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Boston transit then and now

Aug 10, 2020

Archive invites comparison of nineteenth and twenty-first century Boston transportation woes

Boston Transit Archive picture 1895
Construction along Tremont Street near Park Street Church

For months there has been speculation about the effects the pandemic will have on public transportation in Greater Boston. Transportation organizations are determining how to ensure the safety of passengers and staff, how to manage rush hour, and whether public transportation in Boston will ever return to pre-pandemic levels.

This is not the first time transportation has created upheaval in Boston.

Historic New England’s Boston Transit Archive includes documentation about the construction of the country’s first subway c. 1895. Upon completion of the first phase of the project in 1897, the initial subway ride traveled just about a half mile from Park Street Station to Boylston Station. The total trip took just a little more than three minutes. More than 100,000 people took a trip on opening day on September 1.

Stories the archive tells

The original purpose for photographing the Boston Transit Commission’s work was the intense public scrutiny about the construction project. Some people were just not that enamored about traveling underground, while others embraced the new approach to alleviating traffic congestion. The Boston Transit Commission used professional photographers to document the project. Their work did much more than that. It documents the contents of shop windows, street life, clothing, backyards, street furniture, billboards, and advertising images.

While much of the original archive of 200,000 images is lost, the approximately 20,000 images at Historic New England serve as an outstanding resource for studying the history of Boston during this time period. Explore this collection and more in Historic New England’s Collections Access database.