Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Infernal Hole and the Unsettled Dead

The Cursed Project to Build America's First Subway System

The Boston commute has always been a nightmare, but by the later 19th century it had reached its high mark. The city was experiencing a massive population surge that pushed it's transportation infrastructure to the very limits of sustainability. Hundreds of new immigrants were arriving daily and settling in the already over-populated inner neighborhoods. Tremont Street, the main thoroughfare, was a near-constant gridlock of foot traffic, horse carts and electric streetcars. The surrounding maze of narrow, winding streets became impassable. And the various steam-powered train lines that carried suburban commuters into the city each day created a tangled web of crosstown and inner city routes that added to the chaos.1

The breaking point would be The Great Blizzard of 1888, one of the most severe snowstorms to ever hit the United States
.2 The massive storm wreaked havoc up and down the East Coast and completely paralyzed the city of Boston. Trains and street cars were immobilized by massive 50-foot snow drifts, telegraph lines went down, and hundreds of people were stranded for days without food, water or heat. Passengers trapped in the railroad cars burned the seats to stay warm. Others attempted to brave the freezing temperatures and 80mph wind gusts and tried walking home on foot but were quickly disoriented, or else stuck in the drifts. Some froze to death. In the aftermath of this catastrophe it became clear that the city needed to modernize its public transit.

The city responded by forming the Boston Transit Commission, which tasked a team of engineers to
design an inter-connected transit system that would include both elevated rail lines and an underground subway network.3 The Tremont Street Subway line would be the first phase of this network, and include three stations – Park Street, Boylston and Public Garden (now Arlington Street). When the construction was finally completed, it would be celebrated as an engineering first in the United States.

But there is a dark side to this project that seldom gets mentioned in the history books.