The history of rail travel goes back over two centuries. 1804 saw British engineer Richard Trevithick build the first full-scale railway steam engine. In the United States, the first railroad came in 1827. This was the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad which was chartered on February 28, 1827.
After that, it was off to the races for the new mode of transport. By 1840 the U.S. had nearly 3,000 miles of rails. That number was set to more than triple by 1850 when the country saw more than 9,000 miles of rails. More and more were being built seemingly daily. Naturally, as more miles of tracks were laid more out of the way corners of the country became connected.
This new mode of travel was far faster than the horse-drawn stagecoach. In the 1830s a steam engine typically averaged a speed of around 30mph. In contrast, a stagecoach averaged just over 4mph. Although nowhere near the top speeds of today (Amtrack trains regularly hit speeds of 125-150mph in the 2020s) it was a major upgrade for travelers of the day.
In 1840 Cape Cod was rural, quiet, and disconnected. It had a population of only 32,548 over the entire peninsula. During the middle of this decade, talk grew loud for a railroad line that could connect Cape Cod to larger cities such as Boston and Providence. The push for rail service on the Cape began due to the increasing popularity of the Boston & Sandwich Glass Company.
Cape Cod rail service finally became a real possibility with the formation of its first rail transport company. The Cape Cod Branch Railroad Company was created in the spring of 1846. There had been low rumblings in the previous months about bringing rail service to Cape Cod. The rumblings turned to concrete plans when a meeting was held on May 6, 1846, at the Barnstable County Court House. This meeting called by John Reed officially established the company.
After approval, the first true meeting of the Cape Cod Branch Railroad Company was held on August 19, 1846. The location was the hotel of W.D. Burbank in Wareham. The meeting elected officials and also ironed out the details of getting rail service to the Cape. By the time the meeting ended, the company had its first president Col. Richard Borden of Middleboro. It had its first treasurer in Southworth Shaw Jr. of Boston. Most importantly the company decided that it would connect Cape Cod to the larger world with a twenty-seven-mile stretch of track from Middleboro to Sandwich.
This new stretch of track would allow freight service to carry the popular Boston & Sandwich Glass products off Cape far faster and safer. The company tasked with building the first train to visit Cape Cod was Boston Locomotive Works. Based out of Boston the company was created in 1831 and had been known as Hinckley Locomotive Works until 1848. The specifics of the train were that it was a 25-ton 4-4-0 American steam engine. The 4-4-0 distinction referred to the wheel arrangement. Four leading wheels on two axles, four powered and coupled driving wheels on two axles, and a lack of trailing wheels.
The first section of the Cape Cod Branch Railroad was opened for business on January 26, 1848. It was a 14.7-mile track length connecting Middleboro and Agawam, a village of Wareham along the Agawam River. The next step was building a bridge across Cohasset Narrows in Buzzards Bay. Development was swift and soon it was time for a big celebration.
On May 26, 1848, the final 12.9 miles of track was completed. The Cape Cod Branch Railroad was officially opened. The tracks ended at present-day Jarves Street in Sandwich only a few hundred feet from the Boston & Sandwich Glass Company.
The historic day saw the first train arrive at 1pm carrying roughly 1,000 passengers. A throng of people had gathered in inclement weather to cheer as the steam engine made its final approach. There was a function after with seating for 1,200, glassware from Boston & Sandwich Glass, and appropriately sandwiches to eat.
|The East Sandwich Railroad Station|
Dignitaries on hand wondered about when the railway would connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans (it would come in 1869). Locals wondered when the railway would connect both to the tip of Cape Cod in Provincetown. For Cape Cod, the progress was slow going.
Although the railway had two arrival times daily in Sandwich and stagecoaches shuttling passengers all the way into Orleans the desire to extend the tracks existed from Day One. The main sticking point was where the extended track would end. It was a battle between Barnstable and Yarmouth.
The popularity of rail travel was evident from the beginning. Hard numbers from the time show that profits for the Cape Cod Branch Railroad doubled from July 1849 to July 1852 from $1,961 per month ($77,259) to $3,823 per month ($150,617). This worked out to just over $1.8 million per year in today’s money.
Work on the track extension began in 1853. It reached West Barnstable around Thanksgiving and a depot was erected there along Meetinghouse Way (Route 149). It was decided to ultimately extend the tracks into Yarmouth. During this construction, another significant change happened. The Cape Cod Branch Railroad became known simply as the Cape Cod Railroad in early 1854.
While construction of the new track extension was ongoing there was a series of donations from Nantucket residents that directly led to another transportation institution. This influx of cash to the Cape Cod Railroad came with a catch. When the tracks made their way to Hyannis a spoke of track had to be built south to Hyannis Port. There a wharf would be built. It would serve as a disembarking point for a new steamboat ferry service. The steamboat would connect Cape Cod to Nantucket Island via the Cape Cod Railroad. This would supplant New Bedford as the nearest ferry location.
|Yarmouth Port Railroad Depot(Wikipedia/Public Domain)|
All of this came to pass during the spring and summer of 1854. The extension of the Cape Cod Railroad line was 18 miles in length and cost $824,058(29.7 million in 2023). The first passenger train ran on the tracks on May 19, 1854. From that point, all remained quiet on the railroad front until 1860.
It was at this time that talk turned to either extending the tracks east from Yarmouth into Harwich or Orleans or creating a stagecoach road running the same length. Easier access to the Outer Cape was the overriding point. It was also around this time that a new railroad company was formed. It became known as the Cape Cod Central Railroad. Although it has the same name in the 2020s the companies are in no way related.
Local newspapers were surprised at the lack of public discourse about extending the railroad. Lack of interest notwithstanding surveying of a future extension lasted from January through April 1861. Progress on raising the funds to begin the project was slow for the Cape Cod Central Railroad. The main sticking point was getting each town that would see the tracks pass through it to pay its fair share. It was more than three years until the extension of the tracks into Orleans became more than empty words at meetings.
Finally, on June 29, 1864 ground was broken at the Yarmouth Port terminus of the railway. The plan was for 18 miles of track to be laid, ending in Orleans. As the way was being laid Woods Hole and Provincetown, the two furthest apart points on the peninsula, started talking about rail access.
Petitions were sent to the Massachusetts State Legislature to extend the tracks into Provincetown. Before that though the railway had to get to Orleans. The route was graded by June 1865. On October 5, 1865, the Harwich section of the track was opened to much fanfare. It was a gala event that included a visit from Governor John Andrew. It marked the halfway point of the extension with 9 more miles to go to Orleans. That destination was reached on December 6, 1865. The Cape Cod Central Railroad had succeeded in extending the reach of the rails nearly to the Outer Cape.
The Cape Cod Railroad, perhaps seeing the competing company’s progress, bought the Cape Cod Central Railroad in May 1868. This consolidated organization listened to the public and started working on another track extension.
In April 1870 talks began to extend the tracks into Wellfleet. Bids were taken from some of the largest and most respected contractors in Massachusetts. The new 11.6-mile extension took from May to December to construct. The depot was erected near the present-day intersection of Commercial Street and Railroad Avenue along Duck Creek. December 28, 1870, saw the first passenger train arrive to crowds of cheering locals.
While Wellfleet celebrated Woods Hole and Provincetown continued to clamor for their own railroad depots. Provincetown raised the funds necessary on its end to get the tracks built, however, a delay came in getting neighboring Truro to do the same. In Woods Hole, it was a different story as the track continuation needed to come south from Buzzards Bay.
The ground was broken on the spoke of the track to Woods Hole on September 12, 1871. It began at Cohasset Narrows in Buzzards Bay. 17.5 miles of track were laid south. Several depots were built along the way in Falmouth before ending at the water in Woods Hole. The first passenger train arrived at the Woods Hole depot on July 18, 1872. For the Cape Cod Railroad, it would be their last successful venture.
Overtures about a potential takeover of Cape Cod Railroad began in earnest in late 1871. Meetings were held throughout the first half of 1872. It became obvious that the far larger Old Colony Railroad was going to make a bid. On March 27, 1872, Old Colony Railroad’s bid was approved. Later in the year on October 5th, the purchase of the Cape Cod Railroad became official and a celebration was held. It became known as Old Colony’s ‘Cape Cod Division.’
1873 dawned with final preparations being made to extend Cape Cod’s railway into Provincetown. With the funds secured the progress was quick. 14 miles of track were laid in only seven months to connect Wellfleet to Provincetown. The track terminus was a depot along the newly created Bradford Street. The actual tracks ended at Railroad Wharf (where MacMillan Wharf is today) some 1,200 feet out into the water. This extra distance was to make it easy for fishermen to load their catch onto train cars.
July 22, 1873, was a day of great celebration. The Old Colony Railroad’s Cape Cod Division had succeeded in connecting 14 of the 15 towns on the Cape with the greater world. Chatham would have to wait to become the 15th in 1887.
A train departed the Yarmouth station loaded with more than 1,000 passengers, many of them famous dignitaries of the area, bound for Provincetown. At around 3pm the train arrived at a festive scene. A tent on High Pole Hill was the site of a gala dinner filled with speeches from dignitaries. People spoke of how now Cape Cod was connected to Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Only twenty-five years after the Cape Cod Railroad was founded the tracks extended all the way to the tip of the Cape.
|The view of Provincetown from Railroad Wharf with the old Town Hall on High Pole Hill in the background. (Boston Public Library)|
President Ulysses S. Grant took a ride on the railroad into Provincetown one year later in August 1874. From this point forward Cape Cod grew into the vacation destination it remains to this day. Ease of access to virtually all places on the peninsula gave potential visitors all the motivation they needed.
The railroad dominated travel for the next thirty years. However, a new invention came about in the latter years of the 19th century that would eventually topple the train as the premiere mode of transportation. The automobile would change the world as it became more readily available.
Today there is still a fair amount of railroad tracks on Cape Cod. However, less than half of the Cape is accessible via rail. For those curious as to where the tracks used to run one only needs to hop onto the Cape Cod Rail Trail beginning in South Yarmouth and follow it out to Wellfleet. It follows the old path the trains followed. There is even a segment of the rail trail that travels into Chatham that is named the Old Colony Rail Trail. It is named after the company that helped finish the job of bringing the railroad to the entire Cape that the Cape Cod Railroad began.
A follow-up to this article will cover the gradual decline of Cape Cod’s railroad throughout the 20th century.
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