Nowadays, those looking to get to Marblehead via any mode other than driving face an uphill battle. Two MBTA buses run into town — the 441 and 442. But a quick glance at the T’s bus schedule reveals inconsistent frequency for the buses, which run from the Wonderland station in Revere.
What if I told you that wasn’t always the case?
Beginning in the early 19th century, the eastern division of the Boston and Maine Railroad featured a Marblehead-Swampscott branch that shuttled riders from Salem and Boston into Marblehead. The Salem to Marblehead branch opened on December 10, 1839, according to a story in the Marblehead Messenger authored by Michael Shavelson. The extension into Marblehead in 1839 came a year after the opening of the Boston to Salem branch, and was a result of a $40,000 fundraising effort by Marblehead residents to extend the line three miles — from Castle Hill in Salem to School and Pleasant Streets in Marblehead.
A trip from Marblehead to Salem cost riders a mere 12 1/2 cents, though those seeking a ride to Boston had to pony up an additional 50 cents.
The Swampscott branch of the railroad was built, after “several false starts due to lack of capital,” in 1873 — connecting Marblehead to the Swampscott mainline. With the extension, riders had four new stations to choose from: stops at Devereux and Clifton in Marblehead, and stops at Beach Bluff and Phillips Beach in Swampscott. (The Swampscott Commuter Rail station now sits at the intersection of Burrill Street and Railroad Avenue).
Shavelson notes the Devereux stop was used primarily by residents of the Neck and was “particularly interesting” because of its “unusual Moorish design” which featured a steeple and four-faced clock.
By 1937, the railroad was in dire shape.
At that point, only two trains were running each day as commuters shifted towards other means of transportation. The impact of the Great Depression also saw a decline in the town’s manufacturing output, and with that a reduction in freight revenue. As a result, the railroad “found it unprofitable” to maintain its warehouse facilities on Bessom Street.
World War II proved to be a brief reprieve, with ridership increasing. But, the reprieve was brief indeed, as Shavelson wrote that “the route was a burden to the B and M” by 1950. And so, the company petitioned the Department of Public Utilities for permission to discontinue service, which the department granted despite objections from the Marblehead and Swampscott Boards of Selectmen.
And so, 300 regular riders had to turn to driving or relying on the Eastern Mass. Street Railway bus.
The railroad officially shuttered on June 12, 1959, when the last train rolled out of town “toward Swampscott and oblivion.” A small group gathered to bid farewell to the train, including Selectman J. Archer Dixey, who placed a memorial wreath on the car.
But, Shavelson wrote, “few people in town [seemed] to notice as Budd Highliner No. 6210 crossed School Street with 24 passengers on board.”
The railroad was an institution in town, Shavelson said.
“As well as having a good many people dependent on it, the railroad had many fixtures to make its presence felt even when no trains were to be seen,” his Messenger story reads. “Tracks, stations, and whistles were a few, constant reminders.”
With MBTA buses serving the town by the time Shavelson’s story was published, he lamented the loss of the personal touch the railroad provided, with many town residents employed by the B and M in positions from firefighters to “gandy dancers.”
“Still many, while awaiting an elusive MBTA bus on a rainy day, recall with fondness the bucolic ride through the woods and the conductor singing out each stop, ‘Phillips Beach,’ ‘Beach Bluff,’ ‘Clifton,’ ‘Dev-er-ow,’ and ‘Marblehead — last stop.'”