lawrence until 1858, when the B&L leased it along with the Lowell and Lawrence.
- Wilmington (Wildcat) Branch
The Wilmington Branch, now known as the Wildcat Branch, was built just west of the original Boston and Maine Railroad alignment to connect the main line at Wilmington to the Salem and Lowell at Wilmington Junction, providing a shorter route between Boston and Lawrence.
- Lexington and Arlington (Middlesex Central Railroad)
The Lexington and West Cambridge Railroad was chartered in 1845 and opened in 1846, connecting the Fitchburg Railroad at West Cambridge to Lexington, although the "West Cambridge" in the name referred to what is now the town of Arlington. It was operated by the Fitchburg from opening, and leased to the Fitchburg from 1847 to 1859. The line was reorganized as the Lexington and Arlington Railroad in 1868, following the renaming of Arlington. The B&L bought the line in 1870 and built a new connection to their main line at Somerville Junction.
The Middlesex Central Railroad was chartered in 1872 and opened in 1873, extending the line from Lexington to Concord. It was leased from completion to the B&L. An extension west to the Nashua, Acton and Boston Railroad at Middlesex Junction was built in 1879.
- Billerica and Bedford
The Billerica and Bedford Railroad was built in 1877 as a narrow gauge line between the Middlesex Central at Bedford and the B&L at North Billerica. It was sold and abandoned in 1878, and the rails were taken to Maine for the Sandy River Railroad. A new standard gauge branch was built by the B&L in 1885, mostly on the same right-of-way.
- Lowell and Nashua
The Lowell and Nashua Railroad was chartered in 1836 as an extension of the B&L from Lowell north to the New Hampshire state line. The Nashua and Lowell Railroad, chartered in 1835, would continue the line in New Hampshire to Nashua. The two companies merged in 1838 to form a new Nashua and Lowell Railroad, and the road opened later that year. In 1857 the B&L and N&L agreed to operate as one company from 1860, and in 1880 the B&L leased the N&L.
- Stony Brook
- Nashua to Keene
The Manchester and Keene Railroad was chartered in 1864 and opened in 1878, continuing the Peterborough Railroad west from Greenfield to the Connecticut River Railroad in Keene. In 1880 the company went bankrupt, and it was operated by the Connecticut River Railroad until 1882, when it was bought half-and-half by the B&L and the Concord Railroad.
- Central Massachusetts Railroad
The Massachusetts Central Railroad was chartered in 1869 to build a line east-west across the middle of the state, between the Boston and Albany Railroad and the Fitchburg Railroad. The first section opened in 1881, splitting from the B&L's Lexington and Arlington Branch at North Cambridge Junction, and the company was reorganized as the Central Massachusetts Railroad in 1883. The B&L leased the line in 1886, a year before the B&M leased the B&L.
- Northern Division
The Boston, Concord and Montreal Railroad was chartered in 1844, and opened in stages from 1848 to 1853, eventually running from Concord to Woodsville, New Hampshire. That railroad, along with its branches, became part of the B&L Northern Division in 1884, when the B&L leased the BC&M.
The Northern Railroad was also chartered in 1844, opening in 1847 from Concord to Lebanon, New Hampshire, and later extending to White River Junction, Vermont. The B&L leased it in 1884 as another part of its Northern Division.
- White Mountains Division
The White Mountains Railroad was chartered in 1848 and opened a line from Woodsville to Littleton, New Hampshire, in 1853. Along with extensions and branches, it was leased to the Boston, Concord and Montreal Railroad in 1859 and consolidated into it in 1872, becoming its White Mountains Division. In 1884 the B&L leased the BC&M and the old White Mountains Railroad became the B&L's White Mountains Division.
The Northern and White Mountains Divisions were connected at Woodsville.
- Vermont Division
The Essex County Railroad (chartered 1864), Montpelier and St. Johnsbury Railroad (chartered 1866) and Lamoille Valley Railroad (chartered 1867) were consolidated into the Portland and Ogdensburg Railroad in 1875 as their Vermont Division. The line was finished in 1877, and in 1880 it was reorganized as the St. Johnsbury and Lake Champlain Railroad, which was taken over by the B&L as their Vermont Division. The line did not stay in the B&M system, and the easternmost part was leased to the Maine Central Railroad in 1912.
The White Mountains and Vermont Divisions were connected at Scott's Mills, New Hampshire.
- Passumpsic Division
The Connecticut and Passumpsic Rivers Railroad was organized in 1846 and opened a line from White River Junction on the Northern Railroad to the border with Quebec, Canada, in 1867, junctioning the Northern and White Mountains Divisions at Wells River and the Vermont Division at St. Johnsbury. The Massawippi Valley Railway, leased in 1870, continued to Sherbrooke, Quebec, where it junctioned the Grand Trunk Railway among others. The B&L leased the line on January 1, 1887, three months before the B&M acquired the B&L.
Life as a B&M line
Over the next 70 years or so, things were reasonably stable and constant for the Lowell Line as a part of the B&M's Southern Division. Passenger train round trips per day hovered in the low 20s, and while freight from Lowell itself did not last too long, the Lowell line got some traffic from railroads that connected from the west.
In the early 20th century the economics of railroading began to change. With the advent of the internal combustion engine, trains slowly began to lose their advantage as a transportation option. Automobiles and trucks began to increase in popularity as highways improved, siphoning ridership and freight traffic off railroads. The advent of the Interstate Highway System tipped the economic balance by increasing mobility as factories and offices were now able to be located further away from the fixed routes of the railroads. The decline in both passenger and freight traffic occurred at a point when the B&M, like most other railroads, had just switched over to diesel locomotives, meaning that they had large debts. The pressure from the debts and the large infrastructure costs associated with operating a disparate passenger and freight network amongst declining traffic forced the B&M to cut costs. The most noticeable effect to the general public was the reductions in passenger operation. In the late 1950s the B&M began to eliminate routes and substituted Multi-Unit diesel-powered passenger cars on many of its routes. The effort did not succeed, as the B&M was bankrupt by 1976.
As its fortunes declined, the B&M shed its passenger operation in 1973 by selling the assets to the MBTA. The new state agency bought the Lowell line, along with the Haverhill and all other commuter operations in the Greater Boston area. Along with the sale, the B&M contracted to run the passenger service on the Lowell line for the MBTA. After bankruptcy, the B&M continued to run and fulfill its commuter rail contract under the protection of the Federal Bankruptcy Court, in the hopes that a reorganization could make it profitable again. It emerged from the court's protection when newly formed Guilford Transportation Industries (GTI) bought it in 1983.
When GTI bought the B&M, commuter rail service was in jeopardy. The MBTA had owned the trains and the tracks since 1973, but it had outsourced the operation to the B&M. When GTI bought the B&M in 1983, it had to honor the B&M contract, but GTI management was very much against passenger rail, and, in 1986, as soon as the contract expired, they let the job go to Amtrak.
From 1986 until 2003, Amtrak managed the entirety of Boston's commuter rail. It did decently, though at times had strained relations with the MBTA. Quibbles centered on equipment failures, numbers of conductors per train, and who took responsibility when trains are late. Because of these bad relations and Amtrak's repeated announcements that the contract was unreasonable, few people were surprised at Amtrak's decision not to bid again for the commuter rail contract when it came up for renewal in 2003.
When the MBTA asked for new bids on the commuter rail operation contract, Amtrak did not bid, but Guilford and the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Company did. The MBCR ended up getting the contract and began operating the commuter rail in July 2004.
Guilford's main line between Mattawamkeag, Maine, and Mechanicville, New York, now uses the Stony Brook Branch and the old main line north of Lowell. At Lowell it shifts to the B&M's original Lowell Branch to get to the B&M main line towards Maine.
During the years since B&M bankruptcy, highway congestion has increased significantly, resulting in growing demand for passenger and freight options. During this time frame, the MBTA has been slowly investing in some infrastructure changes in its rail operations. In 1995 a new North Station was opened. In 2001 it opened the Anderson Regional Transportation Center on the Boston & Lowell to centralize ridership and provide a superstation with convenient access to Interstates 93 and 95 (Route 128). In southern Maine, frustration with bus service drove the state to explore restarting passenger service, resulting in contracting with Amtrak to operate the Downeaster, which runs from North Station to Haverhill and up to Portland. Due to scheduling conflicts with the MBTA, the Downeaster runs up the Lowell Line to Wilmington and then out the old B&M Wildcat Branch to the Haverhill/Reading Line. This route allows the Downeaster to pass a commuter train on the Haverhill/Reading Line without schedule conflicts. The route is also historically significant because it is the same route that the original B&M used to Portland.
|Milepost||City||Station||Opening date||Connections and notes|
|0.0||Boston||North Station||Orange Line and Green Line
MBTA Commuter Rail north-side lines
Amtrak Downeaster service to Maine
|Boston Engine Terminal||A flag stop with a wooden platform for MBTA employees only|
|MBTA Fitchburg Line, Haverhill/Reading Line and Newburyport/Rockport Line split|
on the old alignment, west of the current route
originally Milk Row
split with Lexington and Arlington Branch
|4.0||Medford||Tufts University||November 1976 (had been open previously)||closed October 1979
originally College Hill
|7.8||Winchester Center||split with Woburn Branch|
|9.0||Winchester Highlands||closed June 1978|
split with Stoneham Branch
|Lechmere Warehouse||1979||closed 1996 |
|10.5||Walnut Hill||closed January 17, 1965|
|11.6||Mishawum||September 24, 1984 (had been open previously)||originally East Woburn|
|12.7||Anderson Regional Transportation Center||April 28, 2001||Amtrak Downeaster service to Maine
originally South Wilmington (had been open previously)
|Wilmington||North Woburn Junction||not a station
merge with Woburn Branch
|15.2||Wilmington||split with Wildcat Branch, carrying the Amtrak Downeaster service (without stopping here)|
|17.0||Silver Lake||closed June 27, 1965|
|Billerica||East Billerica||closed June 27, 1965|
|21.8||North Billerica||junction with Billerica and Bedford Branch|
junction with Lowell and Lawrence Railroad, Lowell Branch (B&M) and Framingham and Lowell Railroad (NYNH&H)
|25.5||Lowell||originally Middlesex Street
junction with Nashua and Lowell Railroad (B&L)
- Wall & Gray. 1871 Atlas of Massachusetts. Map of Massachusetts. USA. New England. Counties - Berkshire, Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden, Worcester, Middlesex, Essex and Norfolk, Boston - Suffolk,Plymouth, Bristol, Barnstable and Dukes (Cape Cod). Cities - Springfield, Worcester, Lowell, Lawrence, Haverhill, Newburyport, Salem, Lynn, Taunton, Fall River. New Bedford. These 1871 maps of the Counties and Cities are useful to see the extent and names of the rail lines.
- Beers, D.G. 1872 Atlas of Essex County Map of Massachusetts Plate 5. Click on the map for a very large image. This map and the 1871 map of Middlesex County shows the original Boston and Lowell Railroad route through Billerica, Wilmington, Woburn, Winchester, and Medford. It also show the slightly later competing track of the Boston and Maine Railroad through Andover, Reading, Wakefield, Melrose, and Malden. The Wildcat Branch connector in Wilmington is shown in the 1872 maps but not the 1871 map. Also see detailed map of 1872 Essex County Plate 7.
- Changes to Transit Service in the MBTA district (PDF)
- Railroad History Database
- 1886 Boston and Lowell Railroad Map