In 1897 Boston Built America’s First Subway to Help with Congestion and… Blizzards

Construction at Park St. Click for larger image. (from the BPL)

On September 1, 1897 Boston opened for business the first Subway in the United States. It was modeled after several European cities (including London which had launched their own 34 years earlier) and was followed a few years later with a subway in New York City. 

Why Did Boston Need a Subway?

ASCE outlines some of the challenges the city was facing at that time:

By the 1890s, the transportation infrastructure of downtown Boston – a maze of narrow, winding streets laid out, in some cases, along Colonial cow paths – proved completely inadequate for the needs of a modern, bustling metropolis. Tremont Street, the city's main thoroughfare, was regularly subject to gridlock from a convergence of foot traffic, horse-drawn conveyances, trolley lines, and electric streetcars. To rectify the problem, the Boston Transit Commission, with Howard A. Carson as chief engineer, was created in 1894 to study remedies. 
A streetcar subway was selected as the best solution, and construction began in March 1895. The completed project – the fifth in the world, and the first in the United States – carried more than 100,000 riders on its opening day, and more than 50 million passengers in its first year. 
Another imporant factor was the Blizzard of 1888 which dumped 40-50 inches of snow in the city:
Across the state, anyone who needed to travel faced the greatest risk. Men living in the newly developed suburbs took the streetcar to work in the morning, but the trip home was a life-and-death struggle. In 1967, a Boston Globe writer remembered, "I was there in person, a five-year-old. I can recall flattening my nose against the windowpane and wondering whether my father was going to make it. He did. But other dads were found dead in deep drifts by rescue parties."
The fast accumulating snow and drifts immobilized railroad cars. Passengers and crewmen were stranded without food, water, or heat, sometimes for days.
Perhaps the most important legacy of the Blizzard of 1888 was the Boston subway system. Alarmed by the paralysis and economic damage the storm caused, Boston decided to build a subway.


The Construction

Construction of the subway on Tremont Street (from WikiCommons)

The initial construction of the line included 3 stations (Park St, Public Garden, and Boylston), was 0.6 miles long, was a 3 minute ride in total, and was budgeted at $5 million. They combined these subway stations with the elevated tracks above sot aht the subway just became a part of the current train system. 

Construction began in 1895 and finished in 1897. Shockingly, the project came in on time, and under budget. 

They borrowed techniques from Europe to complete the tunnels and there a few problems along the way:

To complete the daunting task, the engineers combined the deep underground "tube" style of construction pioneered in London with the open excavation method used in Paris. In this new "cut-and-cover" technique, workers supported the walls of a freshly dug trench with temporary wooden braces. Once the trench was deep enough, the walls and floor — made of concrete, steel beams, and waterproof grout — were added. Finally, the roof of the tunnel was made by building brick arches between steel support beams. The upper surface was then finished with a layer of concrete and soil. This system would soon become standard practice in nearly all American subway construction.
The process did not go entirely as planned. The first section was laid out along the edge of the Old Common Burial Ground. Workers saw only a few gravestones as they began digging, but they would eventually unearth the remains of over 900 unmarked graves, an unsettling discovery. The Boston Post jumped on the story, running it under the headline "Hideous Germs Lurk in Underground Air" with an illustration of a large, scary-looking "subway microbe." The pastor of the Park Street Church,called the subway "an infernal hole" and "an un-Christian outrage" when a water main ruptured, coating his office with mud. "Who?" he asked from the pulpit, "is the Boss in charge of the work? It is the Devil!"

The New Subway Opens

At 6AM on September 1, 1897 the subway opened to the public with 100 people on the inaugural ride. Over 100,000 people would ride the train on that first day. 

Here's a few pictures of the new line.

On a test run in the new Park Street Station (From the BPL)


The subway entrance of the Public Garden tunnel. From WikiCommons.


The Park Street Station. From the BPL.


It Was a Big Story!

The new subway was a national sensation and was covered extensively in newspapers and magazines. Here's a couple of examples

The cover of The Boston Globe on September 1, 1897. Click the image for a larger view. (From WikiCommons)

The cover of Scientific America on September 18, 1897. Click for a larger image. From

How the Tremont Street (Green) Line Grew Over Time

Here's a quick map that shows how the line started (stations are marked as starting on ) and how it grew over time.

Image from Wikipedia – Click on image for a larger version