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Recalling a century of gridlock, America’s first subway, and integrating a cycling club

Complaints about public transportation stretch back to the Globe’s beginnings in 1872.

A horse-drawn car in Boston, circa 1872.from the boston public library

Bostonians take pride navigating their city and the ancient T below it. In 2018, an urban planner comparing city layouts in the US and abroad had this to say: “I find Boston’s street patterns illegible and difficult to navigate. But as a newcomer I can settle for the concomitant sense of wonder, bafflement, and inexplicable adventure that accompanies every simple right turn.” Take a ride with us here through the Globe’s reporting on transportation going back to the 19th century. You’ll find some of it all too familiar.

Early biker’s path

January 27, 1878: “In the use of the bicycle, Boston has led the rest of the country,” the story on the cycle craze reported. Bostonians owned “probably 50″ bicycles.

Kittie Knox broke race and gender barriers in cycling in the 1890s.Globe archives

Before the T, we complained about horse-cars

“I come to my business around eight o’clock A.M., and I have not been able to find a seat in a Metropolitan horse-car . . . for the past three weeks. I have been obliged to stand all the way from the starting point to Chester Park, and have had not less than 15 or 20 associates each time who have been similarly situated.” — May 10, 1872, Letter to the editor

They can’t stop Kittie Knox

In 1893, a time cycling was only considered proper for white men, the West End seamstress joined the national League of American Wheelmen­ — helping break gender and race barriers. The group banned Black people the next year. She kept racing.

September 1, 1897 | Riding America’s first subway

When motorman James “Jimmy” Reed walked into the Allston shed the morning of September 1, 1897, he greeted his passengers and confessed that he was tired. Dreams of his trolley rushing to reach the subway tunnel first and on time kept him awake. After one final inspection, the trolley set out on its way. Outside, a small group of onlookers waved handkerchiefs. “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 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.

Soon, the car was brimming over, with passengers standing on the footboard and dangling off the side. A car with seats for 45 passengers and standing room for a few dozen more had 140 passengers.

At 6 a.m., car No. 1752 crept to the summit of the subway tunnel’s downward slope. If there was a time to stop and acknowledge the moment, this was it. Not only was the subway completed on time, in 2½ years, it came in at $4.2 million, under the $5 million projected cost.

Reed was thankful to see only a few people waiting for him at the Boylston Street Station, and they agreed to board the next car. He pulled away, cheers filling the tunnel, and at 6:06 a.m., No. 1752 arrived at Park Street Station, its first voyage complete.

It took four hours for the first delay to register a complaint.

From “The Bigger Dig,” a story published in 2014 that excerpted the book The Race Underground by former Globe Magazine editor Doug Most.

Conductors test-ride the subway in 1897.From Boston Public Library

A Wright brother looks back

“On Dec. 17, 1903, we were back at Kitty Hawk,” Orville Wright told a Globe reporter in 1908. “Then all history was beaten and a machine, carrying a man, raised itself by its own power and ascended into the air. I made the first flight, keeping within five or six feet of the ground, and remaining up for 15 seconds. Wilbur made the second flight. . . . We returned to Dayton absolutely sure in our own minds that we had mastered the problem of mechanical flying.”

Orville Wright, lying at the controls on the lower wing, pilots the Wright Flyer on the first powered flight by a heavier-than-air aircraft, December 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, N.C.John T. Daniels/Associated Press

Shifting gears

1910: The Globe’s bicycle editor James T. Sullivan was moved to a brand new beat: automobiles.

Ford’s Mass. adventure in 3 headlines

Ford Motor Company's Cambridge assembly plant around 1914.Associated Press/File

1914: “Ford Branch Now In Its New Home”

So read the headline when the Ford Motor Company opened a Model T assembly plant in Cambridge to contain its entire New England workforce. The 202,000-square-foot “mammoth structure” on Memorial Drive was the world’s first vertically integrated assembly line, with sales on the first floor, parts on the second, and cars reaching different levels of completion until they came to final painting on the fifth floor.

1927: “Somerville Ford Plant To Be Open Tomorrow”

Growing quickly, Ford moved to a new site on the Mystic River and welcomed the public for tours. The plant was a sprawling 340,000 square feet on one floor, and could turn out 100 more cars per day than the abandoned Cambridge facility. Ford built the new Model A here, and, with its success, Somerville became New England’s hub of auto manufacturing. The millionth car, an ivory-colored Victoria, rolled off the line in November 1953.

1957: “Ford To Build Edsel Cars At Its Somerville Plant”

It was huge news: Ford would build the “first completely new [model] line among the ‘big three’ automakers in 28 years,” and do it right here. Called the Edsel, after Henry Ford’s late son, the company expected to sell 200,000 in the first year alone. But the Edsel became the most notorious flop in US automotive history, taking the Somerville operation with it. Within a year, the assembly plant was closed, with all of its workers laid off, and a local era came to an end. —Matthew Reed Baker

The last car rolls off Ford’s Somerville assembly line on March 14, 1958. The plant had been in operation for 31 years.Frank C. Curtin/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Globe reporter A.J. Philpott, one of the first journalists to ever fly, with pilot Claude Grahame-White.Globe archives

A First over sea . . .

The Globe offered $10,000 in 1910 for the fastest flight from Squantum Field in Quincy to Boston Light and back. Englishman Claude Grahame-White won the prize for the 33-mile trip the paper called “the longest flight over salt water in the United States.”

. . . and land

In 1911, the paper sponsored another journey: A 160-mile round trip from Boston, up to Nashua, down to Providence, and back to Boston. “Millions in New England saw their first airplane flight that day,” the paper reported on September 4.

Traffic is snarled in front of The Globe’s Morrissey Boulevard building around the early 1960s.Boston Globe Archive

A Century of Gridlock, as Reported in the Globe

July 21, 1926: Motorists trying to get to the beach amid a heat wave get stuck in “the worst traffic jam” in Lynn “since the automobile was invented.”

July 7, 1929: “Sixty-thousand autos cause record traffic jam,” as a result of an unheard-of 250,000 people descending on Nantasket Beach in Hull.

December 22, 1945: Police call a downtown Boston bottleneck “the worst in the city’s history,” and blame last-minute Christmas shoppers from the suburbs.

March 11, 1960: Snow-choked streets lead to the “worst jam of traffic in history of Boston,” the headline said, and hold downtown “in a death grip.”

November 16, 1967: More than 140 accidents on snowy roads cause “the worst traffic jam ever” in Boston. “Some [drivers] found new friends by bumming cigarettes and chatting with stranded fellows.”

November 19, 2019: The Spotlight Team reports that Boston has the nation’s worst rush-hour traffic. We’d been warned.

The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, one of the great success stories of green-space development, opened to the public in 2008. It replaced the Central Artery, opened to cars in 1959, which had in turn replaced the Atlantic Avenue Elevated Railway that had stood there from 1901 to 1942. Move the slider to the right in the image above to reveal the view in 2002, and all the way to the left to see what it looked like once the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway was completed.

‘It was our obsession spanning three decades, the kitchen renovation that would never end, fodder for late-night television jokes.’

A 2015 Globe Magazine story

The final tally for the Big Dig

$2.4 Billion — The original cost estimate for the big dig in the early 1980s

$14.6Billion — The price tag at its completion in 2004 ($24 billion counting interest on the debt)