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.