Milestones:Power System of Boston's Rapid Transit, 1889


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Power System of Boston's Rapid Transit, 1889

IEEE Boston Section,
Dedication: 10 November 2004 

Boston was the first city to build electric traction for a large-scale rapid transit system. The engineering challenge to design and construct safe, economically viable, and reliable electric power for Boston's rapid transit was met by the West End Street Railway Company, beginning in 1889. The company's pioneering efforts provided an important impetus to the adoption of mass transit systems nationwide.

The plaque may be viewed by the side of the door (left hand as you are facing it) of the northernmost of the two Park Street T stations at Park and Tremont Streets, 42.356478,-71.062507 Photo of the plaque on the station

History of the “T”

The transportation system of Boston, now referred to as the MBTA, and locally known as the T, began over 100 years ago. The following is a brief introduction history. The West End Street Railway Company was organized 12 November 1887, with Henry M. Whitney as president. The railway was intended as a short electric railway line to real estate located in Brookline, a Boston suburb. Sometimes after the franchise was granted, and before any construction had started, a number of horse drawn streetcar companies were consolidated in to one large enterprise, called the West End Street Railway. By the time consolidation was completed in 1888, the West End had over 7800 horses and 1480 cars. Business was great and continued to grow and prosper. One year later there were as many as 9000 horses dragging over 2000 cars all over Boston and adjoining towns.

Without a better form of motive power, Whitney had a worthless enterprise on his hands. After detailed investigations were made, the company reached a decision to install the (San Francisco) mechanical cable system. A local newspaper reported that the company was moving ahead with engineering plans with cable engineers had arrived in Boston, and designs had begun. Fortunately for everyone, except for mechanical engineers, Henry Whitney was invited by Frank Sprague to go to Richmond, VA to see the merits of his electric road operating in that city. History states that Whitney was very impressed with electric streetcars and that he quickly abandoned the cable idea. He decided to experiment with the Sprague system and in the summer of 1888, signed a contract for 20 Sprague electric cars to run from Park Square to Chestnut Hill and Allston, using an overhead trolley wire. A short section of line was equipped with the Bentley-Knight underground conduit.

Unfortunately, this underground conduit was poorly constructed and had to be abandoned because of failures and public safety concerns. On 9 April 1889, a newspaper reported that a team of horses had been electrocuted while traveling over the conduit track on Boylston Street. Whitney also wanted to experiment with another popular streetcar system manufactured by the Thomson-Houston company. In February 1889, he signed a contract for 20 electric cars that would operate between downtown Boston and Harvard Square in Cambridge. Initial testing between Sprague and Thomson-Houston systems lasted six months. Whitney selected Thomson-Houston because the company gave Whitney guarantees and had capable manufacturing and maintenance services that Sprague could not provide. Whitney's decision signaled the start of electrification for the entire transportation system. On that 1 June 1889, three related events took place:

  • Thomson Houston received contracts for 600 motors and other equipment.
  • Sprague received a contract to remove all of their motors from existing cars
  • Fred Stark Pearson was hired as chief engineer to oversee system development

Existing conditions

Existing power and transit equipment lacked the strength to be applied on such a large scale. Virtually every piece of equipment was either too small, too weak, prone to failures or too expensive to run on a full time basis. Weaknesses in equipment were well known in 1889. For example in April 1889, Joseph Moore, one of the company's traffic superintendent, had written to president Whitney advising him of troubles with armatures, motors, fields, bearings, resistance and switch boxes, all necessary for the power system of Boston's Rapid Transit propelling electric streetcars. Additionally Moore suggested that passengers were possibly in harms way:

"The overhead system is not entirely free from mishaps. Trolleys, trolley poles, trolley switches, wires, both trolley and guide, often cause delays and annoyance."

Rapid Development and Progress

Many other types of engineering and manufacturing problems had to be resolved during the course of system development. Since there was little or no previous experience, the West End did extensive research & development work while building their system. Thomson-Houston had to manufacture larger generators, four times the size of previous machines. The West End had to design their own cars and trucks, much longer and stronger than anything commercially available. Cars were designed with two swivel trucks for sharp turns in Boston's narrow streets. For a while during the 1890's, the 20 foot car was adopted as standard to carry more passengers.

System development proceeded on all fronts at a grueling pace. The first cars were actually made in their own shops. Horse cars were cut in two then spliced together to make a longer motorized car. A temporary power plant was quickly erected using standard power plant equipment to start up the business. Meanwhile, permanent power facilities were designed and constructed. Throughout this massive electrification, the company's progress was widely publicized and can be traced in newspapers and engineering journals. Two major electric journals had this to say:

"The West End Street Railway company of Boston is making rapid progress in the equipment of its line with the Thomson-Houston system and work this winter .The permanent power plant will be a model of its kind, and when completed the largest and best equipped in the world.

Horse cars will some be taken off the Cambridge Division, and residents in Cambridge will be given the full benefit of rapid transit, and before long the electric car will be a familiar sight in the heart of the city."

“No power station in the country has attracted more attention than that of the West End Street Railway in Boston since in point of size the proposed station far surpasses anything of the kind that has ever been built. Street railway men will be especially interested in watching the progress of the work now that the work on one of the big engines has so far advanced that the engine has been given a trial run."

Electrical engineers all across the country were aware of what was going on in Boston, including AlEE members. The AlEE Handbook of 1900 reported that the 1890 General Meeting held in Boston included a tour of the West End 's facilities. The Secretary at that time wrote:

"This was the most extensive system of electric railway work then proposed and every facility being granted for its thorough inspection, the occasion proved one of great interests."

Surprisingly, the project progressed very rapidly, without hesitation or false starts. Each company line was rebuilt, electrified, then placed into service. The last horse was finally retired sometime in 1897. Some of key dates of interest:

27 June 1889: Thomson-Houston is awarded their first large electric contract: furnish between 240 to 600 streetcar motors, provide maintenance services, and install overhead lines. The contract for generators and switchboards came a few months later

July 1889 Contracts to erect the temporary power house are awarded

Aug 1889 Start excavation and site work for the permanent Central Power Station

Oct 1889 EP Allis, manufacturer of steam engines from Milwaukee, is awarded the contract for six triple expansion Corliss Reynolds steam engines. The largest ever made.

Oct 1889 Temporary power station is complete;100 cars are in service.

Nov 23 1889 Boston Globe announces that company conductors will begin training

Dec 1889 Company shops are very busy building and testing cars

Dec 12 1890 Newspaper announces that lightning rods and copper grounding downcomers were installed on top of CPS's chimney

Dec 24 1891 The first two steam engines with countershafts and generators are inaugurated

Construction continued at a steady pace until the entire network was electric.

Central Power Station -CPS

Built from 1889 to 1891, the Central Power Station (CPS) was a huge engineering success. It was built by the street railway company to provide direct current electricity for the growing streetcar system in Boston. Located in downtown Boston, on Harrison Avenue and Albany Street, CPS was the largest electrical power station in the world at that time. With CPS as its flagship, the West End was able to launch the largest commercial electrical traction system in the world. CPS went on line in 1891.

Located at the center of the city, CPS was designed to be permanent and good looking. An extra high chimney was necessary to carry away smoke and fumes that would be visible at all times during the day. At the time it was built, the 250 foot high stack was the tallest structure in Boston , taller than the Bunker Hill monument. It was fifty feet taller than the new chimney being erected by the Edison electric light company just a block away. The following illustrations show what CPS looked like when it was built. As expected, it underwent major upgrades over the years, first in the 1890's, then later in 1901.

The completed system covered an area of about 100 square miles, and served a population of over 1,000,000 residents. The cost to ride the “T” was 5 cents, and allowed free transfers to different lines. There were more than 170 passenger cars, powered by 8 power stations, utilizing direct current, which covered nearly 500 miles of railway track.

- Gil Cooke


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