Streetcars in Jamaica Plain: A History

Public transport has been a feature of the Jamaica Plain landscape for nearly 150 years. One of the early forms was the omnibus, an oversized horse carriage that plied the busy sections of road between Boston and outlying villages like Jamaica Plain.


This illustration appeared in an unidentified Boston newspaper in 1861. The coach is mounted on runners and pulled by a team of six horses. On the side of the coach appears the lettering, “Boston & Jamaica Plains.” The illustration is described in part as follows, “The street scene on this page was sketched for us by Mr. Champoney as it actually appeared from our office window during the late snow. At one time the snow was heaped up before our office to the depth of eight or ten feet, but thanks to the vigilant efforts of the city authorities, the street was not long impassable, men and teams clearing it out in an incredibly short space of time.”

According to Bradley H. Clarke’s “Transit Development in Jamaica Plain” (Roll Sign, Aug./ Sep., 1974), the 1885 Boston Almanac mentions an omnibus route from the environs of the old City Hall near the northeastern corner of the Boston Common to Jamaica Plain. The omnibus was a bus for all: Pondside landowners, the new middle class suburbanites who lived in the neighborhood and those who still farmed the rural fringes.

As suburbia grew, so did the need for more efficient and speedy transport. Sam Bass Warner’s book “Streetcar Suburbs” discusses the rapid growth of rail service during the period of 1870-1900. Motivated by a middle class aspiring to more genteel surroundings and speculators who saw public transport as a boon to real estate development, private investors created a number of new railway companies. These railway companies replaced the omnibus with horse-drawn cars that ran on rails. Pictures of the type of horse car used in Jamaica Plain show two horses hauling a single open-air trolley very much like the cable cars still in use in parts of San Francisco today.

The rails these cars ran on quickly became a part of the landscape. Clarke notes that in areas without sidewalks or paving, the paved area between the rails was a popular place for residents to stroll without muddying their shoes. Of course, horse drivers with miles to go and schedules to keep did not appreciate these railway interlopers.

Webs of Steel

In Jamaica Plain, the Metropolitan and West Roxbury railroads were particularly influential. In 1857, the West Roxbury laid tracks that stretched from the intersection of South and Jamaica Streets along Centre to Tremont Street. In that same year, the Metropolitan leased the tracks and connected them to their own Tremont-Boston Line. Clarke notes that for 10 cents, and in just over an hour, residents could now ride the new horse car from Jamaica Plain to downtown Boston.


By the late 1880s, ridership was so high that the Metropolitan experimented with double-decker horse cars, and the streets of Boston were clogged with commuters from the growing suburbs. Boston, once a densely populated pedestrian city, was quickly changing into a metropolis. This metropolis was made possible by the miles of rail that brought workers from the suburbs into the industrial and business center during the day and delivered them home after work. But so many commuters meant overly crowded streets. In response, Boston undertook the development of the first subway in America. On September 1, 1897 the Tremont Street subway was opened with new electric streetcars. The subway solved for a time the congestion on downtown streets and also spurred new Rail construction as outlying suburbs clamored for their own connection to the subway.

At that time, Jamaica Plain residents had three major routes to Boston, the Forest Hills-Boston Route along Washington, the Jamaica Plain-Boston route along Centre Street, Columbus Avenue and Tremont Street, and the Dudley Street crossover that linked Centre and Columbus to the Washington Line. These were all electrified in the early 1890s. It would be just over a decade before Jamaica Plain’s famous Arborway Line came into existence.

The Arborway Line is Cobbled Together

Bradley H. Clarke’s newest book, “Tremont Street Subway” discusses the complicated history of the Arborway Line. This line, the E-Line branch of the Green Line on MBTA maps, was cobbled together over half a century. It essentially combined sections of track from three separate routes: the 1857 West Roxbury/Metropolitan section on South and Centre Streets, a segment of a Roxbury to Brookline Village route along Huntington Avenue built in 1859, and an extension of the Brookline route along Huntington, Massachusetts Avenue and Boylston Street built in the early 1880s.

The tracks connecting the current Arborway Yard to Jamaica Plain car house on South and Jamaica were finished in 1902. Finally, in 1903, the Arborway Line from Forest Hills to Park Street was made complete by running track from Centre Street along South Huntington Avenue to Huntington Avenue itself. By then, all streetcars were electric.

Perhaps more than any other, the Arborway Line provided access for people in Jamaica Plain to a wide variety of services, from the hospitals near Brigham Circle to the universities along its route to the businesses of downtown Boston.

The Arborway Line Goes Underground


Prior to 1941, the Arborway Line entered the subway system at the old Boylston incline near the Public Garden. In the early part of the 20th century, traffic above ground continued to increase, and by the late ’30s, surface street traffic along Huntington Avenue and in Copley Square prompted the development of the Huntington Avenue Subway, which opened in 1941. The streetcars entered the incline near Northeastern University and ran underground past Copley to Park Street Station.

According to Clarke, subway construction took the last of the streetcars out of Copley Square, improved the traffic situation above ground, and cut 15 minutes off the commute. The Arborway Line would continue to follow that route for the next 44 years.

Streetcar Debate Begins

While ridership remained high, changes were afoot and the heyday of streetcars was coming to an end in cities across America. Demographic shifts, the construction of new highways and changing attitudes intensified debate about streetcars in cities. Throughout America, the car and the bus were in ascendancy. As in earlier days, when local individuals obstinately stuck to the tracks and slowed horse car traffic, the streetcar was seen by some as an obstacle to the free flow of the automobile. Across the nation, city and transportation planners debated whether it might be more efficient and economical to get streetcars out of the way so that the car and autobus could more effectively ply American streets.

Living Memories

Margaret McKenna, 96 and a resident of McCrobon House in JP, lived on Bynner Street and rode trolleys her entire life. “My father was a trolley man,” she says. “When I was five I used to go with him over to the market at Faneuil Hall. I loved the old streetcars.” But not all her experiences were positive. In the 30s when she lived in Chelsea there were frequent streetcar changes when passengers reach a junction where they had to get off one streetcar and on another. “That old bell always forced you out of the car for the changes,” she remembers. “Or else the driver, he was an antique, would yell at you to get out.”

The opening of the Huntington Avenue Subway in 1941 not only allowed the Arborway Line to bypass clogged city streets, but with the concurrent closing of the Boylston Street trolley, it also signaled the last of the street-running trolleys in downtown Boston. A similar pattern faced streetcars throughout the nation.

Buses were gaining in popularity. They were new, modern, flexible, and roadways were entirely subsidized by the public. For transit companies, it was often deemed more economical to replace streetcars with buses than to repair existing tracks. Corporate deal making had its impact too. Gregory L. Thompson and Tom Matoff point out in “Urban Rail in 21st Century America” that “transit corporations, many under the control of national holding companies financed by automobile interests, progressively replaced most street railway service with buses.” Boston’s transportation networks and the Arborway Line fared better than most. By 1947, Boston’s rail system became public with the creation of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). In 1964, the MTA expanded again to become the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. On the Arborway, high ridership and a connection to the subway gave it a lease on life. It continued to carry commuters to and fro, consistently ranking as one of the most frequently traveled lines in the streetcar system.

System Overload


Beginning in the ’60s, low reinvestment on the Arborway Line began to have consequences. Scott Moore notes in “A Brief History of the Arborway Line: 1959-1996” that the MTA had some 344 Presidential Conference Committee (PCC) cars in 1960, “just barely enough to operate the entire system.” The popular Riverside Line that opened in 1959 stretched the Green Line fleet to the limit as cars were taken from the Arborway Line to serve the expanding network. Moore writes that, in fact, the MTA considered changing to only bus service for the Arborway Line in the early ’60s, but public opposition prevented that from happening.

Commuters wanted a one-seat ride to downtown Boston. Or at least they wanted the choice. McCrohan House resident Clement T. Camarra, 85, lived on Green Street and commuted to his job at the Bolter Rubber Company near Park Street from 1955 to 1975. “I’ve never driven a car,” he says, “I used to catch the bus in the morning and take the trolley home at night. It was full of people…lots of working people and school people.”

According to Bradley H. Clarke’s “Tremont Street Subway,” the situation on the Arborway Line deteriorated rapidly in the late ’70s. Cars were getting old and in short supply. The majority were more than 30 years old. The MBTA began scrapping some, while orders for a new light rail vehicle were put on hold when the initial cars proved prone to problems. In 1977, the MBTA cut back Arborway service to Heath Street near the Veteran’s Administration Hospital. Full service was not restored until September 1979.

McCrohan House resident Margaret McKenna, 96, lived on Bynner Street in the ’70s and often took the streetcar to Forest Hills. She recalls the state of the E-line streetcars: “The cars were antiques and run down. The wooden chairs were all carved up. They were crowded to the door. You had to push to get out, and I wasn’t very nice about it,” she laughs. Then her eyes light up, “The new streetcars-I’d like to see when they put them back. I saw one being demonstrated. Boy they were beautiful! And they’re lower down so you don’t have to genuflect to get in.”

Closed for Repairs

Transit interruptions continued in the early ’80s. By this time, some sections of track had not been worked on for over 50 years and sorely needed attention. Clarke notes that from 1980 to 1982, repairs in the subway and on surface streets led to temporary shuttle busing and transfers.

In 1983, the Arborway Line was again closed for nearly a month while crews relocated the tracks at Forest Hills to accommodate the new Southwest Corridor Extension of the Orange Line. These inconveniences had consequences. According to MBTA records, 1981 saw the lowest ridership on the subway system between 1964 and 2000.


On Dec. 28, 1985 the Arborway Line was closed indefinitely for repairs. The $12 million renovation project involved rebuilding the incline near Northeastern University, renovating Copley Junction, and re-laying track from Brigham Circle to South Huntington Avenue. T officials were ambivalent about the future of the E line. In a 1985 Boston Globe article, MBTA spokesman Bernard Cohen stated that the new Orange Line project might change transit patterns and make the Arborway unnecessary.

The MBTA’s ambivalence led to slow progress. The third phase of repairs, relaying track from Brigham Circle to South Huntington Avenue, was not completed until 1989, and full service was never restored. The Arborway Line looped around at Heath Street to make its return journey downtown. The 39 bus now served the rest of the corridor to Forest Hills. The line remains in this state to the present day.

The Community Speaks Out

But Jamaica Plain did not remain silent. In 1986, precincts located along the corridor voted 67 percent to 33 percent in favor of restoring streetcar service to Forest Hills. In 1987, the T presented a draft study for the restoration of the Arborway Line. According to that study, “Arborway Corridor riders preferred continuous streetcar service.” It also stated that “only restoration of streetcar service to Arborway/Forest Hills would result in new transit ridership,” though restoration was the most expensive of the options studied.

On Jan. 24, 1991, the MBTA and the City of Boston entered into an agreement to restore Arborway service. In the same year, the State Department of Environmental Protection also required restoration to be completed by Dec. 31, 1997. The restoration was part of a bigger package of “environmental mitigation commitments” required by the DEP in exchange for the auto-centric Big Dig. In November 2000, the city paved over the tracks that stretched from Heath Street to Centre Street along South Huntington, severing a rail connection to Forest Hills.

Meanwhile, the T continued to investigate alternatives to streetcar restoration, namely running compressed natural gas, or CNG, buses along the whole corridor. Twice, the Executive Office of Transportation and Construction submitted MBTA commissioned studies to the DEP in an attempt to show that streetcars were infeasible and CNG buses were a better alternative.


The Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental advocacy firm, and the Arborway Committee, a group of trolley advocates, both filed suits. Finally, just over a year ago on Nov. 7, 2001, the DEP mandated that the T had not proven streetcars to be infeasible, thus obligating the T to follow through on the promise it had made in 1991.

Jamaica Plain resident and long-time streetcar advocate Michael Reiskind says that since the DEP decision, the T seems to be more committed to the project. He points to the fact that they hired Bill Lieberman, “one of the best streetcar consultants in the business.”

Lieberman has been involved in restoring streetcar service to San Diego, Austin, and Portland, Ore. In a telephone interview, Lieberman confirmed this change in attitude, repeating MBTA General Manager Michael Mulhern’s directive: “It’s not a matter of if, it’s when and how.” Still, Lieberman acknowledges that restoration poses real challenges. The streets are narrow along portions of the route and will involve some compromises. He currently moderates the Arborway Rail Restoration Project Advisory Committee (ARRPAC), composed of stakeholders interested in making the restoration a success and mitigating the safety and accessibility concerns of the community.

In a study of the Arborway Line and the Boston transport system, it becomes clear that public transport has been of supreme importance in the development of both Jamaica Plain and the city of Boston. In a room of 40 Boston seniors now living at Mount Pleasant Home, only two had ever driven. Both the streetcar and the bus shaped their lives.

Written by Michael Greer. This article originally appeared in the November 22 and December 6, 2002 issue of the Jamaica Plain Gazette and is reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.