Orange Line Replaced Old Railroad Embankment

 Old Boston & Providence Railroad Depot: Park Square. Razed 1870s. Courtesy Boston Public Library. 5143680788

Old Boston & Providence Railroad Depot: Park Square. Razed 1870s. Courtesy Boston Public Library. 5143680788

In the front yard of the newly-refurbished Dillaway-Thomas House on the north side of Eliot Square in the Roxbury Highlands sits a lonely engraved date stone that has quite a story to tell. The stone was not to be found until the 1970s at the right side of the railroad bridge facing old Roxbury Crossing. Now it is buried some 20 feet below the present surface along with old Precinct 10. In the 4 1/2-mile-long embankment the stone was the only indicator of the completion date of Jamaica Plain's own "Hadrian's Wall"-the railroad embankment that once stood where the Orange Line runs today.

Just as Hadrian's Wall separates Britain from the rest of the British Isles, so the railroad embankment marked a demographic and economic shift in our area. In the writer's youth it was a one-story-high dirty thing that gradually had been stripped of its stations with lonely staircases to the street below left at Roxbury Crossing, Heath Street, Boylston Street, Green Street and Forest Hills. It had made Lamartine and Amory streets into dark, ugly places. In the 1980s the depressed Orange Line and the city's only 20th century park alongside nicely replaced it.

The railroad stations had originally been built for the commuter railroad line that sparked Jamaica Plain's evolution from a country estate area for Boston's wealthy to a mixed-class commuting suburb. Though one misses the exquisite five-arched stone bridge at Forest Hills that allowed Morton Street and the Arborway trolleys so triumphantly beneath it, the present southwest corridor is a happy conjunction of the former railroad and elevated train lines that serves the same area with a new array of stations near their former locations.

This excellent conjunction is perhaps the final stage of evolution in civic improvement along the Stony Brook valley that formed a natural path south for any means of travel in or out of Boston. Though long notorious for flooding, the valley always had farms, roads and manufacturing along its bank. A view of the area in its last era of bucolic bliss is seen in J.F. Cole's 1858 portrayal by the former Curtis Homestead at the corner of the present Lamartine and Paul Gore streets (Jamaica Plain Gazette; Oct. 9, 1992). When the embankment was built, the Homestead (built in 1633 and inhabited by seven generations) had been gone since 1887.

Thus, in 1831 the Boston & Providence Railroad built its tracks in the valley at street level. An account of a ride along these rails in the 1840s survives in the archives of the West Roxbury Historical Society. Yet, as happened with growing railways all over the world, there were constant accidents at grade crossings, and wherever possible these were eliminated.

By the 1890s the Boston & Providence had been swallowed up into the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad in the style of airline conglomerates today. Officials of that railway, along with the city and state government officials, decided to build an embankment one-story-high slightly west of the old tracks, allowing all cross traffic to go beneath the tracks. The shared cost was $3 million with four tracks extending 10 miles from the old Park Square terminus (illustrated in Jamaica Plain Gazette; Feb. 14, 1992) to the yards at Readville. Thus the ever-increasing rail traffic coming into Boston would also be better distributed.

The embankment began at Cumberland Street just north of Massachusetts Avenue on a slight grade. Once existing buildings were out of the way, the architectural structure was firmly anchored. First, two undressed granite walls were built and then topped with dressed granite capping. These latter pieces were recycled as barricades in the Olmsted Park system and as low walls in the succeeding Southwest Corridor Park.

The original wall can be seen in two places: the old Highland Brewery at New Health Street and at a point just north of the Orange Line's Roxbury Crossing Station. If a reader would like to see how massive the walls were, a look at a series of photographs taken at the time of the dismemberment by H.V. Dedrick (now in the Archives of the Jamaica Plain Historical Society) indicates how vast that task was even by modern mechanical means.

The space between the walls was then filled in with gravel, hauled on the old tracks initially from Readville and Roslindale and later from Sharon in the spirit of the old gravel trains that had filled in the Back Bay earlier in the century (Jamaica Plain Gazette; March 12, 1993). Two thousand five hundred yards were filled in a day until the 1 million cubic yards called for in the plans drafted in New Haven were in place. The Odd Fellows' Block at Seaverns Avenue and Centre Street served as the local headquarters. Chief Engineer C.M. Ingersoll was also responsible for the earlier double tracking of the Shore Line.

Fifteen bridges were built of steel beams. Forest Hill's lovely stone bridge (unfortunately demolished) was a work of art as the embankment wound down beyond its Washington Street Bridge on route to Readville 5 1/2 miles away. The embankment was the final solution for Stony Brook, which had formerly meandered along the railroad track. The once notorious stream was rerouted in a 17-foot culvert, wide enough for a train. This parallel but hidden civic improvement fulfilled the recommendations of the Stony Brook Commissioners since the days of the Town of West Roxbury.

Anything that goes up can be brought down. This vast civic undertaking, built in the golden age of American railroading, surrendered to the automobile in the early 1970s. The original purpose of its removal was to allow I-95, which met the railroad at its junction with Rt. 128, to continue right into Boston through Jamaica Plain alongside the rails. Neighborhood concerns about a 10-lane "Hadrian's Wall" inside the city caused Governor Sergeant to cancel highway construction inside Rt. 128. Instead, railroad and elevated corridors were joined; Boston's newest park created, and neighbors on both sides of the lowered tracks had a chance to see a better future for the area.

Written by Walter H. Marx. Source: "Boston Sunday Herald," March 22, 1896. Reprinted with permission from the March 25, 1994 Jamaica Plain Gazette. Copyright © Gazette Publications, Inc.