The Boston & Worcester Railroad
By 1835 there were three railroad systems opened in Massachusetts. The Boston & Worcester Railroad was the first, opening July 4, 1835, closely followed by the Boston & Providence and the Boston & Lowell that also opened in 1835. The urgency of building the three lines simultaneously was primarily due to the immediate success of the Blackstone River Canal as a major shipping route from Providence to Worcester and the uncontrolled deterioration of the Worcester Turnpike
When the Boston & Worcester Railroad, chartered in 1831, built the railroad through Westborough and offered full service in July 1835, it was a pioneer of railroad development in Massachusetts and the first passenger train in New England. Although the new rail line had many supporters, it also had many Westborough detractors.
The contract to build the B&W went to Tobias Boland, born in Tipperary, Ireland. Boland had just completed construction of the Blackstone River Canal and had previous experience in railroad and bridge construction. Boland hired Philip Norton, an experienced builder as the superintendent of the works. Boland then began recruiting Irish Catholic immigrants as laborers, as he had done for the canal project. These laborers lived with their families in shanties built along the construction area and moved wherever the work took them.
These laborers were referred to as Gandy Dancers (from the Gaelic, cinnte-continuous). They not only did the pick and shovel work but also set the sleepers, then inched the iron rails into place with a lining bar while others spiked the rails to the sleepers with sledge hammers. Their movements to the rhythmic singing of the line boss set the pace and appeared as though the men were dancing.
Construction of the line began in August 1832 but did not go without loss of life and major construction issues. Quicksand took several lives while black powder explosions used in blasting the rock took the lives of several laborers and injured nearby families. Major cuts were made through solid rock obstacles, swamps were drained and filled with rubble rock while grades were raised to support the weight of the trains and rails along the 44-mile route.
Entering Westborough from the east, the rail line was built on a raised grade that ran parallel to the Sudbury River. The line passed over a level grade crossing of Fruit Street and Flanders Road at Rocklawn and into Cedar Swamp. The line continued on a raised road bed through the entire length of the 3 mile swamp before entering downtown Westborough. The rail line was built at grade here, bisected the downtown crossing over East Main Street and proceeded in a northerly direction between Milk and Summer streets until making a turn west and passed under Milk Street where Boland built a wooden bridge for the road. Continuing west, the railroad made substantial cuts at Otis and Fisher streets while grades were increased and bridges built over Otis Street, Fisher Street, Maynard and Arch streets.
The first train to arrive in Downtown Westborough on November 15, 1834 was called an iron horse. It was a noisy, smoke and embers belching wood powered steam locomotive pulling the first passenger coaches that were nothing more than recycled stagecoaches adapted to run on the railroad. For the next seven months the train was dead ended at Westboro and returned to Boston while construction of the road continued to Worcester.
Photo: The Boston & Worcester Railroad
The inaugural run from Boston to Worcester was on July 4, 1835 and consisted of 12 passenger cars carrying 300 persons drawn by two locomotives, the Yankee and the Meteor. Westborough residents turned out in mass for the gala event to welcome the latest means of transportation.