The Earliest Cambridge Transportation

Today, a hub of people, culture, and activity, Harvard Square has become its own transportation destination. Cambridge has always attempted the difficult balance of maintaining its avant-garde, unique culture and preserving its storied and important history. An acute understanding of the immense importance of moving people and things as easily as possible is a continuous thread in the history of Cambridge. Transportation objectives explain why Cambridge was founded were it is today, and transportation is what molded its 20th century image. The history of Cambridge, and especially Harvard Square, is intricately tied to the history of transportation, and, particularly, how every generation of Cantabrigians expanded the possibilities of Cambridge’s transportation.

From the earliest days of the Massachusetts Bay colony, ease of transportation was at the forefront of the minds of the founders. John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony, was charged with the task of choosing the location for a capital of the colony. He needed someplace with ease of access to the ocean, but at enough of a distance to ensure safety. A small hill on the north bank of the Charles River was selected and fortified, and Cambridge, called Newtowne until 1638, was founded.

The original articulation of Cambridge was composed of a walled center of homes, a meeting place, a marketplace, churches, and a school. It is today’s Harvard Square area, and is referred to as Old Cambridge. Not the seat of governance, and therefore less critically important to defend, farm land extended for miles beyond the walls of Cambridge proper. This arrangement was inconvenient for farmers, and soon settlers moved their homes out of the walled center and onto their land. New villages splintered off and became their own cities and towns—Allston, Arlington, and Billerica, are just a few.

In 1636, the promise of the area was clear and Newtowne was selected as the location for America’s first college—Newtowne College. The school received its well-known name two years later, when its first benefactor, John Harvard, left his entire library and half of his estate to the college at the time of his death. In deference to the academic tradition of their homeland, the college’s location was renamed for the great school in Cambridge, England in 1638. One of the reasons for the location of the school in Newtowne may have been consolation after John Winthrop relocated his house, and therefore the colony’s capital, to Boston. Though less easily defended, Boston provided better access for trade, and so the move was made.

As Boston and Cambridge grew, so did Charleston, Roxbury, Dorchester, Ipswich, and Newbury. Transportation to these other new and barely surviving settlements was crucial in the earliest years of the village. With its deep harbor and advantageous position, Boston emerged throughout the following century to become the wealthiest and most important city in America. For the first 30 years, before the Great Bridge was built (today’s Lars Anderson Bridge), Cantabrigians traveled by ferry to make the eight mile journey to get to Boston.

For more than a century, Cambridge grew as an agricultural village on the outskirts of Boston. The settlement retained a small group of cultural elite who claimed direct descent from the venerable and enlightened Puritans who first settled the area. On the whole, most people, farmers, merchants, tradesmen and their families, were fairly well off and lived with greater security than earlier generations. Social dynamics changed in the first half of the eighteenth century when a group of wealthy “Tories,” or members of the conservative Tory Party who were very loyal to the king, arrived from the West Indies. Families including the Vassalls, Inmans, and Lechmeres, among others, bought huge country estates in Cambridge as a refuge from the far more urban life in Boston. While they maintained their city homes, they built massive houses in Cambridge to display their immense wealth.

Owners of the mansions on Tory Row wisely fled the area as the Revolutionary War approached. Their grand homes would soon house the officers of the newly formed army. George Washington took command of his troops in Harvard Square becoming the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. He was first housed in the Wadsworth House, home of the president of Harvard, although he soon chose to move into the larger Vassall family estate on Brattle Street (today known as the Longfellow House). This home became his headquarters and Cambridge became the center of the American Revolution. Cambridge’s central role was largely due to the transportation infrastructure. In 1775 there was only one Bridge that connected Boston to Cambridge, the Great Bridge that stood at the end of today’s JFK Street. To travel by land from Harvard Square to Boston was eight miles and involved crossing the great bridge and traveling up through Brookline and Roxbury. The British troops were stationed in Boston and controlled the city at the outbreak of the war. This made Cambridge a location was close enough to Boston to keep an eye on the British military but also a location that was hard enough to get to that it was possible to fortify the army’s position and not be overrun.

Despite this glorious start to the war, the Revolution proved to be an economic disaster for Cambridge. Farmers went off to war, and the economy of the village came to a standstill. The presence of the soldiers stretched resources to their limits. At the end of the conflict, Cambridge would have one more shining moment. The delegation which met to draft the Massachusetts state constitution, the oldest governing constitution in the world, was presided over by John Adams and met in Cambridge in 1779.

While this history is long and complicated, it is important in understanding the importance of the role that transportation would play in the next chapter of Cambridge’s development. The American Revolution focused attention on Cambridge, but also devastated the economy. Cambridge needed to be re-energized, and two separate, savvy businessmen saw their opportunity through transportation.

Commercial investor and real estate speculator Francis Dana created the West Boston Bridge Company in 1792 to build a bridge over the Charles River connecting Boston and Cambridgeport. The West Boston Bridge was opened in November 1793, and today’s Longfellow Bridge exists as the modern reincarnation in the same location. At the time of the bridge’s construction, only a handful of people lived in Cambridgeport. With new access to Boston, the interest in this area skyrocketed. The swampy land was reclaimed and sold to developers at staggering rates.

Dana’s success inspired Andrew Craigie to a similar investment in 1809. Craigie built the Canal Bridge and subsequently developed East Cambridge. As land became more valuable in both Cambridgeport and East Cambridge, the developers built bigger and better roads to, at first, entice buyers, and later to accommodate them all. This fierce competition led to the construction of Cambridge and Mount Auburn Streets as well as Massachusetts Avenue and Broadway. The River Street Bridge was built and in 1810 and the Western Avenue Bridge followed in 1824.

The initial enthusiasm for the new construction soon soured as national politics interfered with local development. Thomas Jefferson’s trade embargo of 1807 destroyed plans for Cambridgeport to emerge as an important port. The United States went to war in 1812, putting all the growth and development on hold.

Andrew Craigie was smart and lucky enough to continue to buy land and make money with his new Lechmere Point Corporation. His new corporation donated some of his currently un-sellable East Cambridge land plots to the city to build a state-of-the-art Middlesex County court house in 1816, whose original design was done by Bullfinch. This development moved county business to East Cambridge, again making the area a hub. Cambridgeport responded to East Cambridge’s power play in 1832 with the building of a town hall, a rational decision due to its central location. These two newer areas, with their roads, bridges, and easier to navigate river, became the center of some of the earliest industrialization in America. By the 1840s, factories were humming away and the population was growing. This shift of municipal business and the construction of infrastructure and industry shifted the economic engines of Cambridge from Harvard Square into East Cambridge and Cambridgeport.

Although Old Cambridge still had Harvard College, and its rural, academic atmosphere, the people of Old Cambridge felt ignored by the others areas’ growth, and annoyed by their loss of preeminence. Old Cambridge sought to separate itself and became its own city in 1844. However, it wanted to retain the name Cambridge, which was strongly opposed by leaders in the rest of Cambridge. In 1846 a coalition of business and community leaders from East Cambridge and Cambridgeport proved their new authority by incorporating the city of Cambridge with essentially the boundaries we know today. This ended any possibility of one section of the city breaking off from the rest.

Cambridge’s early 19th century transportation initiatives had made Boston more accessible, but Cambridge itself was becoming an attraction. By 1845, the population had climbed to more than 12,000 residents. Cambridge’s developed land was able to welcome the immigrants who soon arrived on America’s shores. Factories were the new investment for Cambridge, making it one of the first cities in American to industrialize. Telescope lenses, sewing machines, furniture, confections, and even a Ford plant propelled Cambridge into the twentieth-century. It was a boom like never before, but just like before, the next question for the city was access and transportation for its burgeoning population and now-world famous goods.

With the bridges that had led to the development of Cambridgeport and East Cambridge, personal transportation was still the main means of travel, and horses, carriages, and wagons were the most common. The ferry could take groups of people but most people traveled irregularly and not often very far. As the population grew, however, and people needed to reach more places, efficiency of mass transportation became a concern. By the mid 19th century, six bridges connected Cambridge to Boston, Brighton, and Brookline. The Harvard Branch Railroad offered limited service to Boston for a few years. The Fitchburg Railroad allowed passengers on their freight cars into Boston. Most people used the Cambridge stage company when they needed to travel. The company’s omnibuses were large stage coaches pulled by horses that ran on wheels in the warm seasons and on a sleigh in the winter, but all of this was proving to not be enough.

Technology was soon to revolutionize the means by which to travel. The Cambridge Railroad was the first articulation of this change. Operational in 1856, it was the first street railway system in New England. A second corporation, the Union Railway Company, funded the equipment needed to operate the railroad. The three-mile trip to Boston was reduced to twenty-five minutes and cost only eight cents. Horse-drawn rail cars were the engine of this system, and hundreds of miles of rail lines criss-crossed Cambridge and surrounding communities. A competitor company, the Charles River Railway was founded, merged with the Cambridge Railroad in 1886 and then with the West End Street Railway in 1887, becoming the preeminent street car system for the entire Greater Boston area.

Electric cars began running on the Brookline and Allston Lines on New Year’s Day, 1889. The new cars were more efficient but louder than before leading to protests against the rail lines from some residents. Nevertheless, the first electric cars in Cambridge ran on February 16, 1889 between Bowdoin and Harvard Squares. In 1897 the West End Railway was integrated into the Boston Elevated Railway, the company that would create an integrated subway and rail system, the first of its kind in America. The most important transportation initiative of them all, the development and growth of the “T” has its own unique and fascinating history.

The Need for America’s First Subway

As evidenced by the staggering rise in railways and street car lines, by the 1890s, the crowding in residential areas of Boston, such as the West End and the North End of the city, were becoming unmanageable. Faced with an unavoidable and constantly growing transportation problem, Governor Frederick T. Greenhalge and Boston Mayor Nathan Matthews created the Boston Transit Commission (BTC) to solve the traffic problems.

The BTC decided they had to continue to expand the public transportation system aboveground and incorporate even more space below. The solution was a subway and elevated railway line system crisscrossing the entire city. Four lines were proposed, which would connect near Tremont Street, the hub of the city. This would be the United States’ first subway system. Inspiration was drawn from the new London system, put into place in 1863.

Construction began at Boston Common as the mayor and the Transit Commission chairman broke ground on what would become the Green Line, a cut-and-cover tunnel from the Public Garden to North Station along Tremont Street. The tunnel opened September 1, 1897 making it the first subway tunnel in North America. The second stage of the work was the much more ambitious “EL” or Elevated Railway planned from Sullivan Square in Charlestown to Dudley Square in Roxbury. Plans for an Elevated Railway were rejected for the railway along Tremont Street in order to preserve the image of Boston Common.

With the successful completion of the underground subway and the elevated railway lines, the BTC next turned to the construction of an underwater tunnel that would connect Boston and East Boston. Boston’s ferry was its oldest form of mass transportation, but had become increasingly crowded and worn down as the population surged in the late 19th century. Workers dug towards each other from Boston and East Boston and joined the tunnel under the harbor on July 4, 1903. The line would open the following year.

The fourth and final step in the project was the creation of the longest tunnel in Boston’s new rapid transit system. A two-part project began with the Cambridge tunnel from Harvard Square in Cambridge through the Park Street station, which was completed in March of 1912. That first tunnel was then connected to the Dorchester tunnel running from Park Street to Andrew Square in South Boston. A deep-bored tunnel was dug far below Beacon Hill and Boston Common to connect Cambridge to Park Street and opened July 1, 1918.

The Red Line in Harvard Square

The names of the lines of the Massachusetts Rapid Transit System all have a special meaning, though they were not given until decades after their completion. Originally, location and direction were all that were used to title the varying lines. The oldest of the lines passes through Frederick Law Olmsted’s “Emerald Necklace” parks, so green was deemed the only suitable descriptor. Orange is a name from the past of the street this rail follows, and the blue line is so titled because it crosses under the harbor. The final line’s name is a nod to its most prestigious neighbor. Harvard’s school color is crimson and its local subway line was duly named red. It is perhaps the most vibrant and lively of them all.

With the completion of the subway construction, Harvard Square found itself at the end of the line connecting the suburbs to the heart of the city. Service on the “Cambridge-to-Boston” line began running from Harvard Square station on March 23, 1912 connecting the two cities in only a few minutes. The line allows passengers from the north and west to transfer to the subway below-ground, freeing up the streets. The original structure for the station was an oval-shaped brick building with colonnades. However, some found it dangerous and believed that it visually blocked traffic. Calls for a lighter, more transparent design were loudly voiced. The iconic kiosk, now on the National Register of Historic Places, was built in 1928 and has served as a beacon on Harvard Square ever since.

The Harvard Square Business Men’s Association was established by local business owners in 1910 as a result of the subway construction, which was disrupting local businesses. By 1912 when the line opened, there were serious concerns about the impact of the subway. Harvard Square business owners feared being sidelined to Boston because of the ease with which people could now reach the city. The Association’s first president, George G. Wright, in his report for the 1914 HSBMA’s annual report, explained “While transit to and from Boston has been improved by the construction and operation of the subway it has been more largely for the benefit of communities beyond Cambridge.” Wright goes on to add that the subway includes, “Every facility to get people out of Cambridge, [but] very little to carry them around Cambridge.”

In a response to local fears, a “committee to consider the future of Harvard Square” was established and made various recommendations in order to usher the Square into its new future, including the widening of Brattle Street to accommodate more traffic and the creation of a permanent commission to oversee all Harvard Square improvement projects. One of the first improvements endorsed by the Association, in 1914, was the installation of 53 electric street lamps. With more lighting, businesses could stay open later. Understanding the importance of having a presence in the Square, George Wright suggested that for those businesses which were unwilling to extend their hours, “…the wisdom of at least keeping their store windows lighted until 9 o’clock.” From the earliest days of the subway, the business owners of Harvard Square understood the importance of maintaining the Square’s unique charm and style.

While business owners were at first fearful of the negative impact the subway could have, for travelers the improvements were immediately obvious. The success of the subway is best voiced by those who experienced it firsthand. On June 4, 1912, a Mrs. DeGrozzaldi, speaking at a 50th anniversary celebrating the Berkeley Street School Association remarked: “When the school was established, and for many years thereafter it was unusual for a Cambridge girl to go to school in Boston. The subway, that marvelous magical contrivance, that like Aladdin’s wonderful carpet deposits us so quickly in the heart of the city, had not even been dreamed of.” For the more casual observer the difference was clear, “Boston is now 8 minutes instead of 8 miles from Cambridge.”

Northwest Expansion to Alewife

Due to advantageous planning or the enduring nature of the Square, Harvard Square did not suffer due to the introduction of the subway as some people had feared. Contrary to fears, increased access to the area from further away added to the popularity and reputation of the area. Over the years, musicians, street performers, Harvard and Radcliffe youths, as well as traveling tourists have all made Harvard Square a true destination, on the cutting edge of culture and style.

Harvard Square’s part of the subway, the Red Line, was as popular as the Square and remained essentially unaltered until the 1980s. The overall transit system, however, did see some major changes. In 1947 the state of Massachusetts bought the majority share in the Boston Elevated Railway Company and created the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) in charge of Boston and 13 other cities and towns. In 1964 the system expanded again, taking control of the transportation concerns of 78 local cities and towns and combing rapid transit lines, commuter rails, street cars, trolley, and buses under the newly renamed Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA).

Serious plans to extend the Red Line began in the 1970s, though discussion of the idea appears to have started much earlier as evidenced by a 1945 Cambridge Planning Board report. Dozens of plans were proposed and rejected, with disruption to the community often cited as a major problem. In both 1970 and 1972, the cities of Cambridge and Somerville each signed an agreement with the MBTA, essentially agreeing to work together on any future plans. As gas prices soared and environmental concerns were growing louder, both Governors Francis Sargent and Michael Dukakis supported the plan to extend the Red Line, in what would become the T’s biggest transformation since its inception.

From very early on, a central part of the extension plan was a massive 2,200 car parking facility at what would become Alewife station. This structure would provide suburban commuters an alternative means of traveling to the city. To reach Harvard Square it was decided to extend the line through Davis and Porter Squares in order to alleviate congestion in Cambridge and Somerville, two densely populated cities. Contemporary architecture was deemed necessary to convince commuters that the line was modern and efficient, and therefore a satisfactory alternative to driving downtown. For Cambridge residents, the same fears of being sidelined began to creep up as they had in 1912. While bringing the subway to Harvard Square had increased traffic, would extending their line further past the city make Harvard Square only one of many stops instead of a place to stop?

Disruption during construction was unavoidable, especially in busy Harvard Square. Residents remember that one section of sidewalk near the Harvard Coop was so narrow that only one person could pass through it at a time, leading to huge pedestrian traffic jams. A new subway entrance was built, and the iconic kiosk was placed into storage for the duration of the construction. Eventually, the historic structure was moved to its present location, and changed its address to Zero Harvard Square. The kiosk became home to Out of Town News, a newsstand run by local notable Sheldon Cohen, that features newspapers from around the world.

The effects of the Red Line extension are in part very clear to see. Construction lasted from 1978 to 1985. In total, 3.2 miles of track were added between Harvard Square and Alewife Station. The project cost $574 million. An average of 33,500 additional daily riders began to travel the system due to the new stops. The retail economy of both Davis and Harvard Square flourished, though Harvard Square began to take on a new look after the extension.

The extension left a large, triangular, brick plaza in the center of Harvard Square that has since become known as “the Pit.” Intended as an informal stage for street performers, the Pit became filled with misunderstood, disenfranchised, rebellious youths, runaways, and punks, perhaps trying to recreate the dynamic atmosphere of the Square in the 60s. Most are now gone, but many Cantabrigians did not look favorably on their tenure in the Square.

The businesses that remained in Harvard Square after the construction equipment was dismantled were not the same as in the earlier days. The Square wasn’t dying, it was, as the Harvard Crimson printed in 1995, gentrifying. The change cannot be seen as a direct result of the Red Line extension, but as a concurrent event. Bigger-name, well-known stores saw more potential customers flowing through Harvard Square. Rent control was eliminated in 1994, sending rents soaring, changing the character of the population in Cambridge. The Internet made used book and CD shops obsolete, and Harvard itself drew its students back to campus with some on-site eateries.

The big name places, surprisingly, didn’t last either. Abercrombie & Fitch, Sunglass Hut, and California Pizza Kitchen had pushed out the smaller, independent shops, but these giants failed too. Upscale and locally-owned has become the new mantra, and the Red Line continues to bring the customers.

Harvard Square is not the same as it has always been, but maybe no one wants it to be. It is now in the center of a vibrant, flourishing area, not the last front of city-life like it used to be. All along the Red Line, exciting new neighborhoods are growing and revitalizing. Though it maintains its link to the history and nostalgia of the past, the Red Line extension is new, young and fresh. One of the Square’s greatest assets is Cambridge’s support of culture and public art. This spirit has been beautifully infused into the Red Line’s public spaces for all to enjoy. For those who continue to visit and are inspired by all the Square has to offer, the old “Cambridge-to-Boston,” (today’s Red) Line is still the way to get there.

As prepared by:
Gavin W. Kleespies, Executive Director Cambridge Historical Society.
Katie MacDonald, Intern Cambridge Historical Society.