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Notes from the Archives: Tremont Street Subway

July 27, 2017

On July 27, the Boston Transit Commission took this photograph to survey progress on the Tremont Street subway.

Looking southerly in the 4 track subway under Tremont Street Mall of Common, July 27, 1897, Transit Department photographs, Collection 8300.002, Boston City Archives

The Tremont Street subway was the first subway system built in the United States. Construction on the subway began in 1895 in downtown Boston. The original five-mile route ran between an entrance at the Public Garden and an entrance near Haymarket Square. Train cars could enter and exit either end of the subway to continue on to destinations above ground.

The image above was included in the Boston Transit Commission’s Third Annual Report from 1897. The Transit Commission reports contain detailed information about the development of the subway. They also describe incidents related to its construction. For example, the 1897 report mentions a large gas explosion at the corner of Tremont and Boylston streets (shown below).

Gas explosion,at corner of Boylston and Tremont Streets, March 4, 1897,Transit Department photographs, Collection 8300.002, Boston City Archives

At 11:46 a.m. on March 4, 1897, a pocket of gas above the Tremont Street subway tunnel exploded. Underground construction caused leaking gas from nearby pipes to build up over time. A spark from a passing trolley ignited the gas that morning. Even though six people died at the scene, the tunnel itself escaped damage. Work on the subway resumed as planned. At the time, some people were skeptical about traveling underground. The City made an effort to reassure the public that the subway would be a safe way to get around the City.

Sections 1-3 of the Tremont Street subway opened to the public on September 1, 1897. These sections were between the Public Garden and Park Street Station. The photograph below shows passengers waiting at the Public Garden entrance on opening day. The rest of the subway opened in 1898.

Opening day of Boston subway, September 1, 1897, Transit Department photographs, Collection 8300.002, Boston City Archives

Parts of the Tremont Street subway are still used today by the MBTA. Do you recognize the buildings below?

Tremont and Boylston Streets, three weeks before subway opened., August 12, 1897, Transit Department photographs, Collection 8300.002, Boston City Archives


The Boston Transit Commission snapped hundreds of photographs showing different sites related to the City’s underground transit system. To see the Boston Transit Commission photograph collection, head to the City Archives' Flickr page. And to learn more about the Tremont Street Subway, check out the new PBS documentary The Race Underground.  

This blog post is by Archives Intern Alejandra Dean. Alejandra is a graduate student concentrating in archives management at the School of Library and Information Science, Simmons College.