Boston’s Subway: From First to Worst!

Posted by on 4:26 pm in Uncategorized | 0 comments

TrialRunOn September 1, 1897, America’s first subway opened in Boston, when a trolley disappeared underground at the corner of Arlington and Boylston streets and stopped at a station at the corner of Boylston and Tremont. (At left is a picture of a trial run the day before.)

On January 14, 2016, the Boston subway system recorded a very different milestone: The National Transit Database released data that showed the MBTA had 219 “major mechanical failures” in the year 2014. That’s the worst rate of breakdowns among all transit systems nationwide, and it’s four times the national average. Yikes.

The Red Sox went worst to first to worst in three seasons. What are the odds the MBTA climbs to first next year?

As reported in The Boston GlobeMBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo questioned the national figures, saying that “there is no uniform practice for reporting mechanical failures” to the National Transit Database. “What one rail service provider considers a failure, another one may not,” he said. He also said the agency would continue efforts to keep old trains and equipment from failing by either repairing or replacing them.

Also from the Globe:

The T’s light rail lines — the Green Line and Mattapan-Ashmont trolley — ranked third worst in terms of major mechanical system failures per train mile traveled among 23 light rail systems nationally, according to the 2014 National Transit Database, which is maintained by the Federal Transit Administration. The T’s heavy rail lines — the Red, Orange, and Blue — ranked as the sixth worst among 15 heavy rail systems nationally, the figures show. The commuter rail system ranked fifth worst among 24 commuter rail systems nationally in 2014, the latest year for which data was available.




A Nice Award, a Great Honor, at the State House

Posted by on 11:20 pm in Uncategorized | 3 comments








I was about to call for an Uber to take me downtown Tuesday when I looked at my watch and thought: Take the T. I was going to the State House to collect a nice award for “The Race Underground” from the Massachusetts Center for the Book, as one of its Non-Fiction Books of the Year (I was not the category’s big winner, that went to Elizabeth Kolbert for “Sixth Extinction).

So I walked up to the JFK/UMass station and took the Red Line to Park Street, which, of course, was the second station that the first subway in America stopped at on September 1, 1897, after first passing through the Boylston Street station. Park Street was also where a Boston Globe reporter stood in the early 1890s to count the street traffic as part of the subway debate. It was, needless to say, very congested. This is what I wrote about that moment:  A reporter for the Globe went out one afternoon, stood at the busy downtown corner of Park Street and Tremont Street in front of the towering, white Park Street Church and counted 303 streetcars passing by in a single hour, or five every minute.  A “mile an hour pace” is how the paper described the scene. 

Insert joke here about how much it’s changed now that those streetcars are underground.

That corner is also a historic spot for another reason. The same construction engineer, Solomon Willard, who built the Bunker Hill Monument oversaw the look of the Park Street Church in 1809. And it’s where “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” was first sung in public and where William Lloyd Garrison spoke out against slavery for the first time.

Okay, history lesson over. Back to the awards.


It was a really terrific ceremony, in a beautiful part of the State House, what’s called Nurse’s Hall, beneath the golden dome. There were about 30 authors there, from categories like non-fiction, fiction, poetry, children’s and young adult. And all of us got certificates like these, really nice, signed by our legislators. And some of the local lawmakers even came and honored their local winners, like Sonia Chang-Diaz from Jamaica Plain (below, right). IMG_4240 IMG_4239






Below left was a fellow author I sat with and had a terrific chat with, Katherine Howe. She’s from Marblehead, and wrote what sounds like a terrific young adult novel called “Conversion,” about a present-day North Shore private school and a mysterious illness that brings back memories of Salem and witches. Katherine and I took the pictures of each other getting our awards.

All of the writers got a moment to speak and just thank the Mass Center for the Book for organizing the event and luncheon. I said a few words about the vital importance of libraries in our communities, for research, but also just for our kids, to constantly encourage them to browse the stacks and get lost in their imagination.

I did not do any T-bashing, tempting as it may have been. It’s hard to believe that two years after “The Race Underground” was published in hardcover and a year after the paperback that these moments are still happening for me. But I’m not complaining.

IMG_4222 IMG_4228





NYPL releases new, high-res photos of America’s first subways under construction

Posted by on 3:33 pm in Uncategorized | 1 comment

nypl.digitalcollections.a44288b4-9bd8-b31f-e040-e00a18060314.001.wnypl.digitalcollections.510d47d9-a493-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.wHistory buffs rejoice!

If you’re anything of a history geek like me, this is cool news. The New York Public Library, a place where I spent many long days and nights researching “The Race Underground,” in particular using its private papers of  engineering titan Frank J. Sprague, has released digitally more than 180,000 photos, postcards, maps and other items in the public domain. And in releasing them, the library is eagerly inviting people to do what I am doing right now: Download high-res-files, grab them and use them.

Naturally, I went poking around for any cool subway photos and found a bunch, one from Boston and lots from New York. Click on each image to see it larger. I’ve seen a few of these, but they are never easy to get access to. As the New York Times, a lot of these images have been available, just not in great resolution.

Here is what a library official told The New York Times: “We see digitization as a starting point, not end point,” said Ben Vershbow, the director of NYPL Labs, the in-house technology division that spearheaded the effort. “We don’t just want to put stuff online and say, ‘Here it is,’ but rev the engines and encourage reuse.”

I grabbed a few that appealed to me quickly, including one below in color of an early train coming out of Boston’s first subway, near Arlington Street, which I had never seen before (and trust me, I saw a lot of photos!). The others are mostly of New York’s subway under construction. My book has a lot more image (sorry, shameless plug), but these are pretty cool. Enjoy.

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47e1-0628-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.r nypl.digitalcollections.a44288b4-9bdc-b31f-e040-e00a18060314.001.r nypl.digitalcollections.a44288b4-9beb-b31f-e040-e00a18060314.001.w


Who was the first Boston subway conductor, in 1897?

Posted by on 5:04 pm in Uncategorized | 0 comments

First_car_into_Tremont_Street_Subway,_pictured_at_Allston_carhouseReading today about the Red Line train taking off without a conductor (“Red Line Train Leaves Station Without Conductor”) made me think about the first Boston subway ride, and who was the conductor on that train. Here is a passage from the chapter of The Race Underground where I describe in great detail that historic day in Boston, September 1, 1897, when Bostonians got their first ride underground.

I love some of the details I was able to collect from that ride, especially the story of the Somerville gentleman, C.W. Davis:

EACH CAR WOULD HAVE A MOTORMAN AND A CONDUCTOR, one to drive, the other to collect the tickets from the passengers.  Strapping James Reed, or Jimmy as he was known, short and muscular with a thick mustache and bronzed face after almost thirty years of railway driving, and Gilman “Gil” Trufant, one of the oldest and gentlest conductors in Boston, were two of the most experienced transit men in the city, and so it was decided that their Pearl Street-Allston car should be the first through the tunnel.  Reed grew up in a small brownstone on Tyler Street and attended public schools downtown until his family moved to the grittier Charlestown neighborhood.   He enlisted in the army for the Civil War, but when he was told he wasn’t old enough to shoulder a gun, he was made a drummer.  He came home frustrated after his enlistment ended, feeling like he had not done his part, but he quickly grew bored and re-enlisted, this time as a private, and his second stint earned him his stripes by taking part in some of the war’s fiercest battles.  When the war ended he came home to Boston and took up in the railway business.  He drove his first railway car in 1868 for the Middlesex railroad company, from Boston up to Malden, and later joined the Metropolitan and the South Boston companies, before Whitney’s West End merger eventually swallowed him up.  When the day arrived for Boston to unveil its subway, he was a natural choice to man the first trip.  He had a trustworthy face, weathered from years of being battered by the sun and snow and wind and rain.  And he knew his job so well he would entertain his passengers with a joke or by telling them exactly how many railroad ties there are in a mile, a trick he taught himself through three decades of driving. 

The night before, Reed had joined a big group of employees of the West End Street Railway company at the Public Garden entrance for a walk-through of what to expect.  Cars were loaded up with employees and driven through the tunnel in a chain, as instructors shouted out the regulations to follow about collecting tickets, stopping at stations, entering and exiting the tunnel and how to handle confused, unruly or other types of troublesome passengers.   


“CONCH SHELL TINTS streaked the eastern sky,” when the day’s earliest risers gathered at the depot in Allston.  When Jimmy Reed walked into the shed, looking nattier than usual in a new, trim-fitting uniform, a single-breasted dark blue coat with seven gold buttons and a cap with a straight visor and two bands of gold, he greeted his passengers and confessed with no hesitation that he was tired after a restless night of sleep.  Dreams of his trolley rushing to reach the subway tunnel first and on time kept him awake, he said.  He needn’t have worried.  One of the last passengers to arrive was the chief inspector for the West End Street Railway Company, Fred Stearns, who took up a spot on the car’s footboard so that he could warn boarding passengers to keep their hands and heads inside to avoid bumping any posts or trees.  He was the one who needed to worry.  After one final inspection to make sure the car was ready, the doors to the garage opened and the passengers let out a hearty cheer as the electric motor sent the Allston trolley on its way.  The nine rows of benches were not filled yet, but they would be soon enough.  Outside, a small group of onlookers waved their handkerchiefs and shouted out words of encouragement at the popular motorman.  “Get there, Jim, old man, and don’t let any of ‘em get ahead of you,” one cry went out.

Reed smiled.  But he turned serious right away as his car rounded a bend and he braked to a stop to allow another dozen passengers on board.   “All aboard for the subway and Park Street,” he shouted with confidence.  “Dling, Dling, Dling,” the bell rang out and the car pulled away again.  The journey from Allston through Cambridge to Boston took about twenty minutes most mornings, but the unusual number of passengers at this hour delayed it a few extra seconds at each stop. 

By the time the car reached Pearl Street in Cambridge, just across the Charles River from Boston, an older gentleman wanting to get on board found there were no seats left and he was told he’d have to wait for the next car.  Not a chance, he shouted up at those on board.  He announced that his name was C.W. Davis, that he came all the way down from Dickerson Street in Somerville to enjoy this privilege and that he deserved to make history with the rest of them.  Why?  Because he said that back in 1856 he had ridden on the first horse-pulled car of the Metropolitan Railway line and that he wanted to achieve another first today.  “The running schedule called for a car every half hour in those days,” he told his audience.  “And that was thought to be fast running.  People have learned to live and move faster in these days.”  The young men on board could not refuse the charming stories of Mr. Davis and they scurried to clear a space for the gentleman, who climbed up and hung on to an upright pole to secure his footing as the car pulled away.  When a photographer hollered at Reed to let the historic trolley sit for a minute at Pearl Street so he could photograph it, the motorman refused, too nervous about falling behind schedule, not to mention missing his opportunity to be the first car into the tunnel.


Meet the filmmaker making the documentary about America’s first subways, featuring ‘The Race Underground’

Posted by on 2:45 pm in Uncategorized | 0 comments

When you’ve spent 18 months traveling from libraries to book stores to senior centers to colleges, high schools and conventions talking about one thing – in my case, subways – it can, believe it or not, start to get old. That’s not to say I don’t get a kick out of talking about “The Race Underground” anymore, because I do, and the best part is always the give-and-take with the people who came out to hear me. Still, I’m only human.

But I recently had the experience of sitting down and talking about subways for six straight hours, in a creaky old wooden chair, to a single person, in a building that dates back to the Civil War. And I didn’t mind it one bit. In fact it was sort of awesome. That’s because I was sitting in the Commander’s Mansion in Watertown, across from Michael Rossi. Michael is an acclaimed documentary filmmaker who was commissioned by “American Experience” to make a film about the first subways in this country for PBS. That documentary will feature my research for “The Race Underground” and include, hopefully, a few minutes from those 6 hours of Michael interviewing me.

Just to be clear, his film is not a documentary version of my book. Rather it’s a book about subways and their history in America. My book will be a featured part of the film. And judging by the pages and pages of research that Michael and the coordinating producer on the film, Melissa Pollard, brought to our interview, they know as much about this subject as I do. You would think after 18 months of questions from readers, I would have heard just about every question imaginable. But as Michael and I sat and talked, he asked some questions that really forced me to think about subways and their importance to urban life in ways I hadn’t previously considered. It was the most fun a guy could have talking about 19th century urban renewal!

I wanted to take a moment to share some background on Michael. We’ve had a chance to talk a few times now and it’s a huge thrill to know that he was chosen to make this film. I’ve spent some time watching clips of his various works, and I watched the entirety of “The Rise and Fall of Penn Station” a documentary about the construction of Pennsylvania Station and the various tunnels in New York. It is, in a word, awesome. So here is some background on Michael:

MICHAEL ROSSI is an independent producer of documentary film and non-fiction television who has spent the last fifteen years producing, directing, shooting, and editing on a variety of programs for public television. In 2012, Rossi received an Emmy Award in the category Best New Approaches for a Children’s Series for his work as Coordinating Producer of the engineering series DESIGN SQUAD. His production credits for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE include: Building the Alaska Highway, The Gold Rush (winner of the 2007 Erik Barnouw Award), We Shall Remain, a five-part television series and multimedia project on Native American history, The Rise and Fall of Penn Station, and The Bombing of Wall Street, which premieres soon on PBS. He also served as embedded filmmaker for the 2011 Student Freedom Ride, and in 2014, produced three films for Freedom Summer @ 50, featuring individuals who participated in the events of 1964’s Freedom Summer. Rossi’s credits for FRONTLINE include The Silence, a thirty-minute documentary, which traces the healing between the small, Yup’ik village of St. Michael, Alaska and the Catholic Church in the devastating aftermath of sexual abuse perpetrated by priests in the 1960s and 1970s.

A graduate of the B.A./M.A. program in U.S. History at Boston College, Rossi’s career at PBS began in the Educational Programming department at WGBH. In addition to public television, he has done a variety of production work on feature films, television shows, music videos, and commercials. His work as a cinematographer is exhibited in the documentary films Before You Know Itand The Many Sad Fates of Mr. Toledano. His first independent feature-length documentary is also in production. The Master Palindromist follows Barry Duncan, a self-proclaimed master of reversibility, who is honing his skills in an effort to reassess his life, and possibly change the world.

Like I said, his track record speaks for itself. What made our day in Watertown so much fun was that it never felt like an interview or work, but more like a conversation. A chat between two guys fascinated by history, and our subways, and their impact on society, both then and to this day. We talked about Henry and William Whitney and William Barclay Parsons and Frank Julian Sprague and former New York Mayor Abram Hewitt and mankind’s fear of the underground and the methods by which tunnels were constructed and so much more, all subjects I wrote about. Did I mention we talked for six hours?

Somewhere in there we had a nice lunch outside on a patio at the mansion, with the film crew, before going back inside to continue the chat on camera. (A side note: I wrestled painfully before the interview with my attire. Black suit or gray? Blue shirt or light purple? Solid or stripes? Tie or no tie? These are important decisions, people!)

The making of this documentary, just like the making of my book, won’t happen overnight. Or in a month. Or two. It will take time to produce it, to edit it, to polish it, and I have no idea when it will eventually appear on PBS. It won’t be next week. So for now, I will just continue to post updates as I learn them. And enjoy the ride.

Tale of Two Book Covers: Race Underground vs. Devil in The White City

Posted by on 1:04 pm in Uncategorized | 1 comment

Short post. I read today that Leonardo DiCaprio was cast in the lead role for the Martin Scorsese-directed “The Devil in the White City,” the movie being made off of Erik Larson’s tremendous tale of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

When I wrote “The Race Underground,” Larson’s book was one that I re-read, because I enjoyed his structure so much, alternating chapters between two characters. My book unfolded in a similar, but not identical manner, with alternating sections between Boston and New York.

But the other similarity, as many readers have since pointed out to me, was the cover. When I first saw the design of my cover, I immediately pulled out a copy of Devil, a cover that I loved. Even if my book didn’t achieve a fraction of the success that Larson’s did, at least I can pretend it had some comparable qualities. Right? And hey, in case Leonardo is listening . . .


My other book . . . And lessons learned

Posted by on 2:06 pm in Uncategorized | 0 comments

heartsI recently received a check in the mail (a very small check, it should be noted), followed by a note on Twitter that have stirred me to post something about an earlier chapter in my life.

Fifteen years before I wrote about trains and subways and tunnels and Boston and New York in The Race Underground, I wrote another book about a very different subject, but one that is still sadly just as relevant today as it was back in 2000. That book was called “Always In Our Hearts.” And it was a horrifically sad story about two teenagers from comfortable surroundings in Northern New Jersey, who came from good homes, and who did an incredibly stupid and criminal thing because they didn’t think they could talk to their parents about their problem. Then I saw this story in today’s Globe, about adolescents today having low self-esteem and how parents should handle it, and the story really came flooding back to me.

Amazingly, as I just learned, that book still sells a few copies, which explains the royalty check I got from St. Martin’s Press, enough for me to take Mimi out for dinner and perhaps one glass of wine! And then a day later, I had this conversation on Twitter:

@GlobeDougMost I just read your book, “Always in Our Hearts.”I remembered when it happened in NJ. I could not put it down. Tears in my eyes. @ClaudiaDeHaan1

@ClaudiaDeHaan1 Thanks Claudia, I still love hearing from readers on that story all these years later, an important subject.

“Always In Our Hearts” was the story of Amy Grossberg and Brian Peterson, a couple of teenagers who dated in high school like we all did. Then they went off to separate colleges, like we all did. But they had a secret. Amy was pregnant. And she was terrified about how her parents would react, because in her mind, as I wrote and reported, her parents saw her as the perfect child who could do no wrong, and who certainly was not having sex. The details are not important now, but what happened next is: Amy and Brian kept their secret, from friends, from family, from everyone, and the ending was tragic.

A baby’s life lost. Two bright kids arrested and charged with premeditated murder. And two families devastated.

This was a time before I was married, before I had kids. But there were a lot of lessons I learned in writing that book that remain strong with me today, now that I have two kids, and as I read that Globe article today.

The most important one was this: Make sure that your kids know it’s OK to fail. They are going to fail. They are going to screw up. We did. They will. But the most important thing for them to know is that when they do screw up, they have to tell you. Because you won’t push them away. You’ll embrace them even stronger. Amy Grossberg’s first reaction was to not tell her parents. And she has to live with that decision for the rest of her life.




‘The Race Underground’ visits Salt Lake City for annual APTA conference

Posted by on 1:59 pm in Uncategorized | 0 comments

proxyA few months ago I was invited to come speak to the annual conference of APTA, or American Public Transportation Association. On Tuesday that day came and it was a terrific event, at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City.

A quick word about the hotel. grand-america-hotel-court-yardUh, wow. The Grand America was built specifically as part of the city’s hosting of the 2002 Winter Olympics, and it’s a 5-star hotel. Every corner glistens, a harpist plays in the lobby while guests sip their cocktails or tea while munching on scones, and the courtyard beckons, with spectacular views at every turn of the surrounding mountains.

I got out a few times to take in some of Salt Lake. A few highlights included dinner at Squatters, where the burger smothered in bourbon-soaked grilled onions was awesome, breakfast at Eva’s Bakery, which had great muffins, and lastly, I snuck in a few runs. IMG_2817One was a 4-miler over to Liberty Park, which had a nice soft wood chip path that was easy on my tired legs after a long flight, and the other was a brutal climb up into Memory Grove canyon.IMG_3321

I really wanted to get up high to look back over the city and mountains and this was the way to do it, even it meant a little bit of a run-walk. The view was spectacular, looking back on the skyline and the towering Church of Latter Day Saints building. The conference itself was beautifully run and smooth sailing for me.

My talk came at the big luncheon Tuesday and I was on stage with a Bostonian and New Yorker to add a fun element to the whole affair. The Bostonian was Robert Prince, a former MBTA general manager now with AECOM, and the New Yorker was Chris Boylan, a deputy executive director at the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority. They came out with boxing gloves on and we had a ball on stage in front of about 1200 transit executives and officials from around the country.

A final shout to a wonderful local bookstore, Weller Book Works and Catherine Weller, who showed up and sold a few hundred books and helped me get them all signed. Lastly, KellyAnne Gallagher from the organization, APTA, put together a great show. It was a whirlwind 24 hours, in and out, but worth every minute.