Step a few feet off the road leading from Town Hall to the post office and you’ll discover two long lost relics among the trees and weeds beside the railroad tracks:
Hmm….what are two rusty old lamp posts doing here??? To answer that question, take a look at the following photograph:
This makes me sad. It’s the old Wellesley station, which stood on the current site of the post office from 1889 until the structure was torn down — to the disbelief and outrage of many Wellesley residents — in 1962. All that was left standing were those two lamp posts, which you can sort of make out at the far end of the platform. (It might, however, be easier to compare them to identical ones on the right side of the image.)
The story about the construction of this stone station (and three others within Wellesley that closely resembled it) is rather complex. It wasn’t as if the Town just decided to build attractive railroad depots. In fact, outside forces — specifically the Boston & Albany Railroad Company — played the primary role in bringing them to Wellesley.
But before we delve into their construction, let me use this opportunity to provide a brief history of the railroad in Wellesley. After all, the first train came through town more than fifty years before these stone stations were constructed. It should also help you understand how the evolution of the town’s railroad stations mirrored Wellesley’s development into an affluent suburb.
The Arrival of the Railroad in Wellesley
The earliest form of steam-powered rail transportation arrived in the United States in the mid-1820s. Only several years later, in 1830, the first railroad line in the country — the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad — began service. Why the railroad became so popular so quickly is not difficult to understand. It was waaaay faster than traveling by stagecoach. But more importantly, especially to the American Industrialists, raw materials from the West and the South could now be shipped to the manufacturing centers in the Northeast much more efficiently than via canals and waterways.
One of the other early railroad lines was the Boston & Worcester Railroad, which opened from Boston to Newton in April 1834. Three months later, the track had been extended through Wellesley with stops established at Rice’s Crossing (Wellesley Farms), North Needham (Grantville/Wellesley Hills), and West Needham (Wellesley [Square]). It reached Worcester in mid-1835.
A separate line — the Western Railroad — stretching from Worcester to Greenbush, NY (outside of Albany) was constructed four years later, thus connecting Boston with the Hudson River and the West. In 1869, the Boston & Worcester Railroad Company consolidated with the Western Railroad to form the Boston & Albany Railroad Company.
So what was the immediate impact of the railroad on life in Wellesley? Probably not as much as you’d think. Remember, Wellesley was sparsely populated at that time and its village centers were almost non-existent. The vast majority of its residents lived on small farms scattered throughout the area. Most of the others worked in small factories, primarily in Lower Falls. With the exception of the occasional trip into Boston to buy supplies or a visit to relatives out West, life for these residents didn’t seem to change a whole lot.
But over the next three to four decades — especially in the years following the Civil War — Wellesley underwent a noticeable change as a result of the railroad. Although the town overall still very much stayed a small farming community, more and more businessmen and professionals from Boston were settling in Wellesley. Given its proximity of only twelve miles to the city, Wellesley was close enough for a quick commute by train into downtown Boston yet far enough out in the country to establish a serene estate. The impact of these men — who included Horatio Hollis Hunnewell, William T.G. Morton, Henry Fowle Durant, Josiah Gardner Abbott, and Gamaliel Bradford Sr. — would increase in the decades leading up to Wellesley’s incorporation in 1881 as they began to use their influence and wealth to shape the community as they saw fit.
The Railroad Stations of Wellesley (1834 – 1885)
The earliest record that I can find of any railroad station in Wellesley comes from a drawing of the West Needham (Wellesley) station dated 1847:
It also appears that there was a depot at the North Needham (Grantville/Wellesley Hills) stop by 1852. But given its similarity in size and form to the West Needham station, I’m guessing that the North Needham depot was built in conjunction with the construction of the West Needham station.
Crazy fun fact: This North Needham station still exists. It was moved down Washington Street and converted into a duplex house to make way for the construction of the current Wellesley Hills station in 1885-86.
Here’s the confusing part: there was a third station in Wellesley by 1852, but it wasn’t at Rice’s Crossing (Wellesley Farms) or even on the B&A mainline at all. It was actually in Lower Falls, just south of Washington Street more or less on the site of (the Italian restaurant) Papa Razzi. This stop wasn’t established until 1846 when a short spur that branched off the mainline at Riverside was constructed to serve Newton Lower Falls and Wellesley Lower Falls. It only had two stops: ‘Pine Grove’ (in Newton) and ‘Newton Lower Falls’ (in Wellesley). (There’s so much more to be said about the railroad in Lower Falls — which was in operation up through the early 1970s — but I’m going to save that for a separate post.)
The importance of these three stations to Wellesley life cannot be understated. They weren’t just places of shelter while waiting for a train. Rather each station often served as the post office and may even have had a small store within. But perhaps most significantly, they all served as some of the first social gathering spots within each village, as Gamaliel Bradford Jr. describes (in reference to the Grantville station during the 1850s and 1860s):
Before leaving the railroad station, which at that time, when there were no clubs, might regarded as the heart of the town, I must advert to one very piquant and characteristic figure, that of Mr. Charles Kingsbury…He was a great haunter of the station and loved to sit with a bevy of cronies and discuss all the affairs of the community, great and small. If their talk had been recorded by dictagraph, it would probably be astonishing and amusing, a sort of anticipation of the personal columns of The Townsman, less decorous and exact than the pages of that estimable sheet, but with a breeziness and spiciness which do not often get into print.
The North Needham (Grantville/Wellesley Hills) and Lower Falls wooden stations both survived until the 1880s when they were replaced by handsome stone depots (see below). The West Needham (Wellesley) stop also got its own stone depot at that time, but prior to that in the 1850s or 1860s, the old wooden station had been replaced with a larger and more elegant frame structure. The reasons for this are unclear, but my guess is that it probably had something to do with the fact that the village of West Needham (what is now Wellesley Square) was beginning to develop into a mini town center. An improved train station that fit with the growing affluence of the area was therefore necessary.
Another crazy fun fact: This more elegant frame station was spared destruction when the stone depot replaced it in 1889. Instead of tearing it down, the building was moved across the tracks and a bit eastward where it became a freight house for the B&A. In 1958, that former station was sold to the president of Wellesley Refrigerator Sales and Service, Inc. (who had been leasing it for use as a warehouse for the previous four years). Today, the former depot is occupied by Captain Marden’s Seafoods.
As for the stop at Rice’s Crossing (Wellesley Farms), it doesn’t appear that there was any station there. Just what’s called a ‘flag stop’ — where those waiting for a train could take shelter until a railroad attendant could signal a passing train to stop. This flag stop was located on the other side of the Glen Road bridge from the current station at the rear of the property of Charles Rice.
There was also one other flag stop in Wellesley — at Lake Crossing on the mainline near the Wellesley-Natick border. Unfortunately, little is known about this stop. My guess is that it was established soon after Henry Wood opened his cement factory on Paintshop Pond after purchasing the mill site in 1847. Near to the end of the 19th Century, a wooden station was constructed at this stop. Its fate is unknown.
The Railroad Stations of Wellesley (1886 – present)
How and why four stone railroad stations were built in Wellesley between 1886 and 1894 is a small part of a much larger story that extends far beyond the town’s borders.
We’re actually going to begin this chapter in the early 1880s, a few years before the construction of the first stone depot in Wellesley. At the time, the Boston & Albany Railroad was as popular as ever; it was arguably the primary reason why towns to the west of Boston — specifically, Brookline, Newton, and Wellesley — were becoming full-fledged suburbs.
But there were several villages in Newton that weren’t on the mainline and wanted access to the railroad. The B&A thus decided to expand its commuter service, constructing the so-called Newton Circuit — a commuter branch off the mainline that allowed residents of Brookline and Newton living in such villages as Longwood, Chestnut Hill, Newton Centre, Newton Highlands, and Waban to take the train into Boston. (This circuit was closed in 1959 and converted to light rail transit. It is now the Green Line “D” Branch of the MBTA.)
It was partly because of this increase in commuter traffic that the B&A adopted an ambitious station improvement plan along both the Newton Circuit and its mainline. The primary contributing factor, however, was a newfound appreciation for the role that railroad depots play within suburban communities, as urban planning pioneer Charles Mulford Robinson explains within his 1904 essay, Suburban Station Grounds:
To the commuter using a suburban railway the erection of pretty stations and the beautifying of their grounds is a matter of great concern. It means the extension of the home atmosphere quite to the railroad track. When he steps off the train he is at home, — as far as the soothing calm of a lovely scene can make him, — without having still a quarter mile of dreary trudging before there comes heart’s-ease.
Now contrast that ideal with the following description of the Wellesley station and grounds during the 1850s and 1860s (which hadn’t changed by the mid-1880s):
It was formerly remarked by strangers getting off at the station that the outlook “made one homesick.” The conditions warranted the criticisms. Almost anything served in those days for a country railroad station, and the one that did duty in this village in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s was a pretty common affair. It was flanked on the right, not as now by a fine bit of landscape, but by a row of coal sheds which stood in a sandy depression between the Aqueduct and the railroad tracks. This place has since been filled and graded and is now a part of Hunnewell Park. On the left of the station was an old building where the firewood was prepared and stood for the use of the locomotives. The wood was sawed by horse-power. A horse was hitched to a big draw-bar, driven round in a circle and a series of cog-wheels and pulleys transmitted the power to the saw. This method of cutting up wood furnished perennial amusement to the boys, who were delighted to get into the building on every opportunity and drive the horse while they rode on the draw-bar.
Not exactly the first impression that Wellesley’s forefathers dreamed of. You can therefore understand the excitement when the B&A decided to build new stations within the town.
In total, the Boston & Albany Railroad commissioned the construction of 32 stations in Massachusetts and New York between 1881 and 1894. That’s certainly impressive. But we probably wouldn’t be talking about them all that much if it weren’t for whom the B&A hired to design the stations and grounds: Henry Hobson Richardson and Frederick Law Olmsted.
Quite simply, Richardson and Olmsted were the leading professionals in their respective fields of architecture and landscape design. Even those who know absolutely squat about those subjects are familiar with their most famous works: Trinity Church in Copley Square and New York City’s Central Park.
So how exactly did the B&A obtain the services of both H.H. Richardson and Frederick L. Olmsted? One word: connections. Richardson had been good friends with James Augustus Rumrill and Charles Sprague Sargent, both members of the Board of Trustees of the B&A, since the 1860s when all three had been classmates at Harvard. As for Olmsted, he had worked closely with Sargent to design the Arnold Arboretum in Brookline. (In addition, Richardson and Sargent — and later Olmsted — resided within the same Cottage Street neighborhood in Brookline.)
Of the 32 stations constructed by the B&A, however, only nine of them were designed by Richardson — a result of his untimely death in 1886 at the age of 47.
List of Boston & Albany Railroad depots designed by H.H. Richardson (with those still standing in bold):
- Chestnut Hill
- South Framingham
- Wellesley Hills
Following Richardson’s death, the B&A commissioned the construction of 23 more stations to Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, the architectural firm that was formed by three of Richardson’s former assistants: George Foster Shepley, Charles Hercules Rutan, and Charles Allerton Coolidge. These stations, not surprisingly, were virtually indistinguishable from the other nine, and are therefore often credited to Richardson.
List of Boston & Albany Railroad depots designed by Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge (with those still standing in bold):
- Newton Highlands
- Chatham, NY
- Newton Lower Falls (located in Wellesley)
- Newton Centre
- Brookline Hills
- Canaan, NY
- East Brookfield
- Wellesley Farms
- East Chatham
Does anyone else wonder how Wellesley got four stations and, say, Natick got zero? I’m not totally sure, but it probably had something to do with the influence of some of Wellesley’s elite citizens. For example, the Wellesley station — which was arguably one of the more elaborate designs in terms of both the station and the landscaping — may have been constructed as a favor for Horatio Hollis Hunnewell, a close friend and cousin of Charles Sargent. (Hunnewell was also an early financier of the railroad industry.)
It has also been suggested that the Wellesley Farms station was built at the request of Joseph Franklin Wight, a wealthy fur dealer who constructed his Carisbrooke estate (named for a castle on the Isle of Wight) in 1881 on the current site of Carisbrooke Road.
So without further ado, here are some photographs of Wellesley’s stone stations:
Wellesley Hills station — built 1885-86:
Quick note: As you see in the images above, there used to extensive landscape surrounding the Wellesley Hills station and extending all the way down Washington Street to the Rockland Street bridge. These plantings (along with those between the station and the Cliff Road bridge) were removed in 1951-52 for the construction of the Wellesley Hills post office and the parking lot that is now west of the station.
Wellesley station (at Wellesley Square) — built 1889:
Wellesley Farms station — built 1893-94:
Confession: I don’t have a photo of the fourth station — the ‘Newton Lower Falls’ depot in Wellesley Lower Falls. I only know of one image that clearly shows the structure, but acquiring a digital copy from the library that possesses the image requires three weeks of notice and I didn’t give myself enough time. My bad. I’ll be sure to include it in my post on the railroad in Lower Falls.
I will say, however, that the station — built in 1887 and razed in 1944 — sat on the west side of the tracks about two hundred feet north of Washington Street at the current boundary between Waterstone at Wellesley (formerly Grossman’s) and the parking lot for Tony the Tailor and Wellesley House of Pizza (among other stores). I have no idea why they demolished the 57-year-old stone station, especially given that they built a frame one in its place.
We do, however, know why the Wellesley station was razed in 1962: i) the declining ridership and resulting financial struggles of the railroad and ii) the necessity for a new stand-alone post office in Wellesley Square.
Trouble for the Wellesley station began in 1959 when the New York Central Railroad (which then owned the B&A) filed a petition with the Commonwealth — which was ultimately approved — to eliminate all commuter service within Massachusetts and abandon its 39 stations. The increasing reliability on automobiles to commute to and from work, along with the newly constructed “D line,” was just too much for the financially struggling company.
That said, there were still nearly 1000 Wellesley residents who commuted to Boston each day via train. The Town of Wellesley therefore filed a joint appeal (along with Newton, Worcester, and Springfield) with the Massachusetts Supreme Court to fight the decision of the Commonwealth’s approval of the NYCR petition to close its commuter lines. Although the Town won in the sense that commuter service, although reduced, was never completely eliminated, it actually lost — in my opinion — because the Wellesley station was sold in 1961 and torn down the following year to make room for the construction of a building for the US Post Office, which had been housed in extremely tight quarters within the Taylor Block on the south side of Washington Street in Wellesley Square.
That left standing in Wellesley just two of the four Richardson stations. In the years since, however, we nearly lost the station at Wellesley Farms multiple times. After the NYCR abandoned it and then a fire gutted its wooden interior, there were several calls for the Town to demolish it. Fortunately, none of these votes passed. In 1986, the station finally received proper recognition when it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places — a result of the hard work of Matthew Kierstead, an art history and architecture student who grew up in Wellesley and was saddened by the poor condition of the Farms station. It has since undergone a significant restoration.
The same cannot be said of the station at Wellesley Hills, which is in desperate need of a facelift (as seen in the photos above). Although its Washington Street side is in decent condition, the rear of the station is just depressing. A lot of the problem has to do with the placement of signs and receptacles that can easily be moved or modified. But the station itself needs help as well.
So how about, as a first step, we look into the possibility of listing the station on the National Register of Historic Places? After all, it is the only one of the four Richardson stations still standing not on the NRHP (individually or as part of a district). Even five of the eight stations credited to Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge are NRHP-listed.
Only by recognizing the history of this station, and thus honoring the legacy of the Boston & Albany Railroad, Henry Hobson Richardson, and Frederick Law Olmsted, do we stand a chance of preventing a repeat of what happened to the Wellesley station in 1962.
- A Chart and Description of the Boston and Worcester and Western Railroads by William Guild (1847)
- Map of the City and Vicinity of Boston, Massachusetts by F.G. Sidney and R.P. Smith (1852)
- Map of the Town of Needham, Norfolk County, Massachusetts by Henry Francis Walling (1856)
- Atlas of Norfolk County, Massachusetts by W.A. Sherman (1876)
- Boston Daily Globe: 10 January 1890
- Atlas of Wellesley, Massachusetts by George W. Stadley & Co. (1897)
- Map of the Railroads of the State of Massachusetts: Accompanying the Report of the Railroad Commissioners (1898)
- Our Town: May 1902; September 1903
- Wellesley Legenda (1903)
- Suburban Station Grounds by Charles Mulford Robinson (1904)
- Wellesley Townsman: 14 December 1906; 15 December 1944; 9 November 1950; 22 March 1951; 17 January 1952; 22 May 1958; 6 August 1959; 26 November 1959; 17 December 1959; 28 January 1960; 5 May 1960; 27 April 1961; 19 April 1962; 5 July 1962; 29 May 1969; 5 June 1969; 2 February 1984; 17 January 1985; 3 August 1986; 20 August 1987
- Modern Civic Art by Charles Mulford Robinson (1909)
- The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Vol. 64 (1910)
- Genealogy of the Olmsted Family in America by Henry King Olmsted and Rev. George K. Ward (1912)
- The Evolution of the Suburban Station by J.H. Phillips in Architectural Record, Vol. 36 (1914)
- Richardson, the Architect and the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce Building by The Cincinnati Astronomical Society (1914)
- History of the Town of Wellesley, Massachusetts by Joseph E. Fiske (1917)
- Early Days in Wellesley by Gamaliel Bradford (1928)
- Boston & Albany Railroad Station (June 1959) by Cervin Robinson as part of the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), accessible through Library of Congress
- Architecture for the Boston & Albany Railroad: 1881 – 1894 by Jeffrey Karl Ochsner in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians (1988)
- Norfolk County Registry of Deeds
- Wellesley Historical Commission files: #279-283R Linden Street; #404 Washington Street