Skip to Main Content

The Town & the City: Lowell before and after The Civil War

Originally created to be a digital archive for Lowell documents from 1826 to 1861, this website has grown to cover many periods and events in Lowell's history.

Selections from the Early Days of Railroading. By Herbert C. Taft. Contributions of the Lowell Historical Society, Vol. I, Read March 2, 1909. [Some format changes were made for website readability.]

A passenger train of the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad, now a part of the New York Central System, which was put on September 9th, 1831, between Albany and Schenectady, the road having been previously run with horses, attracted much attention. It was hauled by an English locomotive named the “John Bull” and was driven by an English engineer, John Hampton. This is generally regarded and referred to as the first fully equipped passenger train hauled by a steam power engine which ran in regular service in America. During the year 1832 it carried an average of three hundred and sixty-seven passengers per day.

View of the First American Train (The Huntington Digital Library)

The first passenger coaches were patterned after the stage coach. They were soon enlarged to a coach about fifteen feet long, six and one-half feet wide, four feet nine inches high, weighing about 6500 pounds. They were divided into three compartments to hold six passengers each or eighteen passengers to a coach, and were mounted on four wheels. America, however, at an early date departed from the stagecoach compartment idea, and adopted a long car in one compartment with an aisle through the middle with seats on either side, which admitted of communication through the whole train as at present.

From “The Boston and Lowell Railroad, the Nashua and Lowell Railroad, and the Salem and Lowell Railroad,” by Francis B. C. Bradlee, Salem, MA. The Essex Institute, 1918.

 ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Among the earliest railroads chartered in Massachusetts which completed an organization were

the Quincy Granite Railway Company, March 4th, 1826;

the Boston & Lowell, June 5th, 1830;

the Boston & Providence, June 22nd, 1831 ;

the Boston & Worcester, June 23rd, 1831;

the Andover & Wilmington, (then a branch of the Boston & Lowell, afterwards a part of the main line of the Boston & Maine) in 1833;

the Norwich & Worcester, in 1833;

the Nashua & Lowell, in 1836;

the Western R. R., afterwards the Boston & Albany, in 1836; and

the Eastern R. R., in 1836.

At the end of 1840 there were only 285 miles built and in operation in the state of Massachusetts.

 ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

The late James B. Francis, in a paper read to this Society May 7th, 1874, referring to the teaming over the road, says at the time of the opening of the Boston & Lowell Railroad, there were from forty to forty-five stages, arriving and departing daily from Lowell, employing from 250 to 300 horses, and that 150 of them were in service between Lowell and Boston, the freight rates were from $2.50 to $4.00 per ton, the stage fare $1.25.

 ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

The Boston and Lowell, our own railroad, is generally considered to have been the second railroad to be put in operation in New England, the Quincy Granite Road being the first, although the Boston and Providence, and Boston and Worcester also began operating in 1835. The road was chartered June 5, 1830, and the building of it commenced at once. The construction of the road bed was a much greater undertaking and achievement than it would be at the present time, the grading was all done by ox-teams and hand labor, the blasting by hand drills and common powder, and when one thinks of the old cut at the Middlesex Street Station, the famous Six Arch Bridge at the Concord River, and the Tunnel at Walnut Hill, all built without the help of steam power or modern conveniences, and those walls laid up so long ago of small stone without mortar or cement, the magnitude of the undertaking seems greater even than the recent building of the Subway in Boston. The entire road bed was completed, including all bridges and culverts, before a rail was laid. The first rails used were the “fish belly” rails before referred to. They were rolled in England, were fifteen and eighteen feet long-, and were laid on stone binders, or sleepers, which rested at each end on stone walls, set three feet deep to avoid the frost affecting the track.

Six Arch Bridge Showing Old Stone Sleepers
From Early Days of Railroading. By Herbert C. Taft. Contributions of the Lowell Historical Society, Vol. I

Section of Track Showing Fish Belly Rails
From Early Days of Railroading. By Herbert C. Taft. Contributions of the Lowell Historical Society, Vol. I

 ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

The road bed was laid out, graded, and made wide enough for a double track, but at first only one track was laid. Work was begun at both ends, Boston and Lowell, at about the same time, and by a curious mistake each end commenced laying the right hand track, so that when they came together, a long connection had to be made from one side of the road bed to the other.

 ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

The building of the road occupied about four years, and on Wednesday, May 27th, 1835, the rails were used for the first time. The engine named “Stephenson” was built by the Robert Stephenson Company at New Castle Upon-Tyne, England, in 1834. It was taken apart at Boston. loaded upon a canal boat, and brought to Lowell by the Middlesex Canal, whose usefulness it was so soon to destroy.   Here it was set up again and the trial trip was made from this end.   As to why this was done instead of running it from Boston on its own rails, I have been unable to learn, but it was probably because the promoters of the great undertaking resided in Lowell.  Whatever the reason, it has given to Lowell the distinction and honor of having the first steam engine start out of its borders for a run of any considerable length, of any city in New England.  

 ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

On that memorable trip the train carried three passengers, Patrick T. Jackson, Agent during the construction, *George W. Whistler [*Father of the artist James Abbott McNeil Whistler.], Chief Engineer at the Locks and Canals Shops, and James F. Baldwin, the Civil Engineer who had surveyed the road.   They made the run to Boston, twenty-six miles, in the astonishing time of one hour and seventeen minutes, and the return trip with twenty-four passengers in one hour and twenty minutes without stops. The train was sent back to Boston where it remained four weeks.

 ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

The latter part of the next month, notice appeared in various newspapers as follows:

“June 23, 1835.

Tomorrow, June 24th, cars will commence running between Boston and Lowell, leave Lowell at 6:00 and 9: 1/2 a. m., leave Boston at 3: 1/2 and 5: 1/2 p. m. The Company expects to run another engine next week. Additional trains will be put on as fast as the public require. Due notice will be given when the merchandise train will be put on. Fare $1.00, tickets at corner Leverett and Brighton Streets, Boston,

George M. Dexter, Agent.”

On the following day, Wednesday June 24th, the old fashioned “’lection day,” the road was opened for public travel.

 ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

The engines and cars of those early days were strange things in comparison with the equipment of today. The engines weighing from seven to nine tons, had four large wheels, the boilers were encased in wooden lagging painted bright colors with black band and stripes, smoke stacks eight to ten inches in diameter and six to seven feet tall like a chimney. No whistle was provided on the first engines, and the bells which were small were near the engineer and rang with a short cord. Nor was there any cab or protection for the engineer or fireman, they were fully exposed to the smoke and sparks from their own engine and to the inclemencies of the New England weather. The cars were modeled after the old stage coach and seated six persons. The conductor, sometimes called captain, rode on the outside without any shelter, in what on the stage coach would be the driver's seat, and on the rear coach looking backward in a similar seat, rode a brakeman. The conductor was provided with a whistle which he blew to signal the engineer.

 ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

It will be observed that although the charter provided that the fare should be seventy-five cents, the company's advertisement, published the day before the road was opened, charged one dollar. The matter was arranged to meet the requirements of the law, also to evade them for the company's benefit and profit, by putting on a second class car with no protection whatever except the top, the sides and ends were open to the weather, the seats simply boards, the car being made as cheap and uncomfortable as possible. In this car the fare was seventy-five cents while in the other cars, or first class cars as they were called, the fare was one dollar. Evidently there was need of a “Big Stick” in those days to keep the railroads up to the spirit and intent of the law as well as now. This second class car was nick-named “Belvidere” and was always known by that name. Second class cars evidently ran for many years, although the fare was reduced below the chartered limit, for, in an advertisement published in 1850, fifteen years after the opening of the road, we find season tickets between Lowell and Boston, three month for $25, six months $45, and one year $80. The fare to Boston was sixty-five cents, second class fare forty-five cents.

The freight tariff reads, — “Merchandise generally to Boston $1.25 per 2000 lbs., merchandise by cargoes $1.10 per 2000 lbs. Pig iron, lime, cement, plaster, slate, dyewood in the stick, flour and grain, oil and coarse salt in lots of three tons at cargo prices.” This advertisement gives the depot at the corner of Merrimack and *Dalton [*Dalton Street is now known as Dutton Street.] streets.

The Nashua and Lowell advertise that their depot in Lowell is at Middlesex street; that the general offices are at Nashville Passenger Station, that the fare to Nashville is forty cents, season tickets for three months $15, distance fifteen miles.

 ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

From 1835 to 1842, a period of seven years, there were built in the Locks and Canals shops the following nine engines which went onto the Boston and Lowell and Nashua and Lowell Railroads.

The Patrick,


Boston, with brass wheels,

Merrimack, built with wooden wheels but soon replaced with iron ones,



Suffolk and


These were all of the same general style, weighing about nine tons, five foot drivers, eleven inch cylinders and fourteen inch stroke.

 ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

In 1848, thirteen years after the opening of the road, the double track was completed. The second track was laid with T rails three and one-half inches high weighing fifty-six pounds per yard, and as soon as it was ready for use, the old track was also relaid with T rails. Special care was enjoined upon the workmen by the management in the laying of these second tracks, because they were soon to put three fourteen ton engines on the road which would tax the track to the utmost. The three new engines were named Samson, Hercules and Goliath, their names presumably to indicate their great size and strength. Two years later, two really large and powerful engines also built in Lowell, were put into service, the “Baldwin” and “Whistler,” one with five foot six inch drivers, the other five foot nine inch drivers. On the evening of March 27th, 1850, the “Whistler” with twelve cars driven by Isaac Hall, engineer, made the run from Lowell to Boston in twenty-eight minutes.

 ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

In September, 1908, an automobile race was held in Lowell which attracted several thousand people to our city to witness the sport, but nearly sixty years ago or in the Fall of 1850 a far more novel and important race was held here, it being a test of locomotives both for speed and strength. At that time there was a great rivalry between the various roads and locomotive builders as to which was the best type of engine, which the fastest, which the strongest, etc. This meet lasted for several days. Engines came from all directions, from other roads and from builders. There were of all kinds and classes, from the little combination engine and tender to the largest and heaviest engine then built. Some of the engines had foot brakes, the engineer and fireman standing on the foot piece, their weight being the only pressure to stop the engine. Some of the engines had only one pair of drive wheels, others two, and even three pairs. There were engines with outside cylinders, engines with inside cylinders, driving wheels with crank axles, with straight axles and eccentrics, some with small smoke stacks and others almost as large in diameter as the boilers of the engines themselves. One engine which attracted much attention had driving wheels seven feet in diameter. 

James G. Marshall and Mr. Gifford, who remember the affair say, and I think truly, that Lowell never, before or since, saw such a motley group.

The test for speed was made between Lowell and Wilmington and was won by an engine from the Boston and Providence Railroad, a Mr. Griggs, the master mechanic.

The test for strength was won by one of our own engines, the “Milow,” Mr. King, master mechanic.

The prizes were gold medals about the size of a twenty dollar gold piece, and were very highly prized by the railroads that won them.

 ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

The first station in Boston was at the foot of Lowell street. This station was occupied from 1835 to July 30th, 1857, when the headquarters were removed to the present site on Causeway street. The station occupied in 1857 was built under Mr. William Parker. Sixteen years later General Stark built the station which is now the southerly part of the Union Station, over the station of 1857, and then tore the old station down. The station built by General Stark was opened in December, 1873.  

 ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

The first station in Lowell, was built near Merrimack street, on the site of Old Huntington Hall, where was also located the first freight house and freight yard. The station was of wooden frame construction, and like many buildings in those days, was ornamented by large pillars. The general offices of the company were in this building when the road was first opened.


The road having been built principally for the transportation of material to and from the manufacturing corporations, side tracks were constructed when the road was built to the following corporations:

the Merrimack Manufacturing Company,

the Hamilton Manufacturing Company,

the Appleton Company,

the Lowell Manufacturing Company,

the Suffolk Mills,

the Tremont Mills,

the Lawrence Manufacturing Company and 

the Boott Mill's,

and the freight to and from these mills has been handled from their very doors from the beginning of the operation of the road. The engine house, machine and repair shops, car house and car repair shops were for many years located in Jackson street, between the present tracks to the Hamilton and Appleton corporations and the canal. For a great many years all locomotives burned wood, and the wood yard was also located on the banks of the canal in Jackson street and the wood delivered from up country by canal boats right to the yard. The building on Fletcher street now occupied by the Omaha Packing Company, was the second freight house of the Boston and Lowell Railroad and the building now occupied by T. J. McDonald, at the corner of Fletcher and Dutton streets, was the Nashua and Lowell freight house, both being used in their present location.

The brick building at the end of Dutton street, now occupied by the Nichols Foundry Company, was the engine house and repair shop of the Nashua and Lowell and Stony Brook Railroads.

 ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

In 1853, by a joint agreement between the City of Lowell and the Boston and Lowell Railroad, the city wanting a public hall, and the railroad company desiring larger quarters, the combined Huntington Hall and Merrimack Street Station so familiar to us all was built and was occupied as a railroad station until its destruction by fire, November 6th, 1904. The original station which had been occupied twenty-eight years was moved, part of it up near Fletcher street, where it was used for many years as a passenger car house, it being thought necessary in those days to keep passenger cars housed when they were not in actual use, as we do a carriage. The office part of the old station was sold to John O'Connor, who had lost both legs through an accident on the road. This was moved to what is now the corner of Fletcher and Dutton streets where it served for a dwelling house.   It was afterwards raised up and a story put under it, now occupied as a drug store, the upper part still being the home of Mrs. Calvert and Miss O'Connor, daughters of John O'Connor.

 ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

On the 8th day of September, 1838, the Nashua and Lowell Railroad commenced running trains between Nashua and Lowell. Their main line was along Dutton street, the tracks now used for freight tracks to the corporations, the terminus in Lowell, being the Boston & Lowell depot at Merrimack street. The Nashua and Lowell engines were cut off the trains above Market street, the trains switched into the depot, then the Boston and Lowell engine backed onto the train and hauled it to Boston. As this reversed the train, the passengers were obliged to get up and turn over the seats or ride to Boston backwards. On the return trip from Boston the same operation had to be gone through before the train started for Nashua.

From “The Boston and Lowell Railroad, the Nashua and Lowell Railroad, and the Salem and Lowell Railroad,” by Francis B. C. Bradlee, Salem, MA. The Essex Institute, 1918.

 ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

In 1846 the Nashua & Lowell Railroad petitioned the Massachusetts legislature for a charter, to run their tracks from near Western Avenue southerly across the canal where the main line is now located. At that time it was their intention to build an independent line to Boston, but the charter of the Boston & Lowell provided that no parallel line should be built for thirty years, and they only got as far as a connection with the Boston and Lowell, south of the Middlesex Street Station. This section of the road was opened in 1848 at the time the old Middlesex Street Station was completed, and must have been a great convenience to all travel to and from the north, which for ten years had been obliged to go down to the Merrimack Street Depot and back as previously referred to. After the completion of this piece of track and the Middlesex Street Station, the local trains of the Boston and Lowell ran on the east side of the station to Merrimack street.   The through trains of the Boston and Lowell and the trains of the Nashua and Lowell and of the Stony Brook Railroads on the west side, while the trains of the Salem and Lowell and Lowell and Lawrence Railroads, ran into the station at the southerly end. The trains of all these roads used the two tracks through the cut south of the station. This cut was through solid ledge six hundred feet long, was thirty feet wide at the bottom, gradually widening slightly to the top, and about forty feet in depth in the deepest place. The Chelmsford street bridge had a span of twenty-eight feet and was forty-six feet long. This cut and bridge, built in 1834, was considered at the time one of the most wonderful pieces of engineering in this country.