Originally written for Clinton Greenway Conservation Trust, 2019
Originally conceived as a link between Boston and the west, the Central Massachusetts Railroad became Boston & Maine's longest branch line, stretching 104 miles westward to Northampton. One of the last railroads to be built in the state, it was ill-fated from the start, facing stiff competition from two highly prosperous and well-established lines, as well as from the rise of the automobile. In the end, the railroad fell victim to a changing economic environment, the Great Depression and various natural disasters which wreaked havoc on the line. It even went into bankruptcy in its early years. The railroad began to be abandoned piece by piece during the 1930s and by the end of the 20th century, only a small section remained in active service.
From start of construction in 1870, the railroad made steady progress west, as new sections were originally surveyed and laid down by crews of Italian and Irish immigrants under the direction of noted railroad contractor Norman C. Munson of Shirley, MA. The railroad had finally reached Clinton in the late 1870s.
By the late 1800s, the City of Boston and surrounding communities were facing a crisis. Current water supplies were growing insufficient for a metropolitan area which was experiencing significant population growth. They looked west for solutions, and one was found which would have a profound effect on the young railroad.
In the summer of 1895, a law was passed which authorized the Metropolitan Water Board to construct a reservoir in the valley of the South Branch of the Nashua River within the towns of Clinton, Boylston and West Boylston. This massive undertaking would require relocating West Boylston, removing mills, schools, churches and 360 homes in the process. West Boylston's Old Stone Church remains as a lone reminder of what was lost. In addition, seven miles of the Central Massachusetts Railroad, which was laid down through this valley, would have to be rerouted. Thus began one of the most ambitious civil engineering projects of its day. The Wachusett Reservoir ended up being the largest public water supply in the world at that time. The Wachusett Dam is still the largest hand-dug dam in the world. The project would ultimately submerge the section of railroad running through Clinton, along with the removal of the South Clinton station.
The agreement between the Metropolitan Water Board and the Boston & Maine detailed the relocation of the railroad around the north end of the new reservoir. In another amazing engineering feat, the plans called for the construction of an 1,110 ft. tunnel, immediately followed to the west by a 917 ft. trestle which towered 133 ft. above the Nashua River. For travelers on the railroad, this was one of the most spectacular and scenic sections of the line. The tunnel remains today and the bridge survived until 1975.
Both freight and passenger service continued to Clinton during the first half of the 20th century, but dwindled steadily as the years went by and traveling by train fell out of favor. By 1949, service was reduced to just one freight run between Boston and Clinton Junction. In 1956, the last steam-powered train left Clinton bound for Boston. In 1959, all track west of Berlin was abandoned, ending an era of railroading in Central Massachusetts.
While the actual railroad may be gone, many sections of it live on as a multi-use path, open to the public for recreational use. The ultimate goal is a cooperative effort between towns along the route to restore a continuous, 104 mile connection between Boston and Northampton, coming full circle with the railroad's original vision.
© / Top