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Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Winthrop Wednesdays

The Narrow Gauge

Imagine living on a peninsula with only two connections to the mainland. Imagine this peninsula becoming a summer resort, with hundreds of people wanting and needing to get to fresh air, sun, sand and ocean. At all the right moments in time, all the bright, creative minds decided Winthrop needed transportation. It was still the age of horse and buggy, but no one living in Winthrop could make the journey to Boston to work. Where would they park the buggies, where could all those horses be kept during work hours, how could they all jam back through two narrow land connections to get home? A railroad was a brilliant idea. There were already several small railroad lines, operating independently, in the areas surrounding Winthrop, and briefly, in Winthrop. One was the Boston, Revere Beach and Lynn Railroad, which originally by-passed Winthrop. Construction began and by 1888, the Winthrop loop was added to the BRB&L. This evolved into steam driven locomotives, more tracks being laid and eventually, an electrified system. In Winthrop, it was simply called the Narrow Gauge.

Winthrop began as farm land, but when lands were sold off and more people moved to the peninsula, little villages popped up in various locations. Eventually, it was all called Winthrop, but the names still survive, the Beach, The Highlands, Magee’s Corner, the Center, Cottage Hill, Point Shirley, etc. The railroad needed to serve all these areas, so there were 9 stations, strategically located on a sweeping loop through the town. As this developed, other important additions to the town were added. Winthrop is hilly in places. The streets conformed to the terrain forcing residents to walk up one street and down another to get to the train stations. This was very inconvenient in the winter weather. The problem was solved when the town put in a series of public stairs. How much easier it was to be able to use the stairs, cut through a whole block, maybe two in some cases, and find yourself within easy walking distance of a train station. The train took its passengers to the pier in East Boston, where they boarded a ferry to take them across the harbor to Rowe’s Wharf and to work in Boston. The return was completed in reverse for the trip home in the evening. 

 (In this picture, my grandfather is in the middle.)

This railroad played a vital role in the lives of Winthrop residents. Boston was only 6-8 miles away, but it could take over an hour to get there on surface roads. It gave people the opportunity to become more independent and economically sound. The town itself benefited from this, obviously. The Narrow Gauge played a significant part in helping Winthrop develop into a great place to live.

In my family, the Narrow Gauge was the backbone of my mother’s family. My Gt. Grandfather, Matthew Broderick*, an immigrant from Galway, Ireland, started out in Hyde Park MA. By the 1880 census for East Boston, his occupation was listed as section hand for the RR. In 1900, he was living in Lynn and had become a Section Master. His son, John, now 21 years old, my grandfather, was also working for the RR and held the job title of baggage master. As a section master, Matthew was responsible for getting the tracks laid through Winthrop Beach and into the Highlands. As the family story goes, he was well noted for his accuracy. John, while working on the trains going through Winthrop, met a resident, Alvina Chambers. They were soon married and took up residence on Locust St., just a short distance from the Ocean Spray Station. This is where my grandfather reported to work (no commuting for him!) each day. *(It is unknown if there is a family connection to the movie star of the same name.  That’s another journey!)

The Narrow Gauge Relief Association held annual concerts and balls at Crescent Gardens in Revere, often attended by numerous dignitaries. The 27th annual was chaired by John Broderick and many state and city officials were expected to attend. Special trains were scheduled to run at 2 AM, when the gala ended, to ensure people were able to return to their homes. The news clipping I have is not dated but through a process of elimination, I believe this event happened in 1925. There was no explanation of the meaning of ‘Relief’ as used by this association.

Then the inevitable happened. Cars, subways, buses all became a more convenient method of transportation. In January 1940, the railroad closed it’s doors forever.  Eight of the 9 stations were torn down, but one was recycled and is now a private residence in the Thornton Park area. For years there were still many traces of where the railroad had been. For me, the railroad came and went some time before I was born. But I grew up hearing the tales of the Narrow Gauge, how it impacted my grandmother as a young wife and mother, the influence it had on my mother, my aunt and my uncle while they grew up, and then there were the left over landmarks and how they influenced me. Sometimes, with a child’s imagination, I would stop and imagine a train going by. I could hear the whistle blow and I’d wave to my grandfather as it traveled on by.

Probably the last picture of my grandfather in his conductor's uniform. He's the one on the right.

Winthrop Then and Now – Winthrop Improvement and Historical Association

Ruth Broderick Pye’s scrapbook

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