The First Boston-Area Trolleybuses Make Their Debut

April 11, 1936

The first trackless trolley line in the Boston metropolitan area made its debut when the Boston Elevated Railway (BERy) introduced trolleybuses on what had been a streetcar route between Harvard Square and Lechmere Square in the city of Cambridge. The first of these orange vehicles left Bennett Street yard (near Harvard Square) at 4:35 a.m. The second trolleybus in the fledgling network departed from Lechmere Square 13 minutes later. That day’s edition of the Boston Globe reported, “At once the coaches, similar to gasoline buses but propelled by electricity, appeared to be well received by the riding public, who found them quite comfortable.”

The article also elaborated on the technology involved in getting the trolleybuses from one point to another. “Six coaches have been placed into service on the run,” the article stated. “Electricity is fed from wires by way of a double trolley [a device attached to a pole and used for channeling electric currents] to the coach. The trolley is on a swivel so the coach can pull into the curb to take on and let off passengers.”

A couple of months after those trolleybuses began operations in Cambridge, BERy vice president and general manager Edward Dana highlighted the vehicles while speaking at the annual meeting of the Canadian Transit Association about “how a metropolitan area requires an adequate transit system making use of all the latest methods of transportation.” Dana (who was also president of the American Transit Association at the time) told those gathered at the meeting in Niagara Falls, “Rapid transit trains, street cars, trolley coaches and gasoline buses all have a part in the picture of modern city transportation, and each system must adapt the particular vehicles to the lines where they can give the best and most economical service.”

After their introduction as the newest link in Greater Boston’s wide-ranging transit system, the trolleybuses remained popular with people using the service in Cambridge. More trolleybus lines were opened not only in that city but elsewhere in the region over the next several years. By the time this network reached its peak in 1952, there were 37 lines altogether in operation. A total of 463 vehicles operated on the lines that year, making the fleet the third largest of its kind in the United States. (Only the systems serving the Chicago and Atlanta metropolitan areas had more trolleybuses.)

BERy operated the trolleybuses until it was replaced by the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) in 1947; MTA, for its part, was succeeded by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority in 1964. The overwhelming majority of Greater Boston’s trolleybuses have been phased out and in many cases supplanted by other types of transit vehicles within the past six decades. A total of four trolleybus routes from that once-extensive network, however, continue to serve Cambridge as well as the town of Belmont and city of Watertown.

 

For more information on Greater Boston’s trolleybus network, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trolleybuses_in_Greater_Boston

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