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New Haven locomotive #638 strikes a classic pose just outside the South Station train shed.   (Source: The Harold E. Williams Collection of the New Haven Railroad Historical and Technical Association, Inc.)

New Haven locomotive #638 strikes a classic pose just outside the South Station train shed.
(Source: The Harold E. Williams Collection of the New Haven Railroad Historical and Technical Association, Inc.)

South Coast Rail plans to restore commuter rail service between Boston and the cities and towns of southeastern Massachusetts. The rail line that once ran between Boston and Taunton, Fall River, and New Bedford operated for nearly a half century under the Old Colony Railroad. In 1893, Old Colony Railroad was leased by the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad and renamed “Old Colony Division.” Trains continued to chug along Old Colony Division until 1959, when passenger service ceased.

Why would such a central rail connection have been abandoned? The answer lies within the messy, drawn-out collapse of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, known simply as the “New Haven,” which was once a transportation empire in New England.

The New Haven was born in 1872 when the New York & New Haven and Hartford & New Haven Railroads merged. Beginning in the 1880s, financier J.P. Morgan saw the unification of railroads as a lucrative business venture, and at the turn of the twentieth century, he took over the New Haven.

Under his direction, the New Haven aggressively procured hundreds of railroads, trolley companies, and steamship lines throughout New England, including the popular Fall River Line. Consolidation was the popular business philosophy of the time in all industries, but especially in transportation.

Photographic portrait of J.P. Morgan, 1902. (Source: Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-USZ61-327.)

Photographic portrait of J.P. Morgan, 1902.
(Source: Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-USZ61-327.)

By 1890, the United States boasted over 163,000 miles of rail, more than all of Europe and nearly half that of the entire world. By 1902, Morgan had unified 13 railroad systems totaling 55,000 miles of track and a capital of $3 billion, making him the greatest of the railroad monarchs, including Cornelius Vanderbilt. These railroad “empires” held incredible sway in politics. Generous campaign donations thwarted regulatory efforts, and control of newspapers greatly influenced public opinion.

In response to this one-sided influence and control, a movement for economic and social democracy called “Progressivism” grew around the early 1900s and challenged the status quo. Led by reformers and leaders, such as Theodore Roosevelt and Louis D. Brandeis, Progressivism demanded freedom for small businesses from the oppression of trusts, and urged effective regulation of railroads, emancipation of labor, and preservation of natural resources. “Muckraking” journalists also helped to expose malpractices of the railroads and the dreadful labor conditions of their workers.

By 1910, these efforts led to criminal investigations into the New Haven’s acquisitions, many of which violated federal and state anti-trust laws. At this point in time, the New Haven had already over-extended itself and was on the brink of financial collapse. But World War I brought various “war emergency” protections from the United States Railroad Administration, and the influx of military-related business pulled the New Haven out of its hole. This resurgence lasted only so long, as the Great Depression brought it once again to near-collapse. However, under bankruptcy protection in 1935, the New Haven persevered and became profitable under the guidance of its president, Howard Palmer. Palmer’s 1940 reorganization of the New Haven involved the cut of numerous branches, including Old Colony Division.

Proponents of Old Colony Division fought for its continuance, and saved the service from terminating several times over the next decade.

1948 marked the beginning of a series of failed leaderships for the New Haven, and the 1950s brought further troubles. Competition with government-subsidized highways, Americans’ burgeoning love affair with their cars, expanding airlines, commuter service losses, and the move of heavy industry from New England to the south and west forced the New Haven into its final bankruptcy in 1961. On January 1, 1969, the New Haven was itself acquired by the ill-fated Penn Central Transportation Company.

The end of Old Colony Division finally came in 1959 when an emergency subsidy provided by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was not renewed. Passenger service was discontinued except for the line between Boston and Providence, RI.

Today, commuter railroads in the Boston metropolitan area are largely owned by government transit authorities, such as the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA), and leased to railroad operations companies. To find out who owns the railroads near your community, check out this statewide map.

This post is part of a series visiting the rich history of transportation in the South Coast. Stay tuned for future installments!

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