Once a toll road, Dorchester Ave. is a route that is rich in history
Jun. 1, 2011
As our Dorchester Day Parade Marshal assembles the official cars “across the bridge,” they will be in Milton, which was part of the Town of Dorchester, until it became a separate town in 1662.
Proceeding to the official starting point, the cars will cross the Neponset River at the spot where the Federal Triumphal Arch was erected in 1798, to commemorate the ratification of Jay’s Treaty. In letters of gold, the arch proclaimed the sentiments of the citizens, “We unite in defense of our country and its laws - 1798.” On August 9 of that year, President John Adams, who was enroute form Washington to his home in Quincy was escorted through the arch by the Boston Cavalry. The wind storm in 1815 destroyed the arch.
Along the parade route, the horses of the Mounted Police will be prancing over the areas where, years ago, could be seen the hoof prints of their equine forbears, as they pulled the omnibuses and the horse cars on the Dorchester Turnpike, which, since 1854, has been called “Dorchester Avenue.”
Before the construction of the Turnpike to Boston in 1805, people going from Five Corners, now known as Edward Everett Square, to Milton Lower Mills followed the Lower Road through Uphams Corner to Meeting House Hill, and then, along the winding and hilly Adams Street to its very end at Lower Mills.
A private concern, the Dorchester Turnpike Corporation built the new toll road from the Boston South Bridge, in a straight line, out to Lower Mills. Many travelers continued to use then old roads because they did not want to pay a toll charge on the Turnpike. The toll charge was done away with when the Town of Dorchester acquired the Turnpike in 1854. It was then a public highway, Dorchester Avenue.
Omnibuses, the city version of a stagecoach, were introduced to the Boston area in 1833. The 1850 diary of William Trask of Dorchester mentions the choice one had of an inside seat, on a rainy day, or one of the six seats on top of the omnibus on a pleasant day. He stressed the convenience of the 5 p.m. omnibus when attending an evening performance in Boston.
Then, on March 26, 1856, the first horsecars in New England began running from Bowdoin Square, Boston, to Harvard Square, Cambridge. Not far behind, in the same year, the Dorchester Avenue (Horse) Railroad Company began its operation. A financial failure at first, the cars, horses and other stock were sold at auction on January 7, 1858. Their stock had been $150,000, but the auction price was $82,000. Under new management, the name was changed to the Dorchester Railway Company. No longer would it run only on Dorchester Avenue. Further growth is seen in the name “Dorchester and Milton Horse Railroad” as of 1868. Soon after, it was taken over by the Metropolitan Railroad lines, which operated in other parts of Boston.
In 1874, the schedules show that the horse car service from Boston to Milton was “every sixty minutes.” At the same period, one of the largest stables for horses of the Metropolitan lines was located at Park Street and Dorchester Avenue, where the shopping plaza is now situated in Fields Corner.
When Dorchester was annexed to Boston in 1870, the Boston safety regulations applied to the Dorchester Horse cars. Among them were the following: “No car shall be driven at a greater speed that seven miles an hour”; “While the cars are turning the corners, from one street to another, the horses shall not be driven faster than a walk.”
The eighth regulation for safety has all the earmarks of the years before Women’s Lib. It stated, “The conductor shall not allow ladies or children to enter or leave the cars while in motion. Other passengers may be allowed to enter the cars or depart therefrom while the cars are at a full stop or nearly stopped.”
Stormy weather brought transportation problems and hazards, even then. There was no problem of ice on the “third rail,” which as more than once stalled our Rapid Transit line. But people could remember reading in the Transcript of December 31, 1857 the heading “Omnibus in peril.” It gave an account of the Dorchester Omnibus the night before on the icy Causeway road. The horses became frightened as they were driven through knee deep water filled with floating ice, caused by the high tide. The newspaper article went on to tell that tragedy had been avoided when “the skill of the driver triumphed.”
In the winter season some passengers preferred the omnibus with its jingling sleighbells and sleigh-like runners. But when the spring thaws came they heard the unpleasant sounds of the runners being dragged over the bare ground spots.
The omnibus required four horses to transport eighteen passengers on wheels over the ordinary ground surface. The horse cars, running on smooth tracks, needed only two horses to transport 22 passengers. By 1883, the horse cars had put the omnibus out of business everywhere.
In the following year, 1884, the electric trolley car would be invented and would take over the transportation business by the turn of the century.
In 1900, George Clocker wrote that the 17th and 18th century residents of Dorchester used “the horse without the carriage,” while the 19th century residents used “the horse with the carriage.”
He then went on to say that it seemed quite probable that the 20th century resident of Dorchester would use “the carriage without the horse.” How soon his words came true! Electric trolley cars began to replace Old Bobbin in Boston in 1899. And on Christmas Eve, 1900, Boston’s last horse car disappeared.
Those ancient trees along the parade route at such places as Dorchester Park, Town Field and the old Clapp Estate are living witnesses to all these changes. But they remain as silent observers and provide no information for us. However, we do get reliable facts from such sources as the unpublished diaries of Jonathan Blake, William and Frederick Clapp and William Trask. If you keep a diary of events, please consider bequeathing it to us at the Dorchester Historical Society.
The late Rev. Daniel Dunn was pastor of Saint Margaret’s Church and a past president of the Dorchester Historical Society. He wrote this article in 1973.