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A great deal of work is taking place over the course of this winter to advance the South Coast Rail project. Members of the team are hard at work developing designs for the ten new proposed stations, looking at overall project design, and meeting with key state agencies and other stakeholders. In a way, history is repeating itself.

“The Governor Bradford, an early Old Colony locomotive built in 1845 by Hinkley & Drury.” (Source: The Story of the Old Colony Railroad by Charles Eben Fisher.)

“The Governor Bradford, an early Old Colony locomotive built in 1845 by Hinkley & Drury.” (Source: The Story of the Old Colony Railroad by Charles Eben Fisher.)

The Massachusetts landscape has been traversed with the intricate webs of railroads for almost 200 years, including on the South Coast. Railroads spread rapidly throughout the eastern United States in the early to mid-19th century. But the industry may not have flourished as early as it did were it not for a small group of Bostonians who wanted to build a monument in Bunker Hill and needed a way to transport the materials.

On the morning of October 7, 1826, the first railroad in America was opened in Quincy, Massachusetts. The rudimentary track would become known as the Granite Railway, and its first cars were drawn by horses from Quincy to the Neponset River. On board was the granite selected to construct the Bunker Hill Monument, in honor of the lives lost in a significant Revolutionary War battle. The Granite Railway was the spark that ignited the fire of interest in railroads throughout the country, and its patriotic motive may have been the reason it was the first of its kind in the United States.

Boston and southeastern Massachusetts were first united by rail in 1845 when Old Colony Railroad opened for service, running from Boston to Plymouth. In 1854, the original connection between Boston and the South Coast was created when Old Colony Railroad merged with Fall River Railroad, forming Old Colony & Fall River Railroad Company. The new railroad provided a two-pronged line from Boston to Plymouth and Boston to Fall River, with a split at South Braintree. The service also opened up the first link from Boston to New Bedford via the New Bedford & Taunton Railroad, which was connected to the Fall River Railroad in Taunton. Old Colony Railroad grew to be the dominant rail system of Eastern Massachusetts, with divisions in Cape Cod and Providence, Rhode Island, and upwards of 600 miles of track.

Old Colony Rail Map

Map showing the extents of the Old Colony Railroad network at the time of the 1893 lease by the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad

In 1897, the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad acquired Old Colony Railroad under a lease agreement. Old Colony was swallowed up into the vast network of the New Haven Line, which then had a virtual monopoly of the railroads in southern New England. The triumph of this expansion was short lived.
The post-war automobile revolution of the mid-20th century captured a majority of rail passengers. Highways became the country’s main transportation arteries. Before long, the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad’s future dimmed. By the mid-1950s, the railroad was in severe financial difficulty. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts stepped in and provided an emergency subsidy to continue service to the South Coast in 1958, but it was not enough to make a difference. Passenger service on the Old Colony line was abandoned in 1959, with the exception of the main line between Boston and Providence, Rhode Island.

South Coast Rail will restore rail mobility between Boston and the South Coast and will catalyze economic development that will not only benefit the long underserved communities of the South Coast, but the entire Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Proving that history has come full circle, the original 1840 alignment of the New Bedford and Taunton Railroad is currently part of the South Coast Rail project corridor.
This is the first in a series that will delve more deeply into the history of rail in the South Coast region. Stay tuned for more over the coming weeks!

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