Boston and Lowell Railroad

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Boston and Lowell Railroad
System map
Map of the Southern Division as it was in 1887, just before it was leased by the Boston and Maine Railroad, including the original Boston to Lowell mainline.
Locale Boston to Lowell, Massachusetts and beyond into New Hampshire and Vermont
Dates of operation 1835
Track gauge ft 8½ in (1435 mm) (standard gauge)

The Lowell Line is a railroad line of the MBTA Commuter Rail system, running north from Boston to Lowell, Massachusetts. Originally built as the Boston and Lowell Railroad, and later operated as part of the Boston and Maine Railroad's Southern Division, the line was one of the first railroads in North America and the first major one in Massachusetts.


In the early 19th century, Francis Cabot Lowell of the Boston Manufacturing Company developed and built textile mills in New England. After Lowell's death in 1817, his associates moved from single mills to a whole city. In 1821 they began production in the village of East Chelmsford, and in 1826 they incorporated it into the town of Lowell, Massachusetts in his honor. This industrial town began to produce large amounts of textiles and other products which had to get to people so they could be used. It also had to get raw materials such as cotton from which to build these products. At the time, the best way for the factory owners to do this was to transport to and from Boston and let Boston merchants deal with the rest there.

Before the railroad, there were two main ways of moving goods between Boston and Lowell. The first was the Middlesex Canal, built previously to bypass a circuitous coastal route from the Merrimack River. The other consisted of stagecoaches running on the road between Boston and Lowell. These sufficed for some time, but as Lowell grew and more industrialists built mills there, problems with both modes soon overwhelmed them.

The canal was a very efficient way of moving large amounts of heavy goods cheaply and with minimal labor. It was slow, but no one had any delusions that it was suitable for perishables or other time-sensitive goods, passengers included. Unfortunately, it would freeze in the winter and the towpath was muddy in spring and late fall. This made it impractical for a burgeoning mill-town that needed year-round freight transportation.

Stagecoaches provided the passenger aspect of the transport, moving 100 to 120 passengers per day. There were six stagecoaches in operation at the time of the building of the railroad, for a total of 39 fully loaded round trips per week. This was sufficient passenger service for people who had to make an occasional trip but was much too expensive for daily use or what we would now call commuters.

One of the first railroads in North America was nearby Quincy's Granite Railroad in 1826. It was a three-mile, horse-powered railroad, built to move large granite stones from the quarries in Quincy, Massachusetts to the Neponset River in Milton. As was believed to be the most sturdy - and convenient, in this case - method at the time, it was built on a deep foundation of granite, setting a precedent for all railroads that could afford it. The Granite Railroad showed the Lowell mill owners that a railroad could be a practical method of freight transport.

The owners of the Lowell mills decided that they needed to do something about their transportation problem. They looked at the recently completed, nearby Granite Railroad and took inspiration. A railroad would supply exactly what they wanted. It could run year round, was expandable with as many tracks as they might need, and could use the new locomotives that were being highly praised in England.

Getting chartered

Once convinced that they wanted a railroad, they formed a group called the Boston Associates. This new group had the task of convincing the state legislature that a railroad was a good idea, and later building the railroad itself. The former proved very difficult, as the investors of the Middlesex Canal were very much against them building a bypass that seemed designed to replace their canal and drive them out of business.

Because there was no provision in Massachusetts State law for chartering railroads prior to 1872, all railroads had to be chartered by special acts of legislature. This made it slow and inefficient to charter a railroad because the politicians had to agree; the issue would become partisan. This also meant that the legislature would not let the Boston Associates build the line unless they could show it was completely necessary.

The case of the Canal investors seemed reasonable and compelling at the time, though some aspects are humorous in hindsight. Their argument was mainly:

  1. Their investors spent a lot of money on the Canal.
  2. The Canal currently deals with all freight between Boston and Lowell.
  3. There is a finite amount of freight to be moved.
  4. The railroad is being built with the main purpose of transporting freight between Boston and Lowell.
  5. All the railroad can do is take business away from the Canal.
  6. This will ruin the canal.
  7. The railroad should not be built, or it should be forced to pay compensation to the canal's investors.
  8. Failure of the court to force compensation would decrease investor confidence and make it much less likely that people would be willing to invest in major projects in the future.

The Boston Associates won because they convinced the legislature that the Canal was inherently incapable of providing what they needed: reliable, year round, freight transport.

The Canal operators were also unable to foresee the future worth of canals. Before the State Legislature of Massachusetts, the Canal spokesperson testified that, "It is believed that no safer or cheaper mode of conveyance can ever be established, nor any so well adapted for bulky articles" than the Canal. This does not really reflect negatively on them because it was a common attitude at the time, but today is ironic and amusing.

The Boston Associates got their charter on June 5, 1830, with no provision for reparations to the Canal's investors. It was a favorable charter because it allowed for, in addition to the right to build and operate a railroad between Boston and Lowell, a thirty-year monopoly on the right to have a railroad between the same. The people along the road and in terminal end cities bought large amounts of stock, financing half the company. These two ideas, monopoly rights to discourage competition and public interest in the company as shown by the large amount of publicly bought stock, were exactly what the argument over the Canal was about. The legislators seem to have realized the growth value in giving a monopoly that they more or less stole from the Canal, but the Canal's investors seem to have been wrong with their final point; people were eager to purchase stock, showing no decrease in confidence at all.

Building the railroad

The Boston Associates, armed with their charter, now had before them the task of surveying and building the line. They brought in Mr. James Baldwin, son of Col. Laommi Baldwin, who had engineered the canal, to do the surveying, and charged him with finding a gently sloped path from Boston to Lowell, with few grade crossings and well away from town centers. This latter point ended up being quite inconvenient later on. The general popular view toward railroads in the late 1820s, when Baldwin was preparing to do his surveying, was that railroads were smoky, noisy, dirty, fire-causing nuisances that should be kept as far away from people as possible. No one had any idea of the future possibility of railroads acting as public transportation, or if they did they were not paid any attention by the builders or financers of the road.

The right-of-way that Baldwin surveyed did well in each of these characteristics. The path sloped up at a gentle ten feet per mile at the maximum and there were only three grade crossings over the entire 26 mile distance. The path was close to the older Middlesex Canal path, but was straighter - as boats can turn sharper than trains. To achieve this superior linearity it needed small amounts of grade elevation in places. The route ignored Medford center entirely, going through West Medford instead, and totally bypassed Woburn and Billerica. This would have to be corrected later with various spurs (the one to Medford being built off the Boston and Maine Railroad) but were always sources of annoyance to both the riders and the operators.

The proposed route was accepted by the Boston Associates and work began the on building phase. The road was begun from both ends at once and some sources say that they both started on the right hand side of the right-of-way, missing in the middle and having to put in an embarrassing reverse curve to tide them over until they built the other side. Irish laborers were brought in to do the building, which was made especially difficult and heavy because the Boston Associates wanted to make the road using the best techniques then known. This, for them, meant laying imported British iron rails with a four foot deep wall of granite under each rail. They did this because it was commonly believed that the train would sink into the ground if the rails did not have strong support.

The first track of the road was completed in 1835 and freight service began immediately. The solid granite roadbed proved to be much too rigid, jolting the engine and cars nearly to pieces. Repairs on the locomotives (there were two at the time) would sometimes take most of the night, trying to get them ready for the next day's service. The much poorer Boston and Worcester Railroad could not afford a granite bed and so was built with the modern wooden ties. This turned out to be far superior so the owners of the Boston and Lowell decided they would upgrade their entire roadbed to wood when they added a second track.

The original Boston terminal was at the north corner of Causeway Street and Andover Street (halfway between Portland and Friend Streets), at the westernmost edge of the current North Station. The bridge over the Charles River to access it was the first movable railroad bridge in the United States. [1] The original Lowell terminal was at the south corner of Merrimack Street and Dutton Street.

Early operation

The quantity of freight traffic on the Boston and Lowell was large from the first, as everyone expected it to be, with several large mills needing to be supplied with materials and to have someone take them away after processing. The level of passenger traffic, however, was not anticipated. People all over were fascinated with the trains, and loved that they could get from Boston to Lowell in twenty minutes. Twenty minutes meant travelling at over sixty miles per hour and on unwelded track on a granite roadbed, which was extremely bumpy. Passenger complaints about the rough ride were another reason that the B&L ended up switching to wooden ties.

The B&L was now faced with a problem; it had a reputation for passenger speed which made it very popular and highly competitive with stagecoaches. Many people, however, did not want to go from Boston to Lowell but instead to and from places in between. The B&L decided to order another locomotive and some cars for local passenger rail in 1842, and have them make six stops along the route. Passenger rail proved to be almost as profitable as freight.

The Boston and Maine Railroad

Another railroad began about this time whose fortunes would be closely tied to those of the B&L. This road was the Boston and Maine Railroad (B&M). This road ran down from Portland Maine, through a bit of Southern New Hampshire, to Haverhill in Northeastern Massachusetts, connected to the B&L in Wilmington, and then used B&L track to Boston. This route was conceptualized in 1834, but took a long time to be built, mostly because, unlike the B&L, it did not have a secure base of funding like the Lowell Mills. It took two years to get to Andover, another to get to Haverhill, three more to get to Exeter, and did not get to Portland until 1852.

This extra traffic on the B&L line, especially with the line still over granite, provided the extra impetus to double track and upgrade. In 1838, the B&L began two years of extensive track improvements, first laying a second track on wood, and with that one built, going back and re-laying the old track on the more forgiving wood as well. B&L traffic continued to increase and even with double tracks, the schedule became tight enough that the B&M trains, as renters, began to be pushed around to annoying hours, often having to wait over an hour in Wilmington before being allowed to proceed on to Boston.

The B&M soon tired of what they perceived as selfishness and decided to build its own track to Boston from Haverhill so that it would not have to rely on the B&L. The B&L tried to fight the B&M in court but failed because the monopoly granted in its charter was only good for traffic between Boston and Lowell. The shortcut, part of today's Haverhill/Reading Line, was started in 1844 and was in use by 1848. While the B&M was building it, they were still running their trains to Boston on the B&L. This made for a lot of conflict, with the B&L trying to squeeze every last penny out of the B&M before it lost the opportunity. The B&M tried to deal with this in court, and got the judge to forbid the B&L from raising rates until the case was done, but by the time they were close to an agreement, the bypass was complete.

With B&M business gone, the B&L realized how much they had been relying upon their renters. Additionally, the Lowell mills began to decline somewhat and there was less freight traffic for the line to move. Over the next four decades, the B&L declined until the more successful B&M leased it on April 1, 1887.


The B&L built or leased many branches to serve areas not on its original line. Immediately before its lease by the B&M in 1887, it had five divisions - the Southern Division (including the original line), the Northern Division, the White Mountains Division, the Vermont Division and the Passumpsic Division. Additionally, it leased the Central Massachusetts Railroad in 1886.

Southern Division

The main part of the Southern Division was the mainline between Boston and Lowell.


The Charlestown Branch Railroad was not itself taken over by the B&L, but as originally built in 1840 it was a short spur from the B&L to wharves in Charlestown. In 1845 the Fitchburg Railroad leased it and incorporated it into their main line.

Mystic River

The Mystic River Branch served the Mystic River waterfront on the north side of Charlestown.


The Woburn Branch Railroad opened in 1845, connecting Woburn to the main line towards Boston. The Woburn Branch Extension Railroad, built in 1885, continued the line back north to the main line in North Woburn. The Horn Pond Branch Railroad was a short freight-only branch off the Woburn Branch to ice houses on Horn Pond.


The Stoneham Branch Railroad was built in 1862 to connect to Stoneham.


The Lowell and Lawrence Railroad was chartered in 1846 to build a line between Lowell and Lawrence, which opened in 1848. In 1858 the B&L leased the line.


The Salem and Lowell Railroad was chartered in 1848 as a branch from the Lowell and Lawrence at Tewksbury Junction to the Essex Railroad at Peabody, along which it used trackage rights to Salem. The line was opened in 1850 and operated by the Lowell and Lawrence until 1858, when the B&L leased it along with the Lowell and Lawrence.


The Wilmington Branch, now known as the Wildcat Branch, was built just west of the original Boston and Maine Railroad alignment to connect the main line at Wilmington to the Salem and Lowell at Wilmington Junction, providing a shorter route between Boston and Lawrence.

Arlington and Concord

The Lexington and West Cambridge Railroad was chartered in 1845 and opened in 1846, connecting the Fitchburg Railroad at West Cambridge to Lexington. It was operated by the Fitchburg from opening, and leased to the Fitchburg from 1847 to 1859. The line was reorganized as the Lexington and Arlington Railroad in 1868. The B&L bought the line in 1870 and built a new connection to their main line at Somerville Junction.

The Middlesex Central Railroad was chartered in 1872 and opened in 1873, extending the line from Lexington to Concord. It was leased from completion to the B&L. An extension west to the Nashua, Acton and Boston Railroad at Middlesex Junction was built in 1879. [2]


The Billerica and Bedford Railroad was built in 1877 as a narrow gauge line between the Middlesex Central at Bedford and the B&L at Billerica. It was sold and abandoned in 1878, and the rails were taken to Maine for the Sandy River Railroad. A new standard gauge branch was built by the B&L in 1885, mostly on the same right-of-way. [3]

Lowell and Nashua

The Lowell and Nashua Railroad was chartered in 1836 as an extension of the B&L from Lowell north to the New Hampshire state line. The Nashua and Lowell Railroad, chartered in 1835, would continue the line in New Hampshire to Nashua. The two companies merged in 1838 to form a new Nashua and Lowell Railroad, and the road opened later that year. In 1857 the B&L and N&L agreed to operate as one company from 1860, and in 1880 the B&L leased the N&L.

Stony Brook

The Stony Brook Railroad was chartered in 1845 and opened in 1848, connecting the Nashua and Lowell at North Chelmsford with Ayer. The N&L leased the Stony Brook in 1848.

Nashua to Keene

The Wilton Railroad was chartered in 1844. It opened a line from Nashua west to Danforth's Corner in 1848, to Milford in 1850 and to East Wilton in 1851. Since completion it was operated by the N&L.

The Peterborough Railroad was chartered in 1866 to continue the Wilton Railroad northwest to Greenfield. In 1873 the N&L leased it; the road opened in 1874.

The Manchester and Keene Railroad was chartered 1864 and opened 1878, continuing the Peterborough Railroad west from Greenfield to the Connecticut River Railroad in Keene. In 1880 the company went bankrupt, and it was operated by the Connecticut River Railroad until 1882, when it was bought half-and-half by the B&L and the Concord Railroad.

Other divisions

Central Massachusetts Railroad

The Massachusetts Central Railroad was chartered in 1869 to build a line east-west across the middle of the state, between the Boston and Albany Railroad and the Fitchburg Railroad. The first section opened in 1881, splitting from the B&L's Arlington Branch at North Cambridge Junction, and the company was reorganized as the Central Massachusetts Railroad in 1883. The B&L leased the line in 1886, a year before the B&M leased the B&L.

Northern Division

The Boston, Concord and Montreal Railroad was chartered in 1844, and opened in stages from 1848 to 1853, eventually running from Concord to Woodsville, New Hampshire. That railroad, along with its branches, became part of the B&L Northern Division in 1884, when the B&L leased the BC&M.

The Northern Railroad was also chartered in 1844, opening in 1847 from Concord to Lebanon, New Hampshire and later extending to White River Junction, Vermont. The B&L leased it in 1884 as another part of its Northern Division.

The only connection between the Southern and Northern Divisions was at Hancock Junction, where the Manchester and Keene Railroad (Southern) and Peterborough and Hillsborough Railroad (Northern) met.

In 1889 the BC&M merged with the Concord Railroad to form the Concord and Montreal Railroad, taking it out of B&M control until 1895, when the B&M leased the C&M.

White Mountains Division

The White Mountains Railroad was chartered in 1848 and opened a line from Woodsville to Littleton, New Hampshire in 1853. Along with extensions and branches, it was leased to the Boston, Concord and Montreal Railroad in 1859 and consolidated into it in 1872, becoming its White Mountains Division. In 1884 the B&L leased the BC&M and the old White Mountains Railroad became the B&L's White Mountains Division.

The Northern and White Mountains Divisions were connected at Woodsville.

Vermont Division

The Essex County Railroad (chartered 1864), Montpelier and St. Johnsbury Railroad (chartered 1866) and Lamoille Valley Railroad (chartered 1867) were consolidated into the Portland and Ogdensburg Railroad in 1875 as their Vermont Division. The line was finished in 1877, and in 1880 it was reorganized as the St. Johnsbury and Lake Champlain Railroad, which was taken over by the B&L as their Vermont Division. The line did not stay in the B&M system, and the easternmost part was leased to the Maine Central Railroad in 1912.

The White Mountains and Vermont Divisions were connected at Scott's Mills, New Hampshire.

Passumpsic Division

The Connecticut and Passumpsic Rivers Railroad was organized in 1846 and opened a line from White River Junction on the Northern Railroad to the border with Quebec, Canada in 1867, junctioning the Northern and White Mountains Divisions at Wells River and the Vermont Division at St. Johnsbury. The Massawippi Valley Railway, leased in 1870, continued to Sherbrooke, Quebec, where it junctioned the Grand Trunk Railway among others. The B&L leased the line on January 1, 1887, three months before the B&M acquired the B&L.

Life as a B&M line

Over the next 70 years or so, things were reasonably stable and constant for the Lowell Line as a part of the B&M's Southern Division. Passenger train round trips per day hovered in the low 20's and while freight from Lowell itself did not last too long, the Lowell line got some traffic from railroads that connected from the west.

Modern times

Winchester Center, a Lowell Line station in Winchester, MA.

In the early 20th century, things began to change. Trucks began to increase in popularity, and they got the Eisenhower Interstate System to help them. More and more companies began to send freight by trucks. This was a bad time for a decline to happen, as the B&M, like most other railroads, had just switched over to diesel locomotives, meaning that they had large debts. By 1976 the B&M was bankrupt.

This did not affect passenger service, just freight on the Lowell line, because in 1973 the MBTA bought the Lowell line, along with the Haverhill and all other local Greater Boston passenger lines. Along with the sale, the B&M contracted to run the passenger service on the Lowell line for the MBTA. After bankruptcy, The B&M continued to run and fulfill its Commuter Rail contract under the protection of the Federal Bankruptcy Court, in the hopes that a reorganization could make it profitable again. It emerged from the court's protection when newly-formed Guilford Transportation Industries (GTI) bought it in 1983.

When GTI bought the B&M, commuter rail service was in jeopardy. The MBTA had owned the trains and the tracks since 1973, but it had outsourced the operation to the B&M. When GTI bought the B&M in 1983, it had to honor the B&M contract, but GTI management was very much against passenger rail, and, in 1986, as soon as the contract expired, they let the job go to Amtrak.

From 1986 until 2003, Amtrak managed the entirety of Boston's commuter rail. It did decently, though at times had strained relations with the MBTA. Quibbles centered on equipment failures, numbers of conductors per train, and who takes responsibility when trains are late. Because of these bad relations and Amtrak's repeated announcements that the contract was unreasonable, few people were surprised at Amtrak's decision not to bid again for the Commuter Rail contract when it came up for renewal in 2003.

When the MBTA asked for new bids on the Commuter Rail operation contract, Amtrak did not bid but Guilford and the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Company did. The MBCR ended up getting the contract. When the MBCR began operating the Commuter Rail in July of 2004, nothing changed for the commuters as it is the MBTA that owns the trains, tracks, and sets the schedules.

Guilford's main line between Mattawamkeag, Maine and Mechanicville, New York now uses the Stony Brook Branch, and the old main line north of Lowell. At Lowell it shifts to the B&M's original Lowell Branch to get to the B&M main line towards Maine.

Another recent change on the Lowell line is the addition of the Downeaster. The Downeaster is an Amtrak line running from North Station to Haverhill and up to Portland. Due to scheduling conflicts with the MBTA, the Downeaster runs up the Lowell Line to Wilmington and then out the old B&M Wildcat Branch to the Haverhill/Reading Line. This route allows the Downeaster to pass a commuter train on the Haverhill/Reading Line without scheduling conflicts. The route is also historically significant because it is the same route that the original B&M used to Portland.


North Station is wheelchair accessible, as are Anderson RTC and stations north of there. See also MBTA accessibility.

Station listing

Milepost City Station Opening date Connections and notes
0.0 Boston Handicapped/disabled access North Station Orange Line and Green Line
MBTA Commuter Rail north-side lines
Amtrak Downeaster service to Maine
Boston Engine Terminal A flag stop with a wooden platform for MBTA employees only
MBTA Fitchburg Line, Haverhill/Reading Line and Newburyport/Rockport Line split
Cambridge East Cambridge closed
on the old alignment, west of the current route
1.9 Somerville Prospect Hill closed
originally Milk Row
2.4 Winter Hill closed
2.8 Somerville Junction closed
originally Somerville
split with Lexington and Arlington Branch
3.6 North Somerville closed
4.0 Medford Tufts University November 1976 (had been open previously) closed October 1979
originally College Hill
4.6 Medford Hillside closed
5.5 West Medford
7.3 Winchester Wedgemere originally Mystic
7.8 Winchester Center split with Woburn Branch
9.0 Winchester Highlands closed June 1978
9.8 Woburn Montvale closed
split with Stoneham Branch
Lechmere Warehouse 1979 closed 1996 [4]
10.5 Walnut Hill closed January 17, 1965
11.6 Mishawum September 24, 1984 (had been open previously) originally East Woburn
12.7 Handicapped/disabled access Anderson Regional Transportation Center April 28, 2001 Amtrak Downeaster service to Maine
originally South Wilmington (had been open previously)
Wilmington North Woburn Junction not a station
merge with Woburn Branch
15.2 Handicapped/disabled access Wilmington split with Wildcat Branch, carrying the Amtrak Downeaster service (without stopping here)
17.0 Silver Lake closed June 27, 1965?
Billerica East Billerica closed June 27, 1965?
21.8 Handicapped/disabled access North Billerica junction with Bedford and Billerica Branch
24.6 Lowell Bleachery closed
junction with Lawrence Branch, Lowell and Andover Railroad (B&M) and Lowell and Framingham Railroad (NYNH&H)
25.5 Handicapped/disabled access Lowell originally Middlesex Street
junction with Nashua and Lowell Railroad (B&L)
Merrimack Street closed



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