Worcestory Lesson: All aboard! The heydey of Worcester trolley service

“As home to trolley manufacturer Osgood Bradley and later Pullman Standard, Worcester played an important role in the history of passenger rail travel in the United States. And over the years, trolleys and trains have captured the imagination of millions.” Indeed, hop on and take a fascinating journey with Worcester history expert David DuBois.

Worcestory Lesson: All aboard! The heydey of Worcester trolley service

The Civil War was still raging in September 1863 when the first horse-drawn trolley cars rolled down the streets of Worcester. By 1900, a system of light rail connected not only the neighborhoods within the city, but communities across Massachusetts and into neighboring states.

At its height in 1916, the Worcester Consolidated Street Railway Co. was the largest in the state with 429 cars, more than 300 miles of track and 72.7 million fares.

A 1902 map published in the Sunday Telegram of the electric rail network.

Worcester Public Library Periodicals Collection

A 1902 map published in the Sunday Telegram of the electric rail network.

The first electric trolley cars were introduced to Worcester in 1891. The streetcars were a big improvement and service expanded rapidly. The system was a mishmash of different trolley and railroad companies that formed a transportation network across Massachusetts and into neighboring states.

Today we think of transit as a government responsibility, but in the 19th and early 20th centuries rail was run by for-profit corporations. In the beginning, many of the companies were small and some were even created to run a single line.


Another Worcestory Lesson: A trip down memorial line, starring the Aud


Worcestory Lesson: A trip down memorial lane, starring the Aud

There are many different ways people remember and publicly memorialize the past. As Memorial Day approaches, it is well worth taking a moment to think about how we remember veterans and those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

All over the city there are monuments to those who served. From the squares in every neighborhood honoring veterans to the Civil War monument on the Common, perhaps the most impressive war memorial in the city is the long-shuttered Memorial Auditorium at Lincoln Square.

Postcard from the author’s collection. Postmarked May 14, 1941.

Courtesy David DuBois

Postcard from the author’s collection. Postmarked May 14, 1941.

After several years of neutrality, the United States entered World War I in April 1917. In August the 26th Yankee Division was established, including four infantry and two field artillery companies from Worcester. The division incorporated elements of the Massachusetts State Militia (predecessor to the National Guard) that date back to the Revolutionary War. It was the second U.S. division to arrive in Europe as part of the American Expeditionary Force.


More from David DuBois: Digging history on East Side Trail


Worcestory Lesson: Digging the city’s past on East Side trail

Early spring is a great time of year to get outside and hike the trails in and around Worcester. Before leaves block the view, you can see portions of the historical landscape that are normally obscured. Oftentimes hidden in the woods are long abandoned but important vestiges of our cities’ pasts.

Rock ledge of old coal mine

David DuBois / For Worcester Sun

Rock ledge of old coal mine

The East Side trail stretches from Lake Quinsigamond to East Park (Cristoforo Colombo Park) on Shrewsbury Street. The trail is managed by the Greater Worcester Land Trust, with partnerships and conservation restrictions from the city and local landowners.

Work on the trail began in 1997 and finished in 2011. It takes hikers past old rock quarries, through ravines and along spectacular stone walls. One of the more unique landmarks is the old coal mine shaft. Yes, an old coal mine in Worcester.

Also from David DuBois: Worcestory Lesson: A ‘diabolical outrage’ in 1850

Worcestory Lesson: Royal Pioneer and the city’s place in motorcycle history

If not for a factory fire, it is possible that instead of Hondas or Harley-Davidsons today we might all be riding motorcycles made by Royal Motor Works right here in Worcester. Introduced in 1909, the Pioneer was, according to Bonhams, “one of the finest motorcycles produced in this country.”

1910 Royal Pioneer

Courtesy Bonhams

1910 Royal Pioneer

While there are some serious folks who ride year-round, March brings back motorcycle season for the rest of us. It is the beginning of outdoor swap meets, long rides and late nights in the garage. This tradition stretches back to the very beginnings of motorcycle culture here in Worcester.

Worcestory Lesson: Green Book, Hotel Worcester welcomed blacks visiting city in the ’40s

The outsiders’ perspective of guide books and first-person travel accounts make them very attractive sources to historians.

Their writers have the same desire to experience a place, and oftentimes ask the same questions as we do looking back today. In particular, there’s been a renewed interest in studying the role of travel as part of the 20th-century African-American experience. While Worcester was not a major travel destination, there were many people moving through the city by both car and rail.

There were no guarantees for travelers of color in the 1940s.

Prior to passage of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 local laws or regulations could segregate service. Even in areas without legally defined segregation — as in much of the northern United States — local practice and racial bias could be used as reasons to deny accommodation.

Cover of the 1947 edition of the Negro Motorist Green Book. “Carry your Green Book with you…you may need it…”

Courtesy New York Public Library Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Cover of the 1947 edition of the Negro Motorist Green Book. “Carry your Green Book with you…you may need it…”

Imagine arriving in an unfamiliar city not knowing if the restaurant around the corner would serve you, or if the gas station would fill your car. This could make travel extremely stressful, difficult or even dangerous.

Worcestory Lesson: A ‘diabolical outrage’ in 1850

Just after midnight on May 3, 1850, a bomb exploded at Mayor Henry Chapin’s office on Main and Sudbury streets. The explosion destroyed the contents of his office and severely damaged other businesses in the building.

Three nights later, a second bomb was set off at the home of Constable Charles Warren. While the explosion at the mayor’s office caused significant property damage, the one at Warren’s could have incurred a deadlier result. Warren later testified that his family was home and asleep at the time of the explosion, and fragments of the shell tore through his house.

Worcester’s second mayor, Henry Chapin (first one bombed).

Courtesy Worcester Historical Museum

Worcester’s second mayor, Henry Chapin (first one bombed).

These two almost forgotten events in Worcester’s history drew in the politics of two of the 19th century’s most fiercely debated issues, temperance and slavery.

The explosions foreshadowed the violence that would one day accompany the national prohibition of alcohol from 1920 to 1933.

Worcester Gas and Light Company

Worcestory Lesson: Worcester Gas Light Co., impact and legacy

Cyanide. Arsenic. Asbestos. Coal tar.

All very nasty substances discovered in the ground at the future Worcester Regional Transit Authority maintenance garage on Quinsigamond Avenue. The land was the site of a former manufactured gas plant built in the 19th century in Worcester’s big wave of expansion.

Worcester Gas and Light Company

Courtesy Worcester Historical Museum

The former Worcester Gas and Light Company

While today we burn natural gas for cooking and heating, in the 1800s coal was liquefied to produce a flammable gas. It was then piped underground to businesses and homes to provide an alternative to burning coal or wood, two fuels that were dirty and labor intensive to use.

The gas was also used for lighting and for street lamps throughout the city, replacing older oil-burning lamps that required refilling and maintenance. As anyone who has opened up the walls of an older house knows, gas was installed before electricity.