Mattapan Trolley: High-Speed, the Mattapan-Ashmont Story

No. 21529 Cover of Roll Sign newsletter, April 1967

The following is from Roll Sign newsletter, April 1967

One of the MBTA’s more useful transit lines is the high-speed surface car operation from Ashmont terminal to Mattapan, a distance of 2.56 miles. It has stations at several intermediate points which include Cedar Grove, Butler Street, Milton, Central Ave, Valley Road, and Capen Street. Connecting bus services are available at Ashmont for many parts of Dor¬chester and Milton in addition to a direct connection provided with the Cambridge-Dorchester rapid transit line to downtown Boston and Cambridge. At Mattapan, connections for Milton, Quincy, and other South Shore points are provided by Brush Hill Bus Lines and the Eastern Massachusetts Street Railway Company. The “T” also provides connecting services at Mattapan for Dorchester, Hyde Park, and Roxbury. The wide variety of services afforded by this unique route clearly show its enormous value to the communities it serves.

The Railroad Era

Historically, the Mattapan to Ashmont run began its career as part of two different railroad routes to Boston. The first of these was chartered in 1846 by the Massachusetts General Court as the Dorchester and Milton Branch Railroad Company. It was opened for public use in December 1847 and ran from Neponset to Milton, a total length of 3.3 miles. In 1852, the Old Colony Railroad Company acquired the line through foreclosure on a mortgage, and on March 1, 1893, it became a part of the New Haven Railroad when that company leased the Old Colony.

At the present time, the high-speed line occupies the Milton to Mattapan portion of the Milton branch as the former Dorchester and Milton Branch Railroad is now called. The length of the line used by trolley cars is 1.31 miles. Part of the Milton Branch was rebuilt to one side of the trolley right-of-way as far as Central Avenue in 1929 to retain freight service in this area.

The second railroad route utilized is the former Shawmut Branch of the New Haven Railroad. This line was chartered in 1870 as the Shawmut Branch Railroad Company and in 1871, the charter was purchased by the Old Colony Railroad, which then proceeded to build the line from Harrison Square, Boston, to Milton, where a track connection was made with the Milton Branch. On December 2, 1872, the entire Shawmut branch was placed in service. The Shawmut Branch became a part of the New Haven Railroad at the same time as the Milton Branch, both lines having been owned by the Old Colony Railroad. The high-speed line now occupies 1.25 miles of this branch. Passenger service was provided initially over both branches to Boston, and for a number of years thereafter the practice was continued.  In the years preceding World War I, however, patronage on the Milton Branch declined considerably and was dropped.  The service over the Shawmut Branch was retained and extended to Mattapan, and just prior to the war, 10 trains per day in each direction was the rule. But by the early 1920s, lack of patronage also forced deletion of service on the Shawmut Branch to 4 trains of 4 cars each in the morning and evening weekday rush hours.

Stations were provided between Ashmont and Mattapan at Cedar Grove, Milton, and Central Avenue, roughly on the sites of the present-day stations. At Mattapan a turntable and an engine house were available for turning and maintaining locomotives.

In August of 1926, all passenger trains were diverted from the Shawmut Branch to the Milton Branch because of the extension of the Dorchester rapid transit line which absorbed the Shawmut Branch right-of-way. A temporary station called Granite was built on the Milton Branch to replace Cedar Grove. Passenger service ended from Milton to Boston on August 26, 1929, when the high speed line was put in service from Ashmont as far as Milton. Today, the only remnant of this forgotten era is an occasional New Haven Railroad freight train meandering through the weeds that have engulfed the Milton Branch.

Crisis at Andrew

The completion of the Dorchester tunnel extension to Andrew Square by the Boston Transit Commission on June 29, 1918, brought with it a host of difficulties. Crowding in surface cars was one of the chief problems, and in 1922, a bill to extend rapid transit in the Dorchester area was presented to the General Court by the state Department of Public Utilities. Its passage was strongly urged, and to quote its sponsors, “In rush hours, the passengers crowd the cars, and the cars crowd the tracks. Surely, large public interests call for the enactment of this bill.”

The so-called “Rapid Transit Bill” became law in 1923 under section 4, chapter 480 of the Acts of 1923. It authorized the purchase of land from Andrew Square to Harrison Square, the entire Shawmut Branch, and that part of the Milton Branch running from Milton to Mattapan. Also permitted was the construction of a double track private right-of-way from Andrew Square to Mattapan to be built by the City Transit Department of Boston. The Boston Elevated Railway was to act as a subcontractor for the city in laying rail, installing signals and other electrical apparatus, and in installing over-head lines. The portion from Andrew Square to Pea-body Square (now called Ashmont) was to be operated with rapid transit cars, and from Peabody Square to Mattapan, high-speed surface cars would provide service.

The Company Directors of the Boston Elevated speedily approved the plans, and work progressed rapidly on the extension during the next 6 years. On November 5, 1927, the Dorchester extension opened as far as Fields Corner, and on September 1, 1928, the rapid transit portion was complete to Ashmont. The time of the High Speed line was at hand.

Construction of the High Speed

On April 28, 1929, work forces of the Transit Department and the Elevated were put into motion building the line from Ashmont Terminal. Extensive additions were made at Ashmont in the form of a tiny trestle with a concrete floor and piers to carry the new line over the rapid transit tracks. Another overpass was built somewhat later over the now relocated tracks of the New Haven Milton Branch in the Cedar Grove area. Work progressed rapidly, and by August 22, 1929, the section from Ashmont to Milton Station had been completed.

Opening on August 26, 1929, with a temporary wooden platform at Milton, located just west of the present permanent concrete platform, the first part of the line saw only part-time service. Cars ran during the morning and evening weekday rush hours and on holidays with a running time of five minutes including an intermediate stop at Cedar Grove. As was previously noted, railroad passenger service from Milton to Boston ended at this time and 200 daily commuters began using the new service by trolley and rapid transit.

Completion of the line to Mattapan was not long in corning, and on Saturday morning December 21, 1929, the entire line was opened to passenger travel. At 5:05 A.M., motorman “Bob” Nelson left Mattapan with the first revenue car to Ashmont. The car carried 13 passengers from Mattapan and 2 from Valley Road. Mrs. Elmer P. Fletcher, President of the local Tacker School Association arrived early for the distinction of being the first revenue passenger on the line.

The route was an immediate success, and from 5:05 A.M. to 8:40 A.M., 1400 passengers entered Mattapan Station. It has been carrying large numbers ever since.

It is interesting to note that on the day the High-Speed Line was opened, the old loop and storage tracks at Mattapan, located on the site of the present MBTA parking lot, were paved over and rails removed. The track connections from the Cummins Highway and Blue Hill Avenue lines had been removed somewhat earlier and reconnected with the new yard for the High-Speed Line.

A final line construction note concerns Butler St. Station. This platform, which is different from others on the line because it is between the rails rather than on either side of them, was constructed by the Boston Transit Department in 1931 because the section was felt to be a rapidly-growing residential area. The platform was opened on October 7, 1931. A pedestrian overpass, built over the eastern end of the platform by the Bridge Department of Boston, was opened at the same time.

The railroad station at Mattapan was retained as a lobby for carmen until 1939 when the Boston Transit Department built a new one, opening it for use on July 22, 1939. The station building was leased and later sold to private interests and still stands today at the southerly end of Mattapan Square.

Service Changes

Prior to the construction of the High-Speed Line, persons wishing to travel by streetcar between Ashmont and Mattapan took a car from Peabody Square to Milton Carhouse. From here, one connected with a car that ran through Mattapan Square traveling by way of Dorchester Avenue and River Street. In the fall of 1928, car service was abandoned between Milton Carhouse and the junction of Dorchester Avenue and Washington Street. On December 6, 1928, car tracks were discontinued and removed from Dorchester Avenue to Central Avenue along River Street. On January 19, 1929, car service on River Street was completely discontinued with the abandonment of ser-vice between Central Avenue and Mattapan Square. The line from Peabody Square (Ashmont) to Milton Carhouse continued to run until May 25, 1933, Milton Carhouse closing in the interim on January 7, 1933. It is a matter of conjecture as to whether or not the opening of the High-Speed was the reason for the demise of these lines, but certainly it must have been a contributing factor. The authors feel that the River Street operation at the most was weakly patronized, and anticipation of the opening of a new, much faster route to the same destination may well have prompted the Boston Elevated to drop the line. The Milton Carhouse line lasted somewhat longer, but it should be noted that it served a more dense population area that the River Street Route, and it may have been retained longer in the hope that business would improve. However, by the height of the Great Depression, the Elevated, like any other business at the time, was in no mood to experiment, and the possibility of rail renewal and the existence of a paralleling service hardly justified continuance of a questionable operation. Also interesting is the fact that a through bus route did not provide service on River Street until several years later, a further indication of lack of patronage because of passenger preference for a new and faster route.


Initially the High-Speed line was operated by type 4 cars. In the rush hours, trailers were added. During 1936 and 1937, trailers were discontinued, and type 4 cars provided all service until 1950. After 1950 and until 1955, type 5 cars were the regular equipment employed. In late 1955 and early 1956, all-electric PCC cars (made available by the abandonment of the Arlington-Heights line on November 19, 1955) were brought over the Blue Hill Avenue line and placed in service. A total of 17 were used. In May of 1956, the rail connection down blue Hill Avenue was severed (the line had been

formally abandoned on September 10, 1955) and a track connection at the Codman yards of the Cambridge Dorchester rapid transit line was made just east of Ashmont Station so that the cars could be maintained at Elliot Square rapid transit shops in Cambridge.

In 1959, 17 double-end PCC cars, formerly from Dallas, Texas, were substituted for the all-electrics. The all-electrics were subsequently shopped at Everett shops and made multiple-unit cars. They were placed in surface-subway service in 1959 and 1960 on the Huntington Avenue line.

In July, 1966, all-electrics again began filtering back to the High-Speed line. By late September, 1966, they had entirely displaced the “Dallas” cars which were thrown into Huntington Avenue service. The purpose of this move was to evaluate the effectiveness of all the “Dallas” cars in subway-cut¬back service, fully utilizing the double-end capability of the cars. The “T” soon found that single cars were no substitute for two-car trains of all-electrics. Starting in late October 1966 and finishing in December of that year, the ‘T” again made a shift, and substituted.12 “Dallas” cars for 12 all-electrics. Three all-electric cars remain on the line for a total of 15 cars;

Initial patron reaction to all this rearranging was mild annoyance because no one knew where to stand on the Ashmont platform. The curious blend of car types had confused them, chiefly because of the difference in door arrangement. However, as time progressed, the public became knowledgeable and can now anticipate correctly where to stand. The usual procedure is to congregate at the ends of the car berth because the odds are that with 12 “Dallas” cars on the line, a “Dallas” car will be the rule. However, if an all-electric should emerge from the portal into the station, there is a wild, frenzied rush to occupy the center of the berth and exploit those wide, center doors.  The public has obviously learned to tell the car types apart, an interesting phenomenon.

All equipment was supplied and maintained by Park Street Carhouse at Fields Corner, Dorchester, until 1948. At that time, and in 1949, all Dorchester car services were abandoned and replaced by track-less trolleys, and the cars for the High-Speed line were transferred to the Arborway. Today, the line is still based at the Arborway as a rating station, but there is no track connection with the Arborway. For this reason, the cars are maintained at Elliot Square Shops as previously mentioned. Cars to be shopped are towed the entire length of the Cambridge-Dorchester line by rapid transit cars and left at the shops. If the cars are to be taken to other parts of the system, they are loaded on a flatbed trailer and truck-hauled to Lechmere where there is an unloading ramp.

The Future

An in-depth study is currently being made of the line and its role in future overall transit operations. It has already been assigned a new roll sign designation – route “M”, and this will be used in the near future. The line itself is rather well patronized and popular, and it is unlikely that it would or could be abandoned in the near future barring extension of the Cambridge-Dorchester line to Mattapan. The use of streetcars on this route strikes a perfect balance between the extremes of the bus and rapid transit services, a fitting tribute to one of the “T’s” most functional routes.

Frank J. Cheney           Bradley H. Clarke

April 1967

At this time, the authors wish to thank Lt. Col. Tolbert McKay and Mr. Kevin Farrell for the information they supplied for this article. Other information was obtained from Reports of The Board of Railroad Commissioners, Boston Elevated Railway Corporation, Reports of the Boston Transit Commission, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, and historical records and notes in the collections of the authors.



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December 11, 2021

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