Object of the Month

A Late Christmas Gift for East Boston: the 1904 Opening of the East Boston Tunnel

Invitation to the official inspection of the East Boston Tunnel Printed

Invitation to the official inspection of the East Boston Tunnel

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This invitation, issued to Samuel A. Green--erstwhile Boston Mayor and librarian of the Massachusetts Historical Society from 1868 until his death in 1918—heralded the opening of a tunnel between Scollay Square in Boston and East Boston, the first underwater subway tunnel in the United States.

A city of islands

As much as present day commuters love to groan about the indignities of Boston’s public transportation system, it has a long and interesting history beginning with the opening of the nation’s first subway in 1897. Just three years later, a massive engineering project began to construct a tunnel underneath Boston Harbor to connect East Boston at long last to the city proper.

East Boston was originally comprised of five islands—Noddle's, Governor’s, Bird, Apple, and Hog. In the early years of its history, East Boston was used primarily as pasture land. That all changed when William Hyslop Sumner--for whom the Sumner tunnel is named--inherited a large part of Noddle’s Island from his mother and the race to develop and settle the island began. Sumner formed the East Boston Company in 1833, laying out a plan to develop the neighborhood. In just two years, the value of the taxable property on the island had jumped from $60,000 to $806,000. As Sumner’s History of East Boston recounted:

The striking contrast between the old and the new can hardly be realized, and such facts as these figures give, show in a striking light the great change in the condition of the Island; and it may truly be said, that “Such a deal of wonder is broken out within this hour, that the ballad-makers cannot be able to express it.”

In 1835, two ferry lines were established, providing regular service between East Boston and the mainland and the Maverick House opened, providing visitors to East Boston with accommodations and residents with a lively social center for their community. By 1860, the population of East Boston had grown to 16,000 and the area teemed with industries of all kinds and vibrant immigrant communities. Streetcars connected all parts of East Boston (which like many areas of Boston had been enlarged through landfilling projects), but the only way to access downtown Boston was by ferry—slow and weather-dependent.

The Great East Boston Bore

The construction of a tunnel linking East Boston to the city was spearheaded by John Lewis Bates (1859-1946). A lawyer and resident of East Boston, he was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1893 where he worked to promote the interests of his East Boston constituents. To this end, he advocated for linking East Boston and Boston, first by bridge, and, when that idea was dismissed, by a tunnel underneath the harbor. In 1897, the legislature passed “An Act to Promote Rapid Transit in the City of Boston and Vicinity,” authorizing the construction of the tunnel. Work began on the tunnel on 5 May 1900 and by Christmas of 1904 the tunnel was ready to carry its first passengers.

By this time, John L. Bates was Governor of the Commonwealth, and his name was lauded above all at the public celebration of the opening of the tunnel. A parade, fireworks, and public reception marked the opening of the tunnel on 30 December 1904. Governor Bates gave a speech before 750 guests at East Boston’s Masonic Hall in which he welcomed East Boston “to the mainland.” On its first day of operation, 32,000 fares were collected on the new line which completed the East Boston to Scollay Square run in just 7 minutes (the ferry trip between East Boston and the city could take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half). The Globe breathlessly reported

Like a child with a new toy, the people of Noddle Island woke up yesterday morning and journeyed to the “mainland” by the new tunnel. In the same spirit thousands of the people of the city proper spent 12 cents just to take a trip over to Maverick Sq. and back, to see how it seemed under the harbor.

Like the East Boston Company before it, the building of the tunnel created a boom period for East Boston—real estate values were up markedly a year later. Lest one think, however, that public transportation of the time was so different from our own, in the line’s first year the Globe reported a rear end collision of trains in which a passenger was thrown through the glass window of the car (January 5, 1905—less than a week after opening); a pickpocketing (May 5); shots fired in a dispute over fare collection (May 22); and a riot caused by a crowd of young hoodlums (June 17). Nonetheless, the tunnel proved a success and continues to this day as the MBTA’s Blue Line, running the roughly six mile route between Bowdoin Station and Wonderland. Perennial discussions of extending the line to Lynn and Saugus since 1926 have yet to bear fruit.

For further reading

circular that accompanied the invitation contains interesting facts about East Boston and the tunnel.

Access to issues of the Boston Globe is free to Massachusetts library card holders through the website of the Boston Public Library

Fix The T: Blue Line Extension

Boston Transit Commission. Fourth Annual Report of the Boston Transit Commission. Boston: Rockwell & Churchill, 1898.

----. East Boston Tunnel, 1903 via Wikimedia Commons

Cheney, Frank and Anthony M. Sammarco. Boston in Motion: Images of America. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing, 1999.

Kennedy, Lawrence W. Planning the City Upon a Hill: Boston Since 1630. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.

Rios, Símon. “The Blue Line was Named for Boston Harbor. Now the Sea Threatens the Service” WBUR News, 15 June 2021.

Sammarco, Anthony Mitchell. East Boston: Images of America. Dover, N.H.: Arcadia Publishing, 1997.

Sumner, William Hyslop. A History of East Boston. Boston: J. E. Tilton, 1858.