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Dispatch From Upper Falls - Those Old Tracks

A brief history of Upper Falls railroad line

Planning is underway to convert a mile long stretch of old railroad track behind Needham St into the Upper Falls Greenway over the next year.

Here’s a little history of those railroad tracks, mostly lifted from Ken Newcomb’s "Makers of the Mold – A History of Newton Upper Falls".

In the mid 1800’s Upper Falls was a thriving industrial area centered around the mills on the Charles River.  The leading local industrialist of the time was Otis Pettee who ran the Elliott Manufacturing Company which produced all sorts of machinery for the cotton industry.   Mr. Pettee tried to interest the Boston and Worcester railroad in building a line to his factory in Upper Falls.  When that failed he decided to build a railroad himself – the Charles River Branch Railroad.  The new line ran from Brookline, across Newton’s south side, to Upper Falls and beyond to Needham and Dover.  Unfortunately, Mr. Pettee died just before the railroad reached Needham.

Shortly after his death, the massive project to fill in Boston’s Back Bay began and Pettee’s Upper Falls rail line became the backbone of the whole operation.  From Ballou’s Pictorial 1859:

“The gravel is brought from Needham, near the line in Newton, a quarter of a mile from the Upper Falls Depot and nine miles distant from Boston.  One hundred and forty five dirt cars, with eighty men are employed night and day and loading and transporting gravel over the road.  The trains consist of thirty five cars each and make twenty five trips every twenty four hours.”

“The excavators for loading the cars work by steam.  When an empty train arrives at the pit it is divided in half and each half is filled with its own excavator.  Two shovels full fill each car.  The time occupied in loading an entire train is about ten minutes.  It is believed that the excavation and filling in are going on at a rate more rapid than has ever been known in history of a similar contract in the country.”

In the late 1880’s the line was absorbed into the Boston & Albany line (now the Riverside line) and as a result of the rail connection at the Highlands, the rail service to Upper Falls was very prosperous.  The freight tonnage was heavy and the passenger traffic brisk – not only into Boston but also commuters coming to Upper Falls to work in the factories.

The connection to the Highlands was eventually discontinued and the route from Upper Falls to Boston began running in a different direction, from Upper Falls – through Needham, Dedham, West Roxbury and on into Boston.  Passenger service was eventually discontinued in 1927 but the freight service continued to prosper as new industries located in the area.  In 1953 a spur track was extended across Needham St and over the Charles River at Christina St. to service the many new factories and warehouses on the Needham side of the river.

Over time the freight traffic slowly dropped off and as late as maybe ten years ago there was still one freight train a week on that line before they permanently discontinued all service.

Soon Mr Pettee’s railroad line will be converted to the Upper Falls Greenway - a new park and bike trail.  Further down his old Charles River Branch Line, the towns of Needham, Dover and Medfield are also building a new bike trail on Pettee’s right of way.  It’s the end of a long chapter of Upper Falls history and the beginning of the next one.

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Choo Choo April 06, 2012 at 04:20 PM
Turning an old railroad bed into a "greenway" when we have an impending environmental crisis is short-term thinking. Until 1920 the US had privately owned and operated PROFITABLE trolley and interurban lines. They broadened and sustained "trolley car" suburbs. GM and its fellow conspirators (including big city gov'ts and labor unions) destroyed this business model. We now have a Boston Carmen's Union with overly high wage rates and compensation, highways that need rebuilding every fifteen to twenty-five years, and road-rage. Those who want these "greenways" consist of many NIMBYs, sadly, as well as those who think they are doing something constructive, at least ini the short term. Just check those who fought the Red Line extension to Arlington Heights and those who fought the restoration of train service to Greenbush (Scituate) via Hingham.
Jerry Reilly April 06, 2012 at 08:27 PM
@ Choo Choo - I don't believe that there's anything NIMBY or "short term thinking" in the Greenway plan. The tracks that will be removed are obsolete and unusable. The MBTA, owners of the property, will retain full rights to use the property in the future for light rail (or anything else). As I'm sure you've heard, the MBTA is in woeful financial shape. Even the most optimistic rail boosters don't expect the T to undertake a rail project on that corridor for many years to come. They are struggling to meet the obligations they already have. The Greenway proposes that we take a trash strewn and neglected stretch of land through the heart of our neighborhood and turn it into something useful today. The alternative, is not a rail line. The alternative is to leave it as it is - an eyesore for many years to come. Nothing in this plan precludes future rail use. This plan is not a case of bike trail vs rail line. Its a case of park land vs waste land, because there is no credible plan for a restored rail line in the foreseeable future. Should one arise some day, nothing in the Greenway project would stand in its way. In the meantime though, the Greenway project is a way of safeguarding the right-of-way. Just a few miles from here, another right-of-way in West Roxbury, also owned by the MBTA was recently sold off in pieces to developers. Unlike the Upper Falls Greenway, there is no possibility that rail service will ever be restored on that corridor.
schlock April 09, 2012 at 10:11 AM
This particular abandoned railine has been discussed for reuse since the Ted Mann era. I am skeptical that anything will ever be done with it in our lifetimes. Stonewalling in government is the theme of city protectionism by a 24 member of the Newton Board of Aldermen..
MKG-NH66 May 07, 2012 at 07:42 PM
Soon,and sadly, we will be a nation become a hiker and biker's paradise with few jobs and even more woefully crowded highways. Instead of aimlessly walking and biking the hours away,I would respectfully and gently encourage all to do some good old fashioned work for exercise; the kind which left us this vanishing railroad legacy.
Jerry Reilly May 08, 2012 at 12:56 AM
MKG-NH66 - Even all us hard workers don't work 24 hours, 7 days a week. When we're not working though we'd rather have a park in our neighborhood than an abandoned and neglected strip of waste land.

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