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Ye Olde MBTA

The Daily Times and Chronicle, Tuesday, September 30, 1980

Burlington Past and Present, by John E. Fogelberg (Article # 067)


The year was 1900. The Burlington farmer and his family, when not actually walking, still went on a horse, or behind a horse, to visit his neighbors, to go to the village grocery, to attend church or to enjoy a Chautauqua or other performance in Woburn or Lexington or even in Boston. Travel for any distance out of town had been limited ever since the stages stopped running through town shortly before the Civil War. But now, could they but reach Woburn or Lexington, they could travel in relative comfort in almost any direction by street car.

The electric street railway, which had been introduced in 1888 to Richmond, VA by a young Annapolis graduate named Frank Sprague, caught the public’s imagination, and since it served a public transportation need, its use spread rapidly throughout the country. A map showing the electric railways of the commonwealth of Massachusetts, published in 1899, showed an amazing network of lines. They ran from Newport, R.I. in the south to Nashua, N.H. in the north and from Gardner and points west to Hampton Beach, Hull or other places on the coast. But Burlington had been bypassed by the trolley car just as it had been bypassed by the railroad.

Thus in the summer of 1900, a petition was presented to the Board of Selectmen by seven men who constituted the Board of Directors of the newly formed Woburn and Lowell Street Railway Company to lay tracks through Burlington. Four of them were well-known Burlington people; T. I. Reed, who ran the Ham Works on Cambridge Street opposite County Road; William Carter, who owned the Heel Shop where White Construction is now; Frank Marion, who farmed the land now occupied by Beacon Village; and Fred F. Walker, whose farm on Winn Street opposite Peach Orchard Road now holds St. Margaret’s Church and the Memorial School.

Their first request wanted to run the cars from Woburn up Winn Street, over Cutler Hill (Center Street) to Bedford Street, past the church, down Meeting House Lane (Church Lane), up the State Road to Bennett Road (Francis Wyman Road), along that road to Havenville where the West School still stands, westerly along Bedford Street to the Turnpike and then southerly along the Turnpike to Lexington. This proposal was soon abandoned because another company proposed to construct a high-speed inter-urban line from Boston to Lowell using the Turnpike through Burlington. That project never materialized.

On Nov. 5, 1900, the directors of the proposed road revised their petition. Instead of turning west on Francis Wyman Road, the tracks would now continue on to Billerica, where they would connect with the Lowell Suburban Railway. A public hearing was duly held, approval was given by the Board of Selectmen and work began the following spring. The selectmen were authorized at the March meeting “to take land where necessary along the line of the proposed electric railway where the road is so narrow as to endanger public travel.” Probably sections of Center Street or Church Lane.

For whatever reason, work progressed slowly during the summer of 1901 and Burlington people expressed some impatience, as did Woburn people, about comparable delays on the North Woburn to Tewksbury extension. However, by Labor Day, the last work car had been returned to the car barns on North Warren Street in Woburn and cars were run that day to coincide with the opening and dedication of Pinehurst Park in Billerica, “a new and beautiful pleasure resort on the banks of the Shawsheen River.”

The trip from Woburn to Lowell took about 40 minutes and the fare was 15 cents. The cars were of two kinds: 25 or 30 foot double truck vestibule box cars for inclement weather, and double truck open bench cars for the summer months. The open cars were far more exciting to ride. What motormen were paid is not exactly known, but it might be interesting to point out that locomotive engineers on the Boston & Maine Railroad were given a raise in August of that year to $3.50 a day and that workday was shortened to 10 hours. Motormen probably received less.

In December of 1905, the selectmen granted a petition for the relocation of tracks to eliminate Center Street Hill. If one can believe the late Arthur Nichols, once selectman and, long-time mail carrier, the move was made because a car got caught halfway up that hill in a severe snow storm and was unable to move either up or down for over a week. In any case, the tracks were laid on the extension of Winn Street, then called the New Road, in 1906. The company also was reorganized and a Montgomery Sears replaced T.I. Reed as president of the line.

But now the center of town was bypassed, which made many people unhappy and caused quite a furor. To allay some of that criticism, Sears proposed that the town construct a road linking the center of town with the new road. Thus, the Town Meeting in April appropriated $500 to buy land for a road 40 feet wide with a good gravel sidewalk seven feet wide, so that people could more easily walk to the carline. The railway company paid for the labor involved. The road became Sears Street.

The company also built at the same time two little waiting stations, which were placed at the foot of Sears Street and on Cambridge Street opposite Winn Street. What became of the latter is not known, but many years later, the first one was taken up to the park and used for a tool shed.

There was a turnout at the foot of Center Street and another opposite Wilmington Road, where cars could pass one another. The late Roscoe Pearsons liked to describe the line in its hey-day when on a fine Sunday afternoon in summer, sometimes six cars, every seat on the open trolleys filled to capacity, would be waiting for the car going in the opposite direction. During the week, the line was used by people working out of town and by those young ladies working in the heel factory and living in Woburn. Since Burlington had no high school at that time, the School Department furnished tickets on a monthly basis to those pupils who attended school in Woburn.

The Burlington line never did show a substantial profit and went out of business in 1921. This line, along with many another electric line, just could not compete with the auto- mobile and the much more maneuverable bus. The country trolley car disappeared from the American scene almost as quickly as it appeared. The last use of the open trolley in the Eastern Massachusetts area was the excursions from Boston to the Brockton Fair in the fall of 1931 in cars of the Eastern Mass. Street Railway Company. That company ran buses through Burlington for several years after 1921, followed for many years by the buses of the Holland Company and finally by buses of the Vocell Company.

Pinehurst Park lasted a little longer. Its best days were during the trolley era. people from Charlestown and Boston and Cambridge took a trolley excursion to pass a day in the country. The park had swings and picnic tables and ice cream stands. It also had a small theatre and a dance hall, and behind that a magnificent stand of pine trees where the young could play or couples could disappear. That dance hall would stay open long after dark on Saturday nights and then the Owl car, leaving Billerica just before midnight, would pick up the last of the dancers and take them, noisily laughing and sing- ing, through the open countryside to catch the last car out of Woburn for Sullivan Square. The pines were flattened and the dance hall was practically blown away in the 1938 hurricane. No one seems to remember who drove the cars on the Burlington line. One of the McHugh boys from Woburn, brother of the promoter of Pinehurst Park, may have been of them. Herb Danielson, now working for the School Department, as a young man once operated cars on the Stoneham branch, which ran cars through the Fellsway. Samuel E. Walker, who once lived in the little house on Winn Street now occupied by the Robert Blenkhorns and who died many years ago, was a street car motor-man in Somerville, and first drove cars when they were pulled by horses.

Why not visit the Seashore Electric Railway Museum at Kennebunkport, Maine and enjoy a ride in the country as your grandparents did?