Orange Line Memories

The recent rebuilding of Dudley Street Station in the heart of Roxbury is a glorious blend of the past with present needs. Unlike any other (but one) of the old Orange Line stations, which disappeared when the line was moved west to be with the railroad tracks, Dudley Street Station, due to its location as a terminus and distribution point for buses, had to be remade.

Since the late 1950s buses have replaced the once familiar shoebox-like #5 streetcars that could be seen all over the Boston Elevated Railroad Company's system (now the T). Outcroppings of their tracks are easily seen on Washington Street's irregular pavement and random trolley poles can be spotted along bus routes, still marking where streetcars formerly ran.

Indeed, these tracks were laid out as early as 1873 for horse cars, until electricity became the motive force by 1890. Given Dudley Street Station's position in the commercial heart of the former City of Roxbury (until 1868) just below the municipality's First Church and Common, it fed trolley lines going into Boston via Washington Street and lines heading for Mattapan, Ashmont, Milton and Neponset.

Yet, the two lines remembered by this columnist in the 1950s are the routes that ran toward Jamaica Plain. One, often walked by him while a resident of Forest Hills, was the Washington Street line that continued up from Dudley to the Arborway car yards where many lines originated to serve the streetcar suburbs of Hyde Park, Dedham and West Roxbury.

The other line anciently connected Roxbury's center and terminus with the vast Jamaica Plain car yard, whose size is still preserved by the housing development built on the site, and a few trolley poles still linger on the circumference. The line yielded to the Centre-Eliot bus, and in his last term as mayor, Jamaica Plain's own Mayor Curley had the tracks from South Huntington to Dudley paved over. Today they are in spots a half-foot under the surface.

So it wasn't until the advent of the elevated trains in 1899 (just after New York City and Chicago), which rode on tracks supported by steel arches-that notorious Washington Street phenomenon until 1988- that they became known as the El. A photograph of the pre-El Dudley Street Station can be seen in the Roxbury Highland Bank. The Boston Elevated Railway Company did its best job when trolley and train had to be joined.

The privately owned company hired Alexander Wadsworth Longfellow (1854-1934)-nephew of the famous Cambridge poet and a graduate of Harvard, MIT and Paris' School of Fine Arts-to design the stations along the old Orange Line. A student of the renowned H. H. Richardson, Longfellow designed academic (at Harvard), civic (Cambridge City Hall), residential and commercial buildings in the Boston and Pittsburgh areas.

For the most part the six stations of the line were a long and narrow stretch of wooden flooring lying open to the sky except for the patina-covered wooden half roof on each side. Warning signs about the third rail's 600 volts were balanced by advertisement boards running down the platform's walls. A vending machine that worked as often as not shared space with the birds. There the rider waited in all kinds of weather.

The El's tracks, extended to Forest Hills in 1909, divided and curved just before Dudley Street at the pagoda-like Bartlett signal tower. There was a man inside boiling tea, but he never seemed concerned about the train. Oh how the train slowed and screeched on its flanges as it turned into the terminal, one reason why this columnist hated the old Orange Line. And being so high in the air, how in the world was a repairman supposed to walk the line?

But what a terminal Longfellow had designed for Dudley Street! Southern lines ran up a ramp that deposited riders right by the El tracks. Jamaica Plain riders from the west had to climb up to that level while their warm streetcar swung around on ground level to start a new run. Hustle and bustle galore! Companions could be lost in all this human activity, easily comparable to bees about a hive.

Once upstairs to wait for an in town train, the rider stood under a wooden canopy enveloped in copper with cupolas-all covered with copper's aged-patina. Birds flow at will through the open ends, but it was a vast improvement over most of the other open-air Orange Line stations, and one felt that he was in one of the vast European railroad stations that yet so handsomely survived World War II.

Longfellow's turn-of-the-century studies in Europe were brought into solid form in our area. One had the same feeling upon viewing Monet's "The Gare St. Lazare." Longfellow spared no detail in his wood covered with hammered copper. It was seen early on when the El was slated for demolition that some part(s) must be preserved for posterity.

As a marvelous mechanical giant made the arches and tracks disappear for recycling in Japan, much was lost in the late hours and rapidity of the job. Who would not like to have gotten a semaphore, a station nameplate, or some of the stations' fencing?

Once again Dudley's prominence shone. Its signal tower (with a man no longer inside brewing tea) was removed to the Bartlett Street Bus Garage (formerly a streetcar barn). The jewel in the Dudley crown was the cupola-topped pavilion that had formerly topped the incoming and outgoing trains. In addition, the Northampton Street Station and a signal tower further up the line await reconstruction at the Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, Maine. With the rebuilding of the Orange Line to the west, no second floor was required at the new Dudley Street Station. Today the signal tower side is elevated in one quarter of the station. The pavilion roof once again performs its function stop a one-story bus stop building. Both roof and tower have been cleansed of the aged dull green patina (copper's equivalent to iron's rust) and look much as they did in 1900. Too bad that one of the cars in the wreck of August 4, 1910 (the only wreck over on the line) cannot be shown.

Written by Walter H. Marx. Photograph courtesy of Leo Sullivan. Sources: Arnold Arboretum, "Museum in the Garden"; F. Russell "Goodbye to the Old El"; B.H. Clarke, "Rapid Transit Boston"; C. Zaitzevsky, "The MBTA Orange Line."

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend