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The railroad arrived in Salem, Massachusetts on August 27, 1838, with tracks passing down the middle of Washington Street, dividing downtown. These trains serviced nineteen trips to Boston daily. In 1839, a tunnel was built under a portion of Washington Street near Bridge Street to conceal a portion of the tracks.
The Eastern Railroad Company built the Salem Depot, known as the “stone depot” on Washington Street near Norman Street in 1847, replacing a simpler train station that stood nearby. The new castle-like granite structure was designed by Gridley Bryant, a well-known Boston architect. The design was heavily influenced by structures in England. Trains entered through an archway flanked by two large stone towers. Offices and waiting areas were located on both sides of the tracks inside. The depot was damaged by fire in 1883 but quickly repaired, keeping with the original design. For over 100 years, the Salem Depot was one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks and appeared on postcards, in paintings, and in many photographs. Other auxiliary stations were constructed in Salem as well, including the Carltonville Station at the intersection of Bridge and Flint streets, Atlantic Station off Canal Street near Ocean Avenue, and the North Street Station near Bridge Street.
The Boston and Maine Railroad Company took over Salem’s operations in 1883. By 1897, between 600 and 700 men were employed by Boston and Maine, laying tracks, connecting Salem to the surrounding area. Thirty-eight trains passed through daily. By then, the company had 1,700 miles of track and more than 800 stations throughout New England.
Salem became a distribution point for manufacturing. Materials made in local factories such as textiles from Lowell and Lawrence were received in Salem by water and then transported by Boston and Maine trains to their destinations. The freight depot on Mill Street encompassed approximately twenty-five acres and could see as many as three hundred freight cars daily. 250 men were employed in Salem’s repair shop on Bridge Street alone, which repaired 3,500 freight cars and 300 passenger cars annually.
Once employed, many people remained in service to the railroad for most of their lives. Employees and passengers often knew each other by name. Belle Batchelder, member of the Salem Normal School class of 1878, kept a scrapbook of her time at school and included portraits of the conductor and brakeman of the train that carried her regularly from Lowell to Salem.
For employees that served for 50 years or more, Boston and Maine issued Gold Service Passes. The pass could be used for free fares on all Boston and Maine lines. Several Salemites received this honor.
In the 1950s, a new railroad design was put forth, which extended the railroad tunnel and eliminated downtown crossings to help alleviate traffic congestion. The city also hoped this change would encourage more shoppers to cross Washington Street, which had previously been divided by the railroad tracks.
This plan also included razing the 1847 Salem Depot in favor of a new station. Demolition began in fall of 1954 and was completed in spring 1955. In 1958, the site of the former depot was paved over and dedicated as Riley Plaza.
The United States’s first combined regional transit system was voted into law in Massachusetts on August 3, 1964. This act established the MBTA, a state agency to oversee subway, bus, ferry, and commuter rail transportation. The MBTA, known as the “T” is now one of the largest public transit systems in the country, serving nearly 200 municipalities with over 1 million passengers daily.
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