Today in Transportation History – 1848: Escape to the Cape!

In southeastern Massachusetts, the first segment of the Cape Cod Branch Railroad was opened. This 14.7-mile (23.7-kilometer) section was built between the towns of Middleborough and Wareham in Plymouth County. By that May, an additional 12.9 miles (20.8 kilometers) of the railroad had been extended to the town of Sandwich on Cape Cod (conterminous with Barnstable County). “The main track is now completed, and in good running order, and well equipped,” noted the Cape Cod Branch Railroad Company in its annual report to the Massachusetts General Court (state legislature) early the following year.

The railroad had been incorporated in 1846. It was built to provide a link with the Fall River Railroad, which connected the towns of Fall River in Bristol County and South Braintree in the Boston area via Middleborough. The Old Colony Railroad, in turn, served as a link between South Braintree and Boston. The Cape Cod Branch Railroad was, therefore, part of a larger rail network within Massachusetts providing unprecedented and unimpeded transit service between Cape Cod and the state capital.

One of the foremost champions of the Cape Cod Branch Railroad was Colonel Richard Borden of Fall River. Borden was a prominent businessman and civic leader in his hometown. He was also a force of nature who reportedly could lift a barrel filled with molasses off the ground and then hold that barrel aloft until someone put a sling under it. Borden channeled that same energy and willpower into promoting the creation of the Cape Cod Branch Railroad, which he saw as a new means for bringing more traffic and economic opportunities to Fall River.

The extension of the railroad continued even further into Cape Cod, reaching the seaside village of West Barnstable in 1853. Early the following year, the railroad was officially renamed the Cape Cod Railroad. It was during the summer of that same year that the railroad reached the village of Hyannis, a major commercial hub of Cape Cod. By that fall, a steamboat service was put in place in Hyannis to serve as a link between the Cape Cod Railroad and the island of Nantucket.

The Cape Cod Railroad underwent another merger in 1872, becoming the “Cape Cod Division” of the Old Colony Railroad. As a part of the Old Colony Railroad, the line that had started out between Middleborough and Wareham in 1848 was completed in Provincetown on the extreme tip of Cape Cod in 1873.

Two decades later, this line became part of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad (NYNH&H). The NYNH&H ended daily passenger service in this region of Massachusetts in 1959, but it did provide seasonal rail service to Cape Cod during the summers between 1960 and 1964.  For a decade starting in 1986, Amtrak offered passenger service on summer weekends for the region with the train Cape Codder. Since 2013, the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority – in collaboration with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority – has been operating the Cape Flyer passenger rail service between Boston and Cape Cod each summer.

For more information about the Cape Cod Branch Railroad, and the passenger rail services descended from it, please check out

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