Railroad Underpass Proposal

The following article appeared in the Wellesley Townsman on October 13, 2016.

Everett Street crossing near Town Hall in 1888

Everett Street crossing near Town Hall in 1888
(Source: 1888 Norfolk County Atlas)

In the September 15th issue of the Townsman, it was reported that a Wellesley resident had recently suggested to Town officials that they revive the long-dormant investigation into the possible construction of a pedestrian passageway under the railroad tracks at Everett Street extension to connect the Linden Square shopping area with Town Hall and Wellesley Square. Within this article, some history of the proposal was presented — including research provided by yours truly — indicating that the underpass concept dates as far back as 1911.

Turns out, I was wrong. The proposal dates back even further. Additional research pins the origin not at 1911, but at 1885. Obviously, the story is much richer.

For reference, let’s begin even earlier — in 1846. This was when Everett Street was laid out (at least on paper) as part of the subdivision of the Blanchard estate, a sprawling irregular tract of land stretching from the current site of Hunnewell School to the Sprague School, creating in the process the following roadways: Spring, Pleasant, Oak, Westerly, Hollis, and Everett Streets. Splitting the subdivision into two halves were the railroad tracks, which had been constructed through the estate by the Boston & Worcester Railroad Corporation in 1834.

The relevance here is that, up through 1889, travel along Everett Street — which extended all the way south to Washington Street — wasn’t impeded by the railroad tracks. In fact, there were a total of 7 or 8 grade crossings between Weston Road and where the eastern section of Linden Street crossed the tracks to Washington Street a bit east of Kingsbury Street. (The central part of Linden Street didn’t exist at the time. More on that below.)

The earliest considerations to close the Everett Street crossing and construct an underpass occurred in 1885 during an aggressive campaign by Wellesley’s leaders to shape and improve their newly incorporated town. The primary reason for eliminating the grade crossing at Everett Street — not to mention all the other grade crossings in Wellesley — was simple: safety. Grade crossings were just plain dangerous. If it wasn’t pedestrians getting hit by trains, then it was horses or wagons.

But there was an additional reason why they argued to rid the town of the grade crossing at Everett Street: its presence was antithetical to the efforts of our forefathers — specifically, H.H. Hunnewell — to beautify the area from what is now the Town Hall property all the way to the Wellesley Square railroad stop. Prior to the late 1880s, this swath of land was, well…ugly. Where Town Hall currently sits was the rundown estate of Dr. William Morton. Heading west toward the present site of the post office was an unsightly depression housing large coal sheds and a freight station where trains unloaded supplies. And cutting through this land was the Everett Street roadway. Not exactly what they had in mind for the heart of the new town.

The push to extinguish the Everett Street crossing was aided by another key player: the Boston & Albany Railroad Company. Concurrent with the efforts of Wellesley’s leaders to beautify this area was the B&A’s own station improvement plan — an ambitious undertaking that led to the construction of four stone depots in Wellesley between 1885 and 1894, including one at Wellesley Square in 1889 (which was tragically razed in 1962).

The first record of the underpass proposal comes from a meeting between the Board of Selectmen and the directors of the B&A in 1885, just as the finishing touches were being placed on Hunnewell’s gift to Wellesley — that is, the Town Hall and Library building and surrounding parkland. The details regarding this meeting are sketchy, but Hunnewell, it appears, had two requests: to obtain land to expand the park west of Everett Street on B&A-owned land where the coal sheds and freight station were located, and to dispense with all grade crossings.

Within a short time, a complex deal was reached: the B&A would relocate the coal sheds and freight station, transfer ownership of the land to the Selectmen, and eliminate the grade crossings if Wellesley agreed to re-grade and forever maintain this parcel as parkland, close the approaches to all grade crossings, and lay out a new street parallel to the railroad connecting the eastern end of Linden Street to the current western end of Linden Street — then a disjointed roadway known as Front Street — in order to facilitate travel. In addition, the railroad agreed to construct iron bridges at Crest Road and Kingsbury Street, a new railroad depot at Wellesley Square, as well as an underpass near Cold Spring Brook, a tributary of Fuller Brook located just east of Everett Street and Town Hall.

For whatever reason, all parts of the agreement were completed by 1889 except the construction of the underpass. Flash forward to 1911. Still no underpass. What’s more: some residents, especially school children, hadn’t stopped illegally crossing the tracks at the abandoned Everett Street crossing. So a committee was formed by the Town to investigate constructing a passageway under the railroad at this location. Two years go by, little progress. Estimated costs to construct a passageway — approximately $15,000 — must have been too much of a hurdle given the B&A’s now-unwillingness to pay for it. The issue was therefore tabled.

This doesn’t mean the problem was resolved. In 1917, a study of pedestrian traffic at the Everett Street crossing counted 214 trespassers in just one day, 95% of them male (supporting the suspicion that “if the crossing were regarded as safe for the general use of pedestrians, it would be largely used by women”). So the Selectmen and the B&A took the issue to Superior Court and officially discontinued the Everett Street crossing, following this up by erecting new fencing and planting shrubs to discourage trespassers.

Didn’t work. But it wasn’t until the late 1920s that Town officials brought up the underpass idea again. By this point, increased residential development north of the railroad in the areas around Oak Street and Donizetti Street resulted in large numbers of people crossing the tracks rather than using the bridges at Crest Road or Kingsbury Street to reach points south. So, in 1929, Town Meeting voted to request that the Selectmen (once again) investigate how to proceed with an underpass at Everett Street. The following year, however, the board came back with bad news: there were just too many hurdles to move forward at this time. What those hurdles were remain a mystery. But in all likelihood, the primary issue was cost. The proposal therefore died.

In the 80-plus years since, the idea of an underpass at Everett Street has been brought up sporadically. Despite that, it doesn’t appear significant headway was ever made.

Now the underpass has been raised once again. Does any of this history matter? Maybe not. But if we’ve been discussing the proposal on and off for 131 years, what harm is there in entertaining the idea at least one more time?