Tales from the T: Take the ‘El’

Graphic by Kayla Drazan

Last week, we discussed the inconvenient transfers between North Station and South Station. But it hasn’t always been this way — at one point there were two railroads connecting them. What happened to them? Why do Boston’s streets allegedly smell like molasses in the summer? Why do I always push away the people I love most? We’ll answer two of these questions this week, with our story starting back in 1872. 

In that year, the Union Freight Railroad opened in downtown Boston. Railroads, both then and now, terminated at the periphery of downtown. The Union Freight Railroad thus served the vital purpose of shuttling freight between these disjointed railroads (and later North and South stations), while also serving the wharves on Boston harbor. These trains ran right through the streets (And you thought driving downtown was a nightmare — imagine running a full-size steam train through!).

Passenger trains arrived on the Atlantic Avenue Elevated (or “El”) in 1901. Built alongside today’s Orange Line tunnel, the “El” carried subway trains to the waterfront above Atlantic Avenue. Through some complex junctions, trains could run through or even loop through downtown (much like in Chicago), serving North and South stations. 

When these railroads opened, Boston’s waterfront was teeming with ferries, fishing, shipping and other maritime industries. One such industry was distillation, which used the wharves to import raw materials and the railways to ship them to processing plants. Of particular importance was molasses, which was converted to industrial alcohol. In 1915, the Purity Distilling Company built a massive 50-foot-tall molasses storage tank on the waterfront. Completed to a lower quality than my calculus problem sets, the tank never underwent full testing and routinely leaked. The company’s solution was to simply paint the tank brown to hide the leaks, but as much as we’d all like, ignoring your responsibilities doesn’t make them go away faster. You can probably guess where this is going. 

On Jan. 15, 1919, the tank collapsed. Three-and-a-half Olympic swimming pools worth of molasses swept through the North End at 35 mph. Buildings were swept away, and the steel “El” crumpled. Those that weren’t killed upon impact were trapped as the molasses cooled and thickened. In total, 21 were killed and 150 were injured, and the ensuing lawsuits set a precedent for corporate responsibility (or what little of it exists). The cleanup took weeks, and it’s said that the smell of molasses lingered along the waterfront on hot summer days for decades afterwards. 

Terrifying as it was, the Great Molasses Flood didn’t bring the death of the “El” (I just think it’s a good story!). The “El” reopened two months later, but had already been declining.

By the time of the flood, service had already been reduced to a North Station-South Station shuttle. As industries relocated, ridership declined, until the “El” ultimately closed in 1938 and was scrapped for World War II material. For its part, the Union Freight Railroad ran until 1970, declining alongside the railroads and harbor it served. Controversial from the start, few mourned its demise.


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