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What can we learn from a new history of Boston’s transit systems?

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If you want to know what Boston transit could look like in the future, it certainly helps to know what the city’s trains, buses, trolleys, ferries, and other public transportation systems looked like in the past.

And if you want to know what it looked like in the past — well, you’re probably not going to find a better one-stop resource than “Boston in Transit,” a hefty new tome to be published by MIT Press on March 7.

A collection of maps, photos, pamphlets, ads, tickets, tokens, and other ephemera, the book was written by Steven Beaucher, cofounder of Ward Maps, a store in Cambridge that specializes in antique transit maps and MBTA memorabilia. It traces the city’s transportation history from colonial-era ferries, to the explosion of horsecar and omnibus lines in the 19th century, to the birth of the MBTA in the 1960s and beyond.


First and foremost, the book is a historical resource. But, “I’d also like it to be used as a way to envision a better future for Boston, understanding that public transportation can make the city better,” Beaucher said. “What did we have that was useful [in the past], that for some reason is no longer here, but we could really use that in the future?”

Beaucher answered a few of my questions last week; I have edited and condensed his answers for clarity.

What surprised you most in researching this book?

I didn’t realize how early public transit started in Boston. It really started in 1630 when Boston said, hey, we need someone to run a ferry across the harbor. We’ve had some form of public transit since the city was established as a main place — and before that there were indigenous people who had their own network of pathways and traces.


There are hundreds of maps, photos, and other items in this book. What’s your favorite?

There is one photograph from 1884, I call it “Cacophony on Causeway Street.” You have a steam train from the Boston and Maine Railroad, a couple of guys hoisting the gates, trying to stop this endless onslaught of omnibuses, horsecars, all these different transportation modes on Causeway Street. The Fitchburg Railroad station is in the background.

An 1884 photograph of Causeway Street in Boston.courtesy of Steven Beaucher and The MIT Press

All these layers of public transit, all these different modes, jostling for the same square footage, really sum up how we built up all these networks that became critically intertwined. Then we needed solutions, and you get into the 1880s and 1890s and by the end of that century, the railroads are consolidated into North and South stations, the streetcars are consolidated. That photo shows the craziness but also all the different modes we had when were still fighting for real estate.

If you could resurrect one piece of Boston’s transit past, what would it be?

One thing that would be amazing for Boston would be the South Station of 1912. It was a multimodal masterpiece — engineered for rail transportation like nothing we’d ever seen before. It had its own power plant. It had two levels, it was designed for commuter trains to turn around on a loop. Imagine if we could do that today — Amtrak could run the Acela in a loop, which would be cool. The station was a massive piece of amazing railroad engineering. Just a fraction of that is left today.


One thing your book showcases is the huge physical legacy of past generations. There’s just an incredible amount of leftover stuff like maps, tokens, and ticket stubs that all combine to form a very detailed record of the way people got around in Boston. How will future generations reconstruct the T of right now when all those items are increasingly unnecessary? I don’t need a map or ticket for the commuter rail; I can just use an app.

The way I look at it is that a historian is always going to look for the leftover bits. We’re in a transition period from the leftover bits being physical bits, to those being digital. We’re still going to try to find them — I’m going to find old versions of those apps. There are people saving all the versions of apps, you can go and get different versions, even things that run on operating systems that no longer exist. We won’t have the amount of physical artifacts lying around, but there will be artifacts.

Ward Maps is located at 1735 Massachusetts Ave. in Cambridge and is open noon-6 daily.

Alan Wirzbicki is Globe deputy editor for editorials. He can be reached at