Thursday, February 20, 2020

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - The South Yarmouth Railroad Station

     Since September 1981 the Cape Cod Rail Trail has been allowing tens of thousands of outdoor enthusiasts the chance to experience Cape Cod’s natural beauty by bicycle, on foot, and more. The Cape Cod Rail Trail follows an old railroad right-of-way initially owned by the original Cape Cod Railroad in the mid-19th century. At first the tracks brought train service as far as Hyannis and Yarmouth Port with service reaching Woods Hole and Provincetown by 1872.

     For more than thirty years the terminus of the Rail Trail was a parking lot along Route 134 in South Dennis with the trail being twenty-two miles in total length. In 2015 construction on westward expansion of the Rail Trail began. In December 2018 a new 3.7-mile extension opened in Yarmouth as the trail now ends at Higgins Crowell Road in Yarmouth just past the Bayberry Hills Golf Course. A new parking area was built where the trail crosses Station Avenue, clearing what had been abandoned and overgrown railroad tracks. Did you know that decades ago, long before Stop and Shop, CVS, Wendy’s and more lined Station Avenue those railroad tracks were active, and the South Yarmouth Railroad Station sat on the appropriately named ‘Station’ Avenue? This is its story.

The new Rail Trail extension looking west, the railroad station would have been directly to the right.
(Christopher Setterlund 2016)

     Beginning in the late 1840’s the Cape Cod Railroad began extending its tracks eastward. It was a slow but steady progress. By the spring of 1854 the tracks had made their way into Yarmouth making railroad stations a necessity. The town’s first station was in the fishing village of Yarmouth Port along present-day Railroad Avenue. As the fishing industry in Yarmouth Port slowed, the business center of the town began to shift south. In 1865 a new railroad station was built in South Yarmouth, close to Bass River near the intersection of present-day Great Western Road and North Main Street. This station became the main one in town, complete with a post office, while the Yarmouth Port station still remained in operation as well. The new station was christened the North Yarmouth Railroad Station.

     The North Yarmouth station was part of the Cape Cod Railroad until 1872 when it merged with the Old Colony Railroad and the Newport Railroad to become one all encompassing Old Colony Railroad. In April 1883 the station along with the corresponding post office was renamed East Yarmouth. It was changed again in April 1889 this time to Yarmouth Farms. In March 1893 the New Haven Railroad leased the entirety of the Old Colony system, essentially giving them a monopoly on rail travel in New England by 1898.

     As time went on the business center of town shifted south again, toward present-day Station Avenue. Early in 1900 the town petitioned the state Board of Railroad Commissioners for the ability to relocate the Yarmouth Farms station. The main opposition came from business owners near the present station, suggesting their interests would be crippled by the removal of the station. The pleas did not work and the New Haven Railroad decided to move the station coupled with the promise of a macadam road being created connecting South Yarmouth to the new station location. Macadam is a form of pavement invented by Scottish engineer John Loudon McAdam in the early 19th century.

     On July 27, 1901 the Yarmouth Farms Railroad Station move was approved. It took six days in mid-August and was done by being partially disassembled and placed on flat cars. It was moved roughly a mile east where it was renamed the South Yarmouth Railroad Station. As a consequence the former Yarmouth Farms post office was discontinued. The macadam road work commenced as the station was moved, up to 180-feet per day. It was finished in December 1902, the current-day Station Avenue.

The South Yarmouth/Bass River railroad station circa 1927 (public domain)

     In June of 1910 a forest fire of more than one hundred acres threatened the station but the firefighters will along with a shift of wind direction saved it. The New Haven Railroad changed the name of the South Yarmouth station to Bass River in September 1914. The company wanted to remove all north, south, east, and west names in stations to avoid any confusion in train orders. Bass River Railroad Station ended up becoming a far better name than the rumored name New Haven Railroad had considered, and that was ‘Mozart.’ As automobile availability began to rise, along with better paved roads, interest and usage in rail travel on Cape Cod began to wane in the 1920’s into the 1930’s. The New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad began losing money in keeping the trains running.

     The end for the station came in 1936. In June the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad broke its lease with the Old Colony system of routes as part of bankruptcy reorganization. The South Yarmouth/Bass River station was one of the first casualties as it was seen as a lightly patronized station. In all 88 railroad stations would be shut down in the immediate aftermath of the bankruptcy. New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad operated at a $2.5 million loss ($44.7 million in 2020) in 1937 alone. The reorganized company survived until 1969 when it was absorbed by the Penn Central Transportation Company.

The Rail Trail crossing North Main Street near where the original Yarmouth Railroad Station stood. (Christopher Setterlund)

     The South Yarmouth/Bass River station sat vacant, routinely being defaced and broken into, before the town demolished it in September 1940. The tracks remained, becoming overgrown and concealed, for decades while Station Avenue prospered business-wise. It was not until 2015 that the parcel of land that once held the South Yarmouth Railroad Station was repurposed as the Cape Cod Rail Trail extension. Though the tracks were removed from Station Avenue west they still remain to the east of the street where they continue on much like they did decades ago.

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