To Boston By Rail, Then & Now
Posted on October 15, 2012
By Sam Doran '16
“I have decided not to cut any classes and will leave Norton 11 o’clock. … I will take at Mansfield a train which arrives in Boston about 12.30.”
This could have been an email I sent to my folks before coming home this weekend. But it wasn’t from me, and it wasn’t written anytime recently. Those are the words of Dorothy Newton, a freshman preparing to visit her parents. She is writing to her father from Wheaton College in April 1918. Several of her letters were recently donated to the college archives, where I’ve been working; I read a few while accessioning them last week, and was struck by the similarities of our commutes.
Dorothy announced her plan to take an electric car (trolley) from Norton to Mansfield. That would have been the NTA (Norton, Taunton, & Attleboro) line. Its trolleys were locally known for their frequent derailments. She would then board the New Haven Railroad – known as the NH – and ride the train into Boston. When going to the Boston Public Library or to the opera with some friends, she would get out at Back Bay Station. If she were visiting home, she would ride to South Station and then connect to a train for Andover.
That was Dorothy in 1918. She graduated Wheaton with the Class of 1921, and went on to study at the University of Paris. While a student at Wheaton, Dorothy had taken the NH Railroad north to Boston. By 1928, she was going south to New Haven, where she taught high school French. She would go on to become department head before retiring in 1964.
The NH went out of business shortly after Dorothy retired, and its Providence Line – the line that connects Mansfield and Boston – has been operated by the MBTA since 1976. Here in Norton, the NTA trolleys were permanently derailed in 1928 and replaced by buses – today, the GATRA.
I don’t drive. A proponent of public transit, I get a thrill out of taking the commuter rail. It’s easy, exciting, and even with recent fare hikes it’s still not a bad deal. I’ve quickly discovered that the Wheaton-Mansfield shuttle bus has a bizarre schedule. There are huge gaps of time between the train’s arrival at Mansfield and the shuttle bus’ arrival, often leaving passengers waiting around for a half hour or more.
Not much has changed there. On a journey back from Boston in 1918, Dorothy Newton writes she “was fortunate enough to get the electric car” from Mansfield to Norton. Even with her good fortune, it seems from her account that she was waiting at the station at least a good fifteen minutes.(Today, complaining about public transit has largely migrated to Twitter. This is especially true of the MBTA, and reading the MBTA hashtag provides endless entertainment.)
“I’ll leave Norton on the 1:30 bus and arrive at Mansfield around a quarter of two. After a half hour wait, I’ll take the train into South Station. From there, the subway and a bus. I should be back home by 4:00.”
Now those are my words. Sam Doran, a freshman preparing to go home to Lexington for the weekend, September 2012. (There are some celebrations going on for my town’s 300th anniversary.) It seems to me that Wheaton’s public transit connections haven’t changed a whole lot. I could’ve written my parents a letter virtually identical to Dorothy’s from 1918. Today, the Wheaton-Mansfield shuttle is a bus instead of a trolley. When I get back to Lexington, I’ll use my cell phone to let people know I’ve arrived. But not much else has changed, has it?