Just because we have choices about technology doesn’t mean we always choose well. Walking in my neighborhood in East Cambridge one day, I stumbled across an obscure plaque put up by the Cambridge Historical Commission more than 40 years ago. I was astonished to learn that Cambridge had been home to one of the world’s first monorail systems — an experimental track in place from 1884 to 1894.
It was envisioned as the prototype for a regional rapid transit system that would have made Boston into a kind of steampunk utopia. The city would have been criss-crossed by marvelous tubular trains that looked like they were designed by Captain Nemo. But we never got that version of Boston, because in 1887, the East Cambridge monorail project got abruptly. . . derailed.
At any given moment in history, we humans have multiple futures to choose from. But the decisions we make can be messy, undemocratic, driven by greed and self-interest, and even downright corrupt. And so it was with the Cambridge monorail.
Today, there are only two US cities — Seattle and Las Vegas — where a monorail line is a significant part of the transportation mix. But new monorail systems are in use or under construction in fast-growing cities around the world, such as Chongqing, Panama City, Kuala Lumpur, and Sao Paulo.
Unlike subways, monorails don’t require expensive underground tunnels. Because they have a relatively narrow footprint, monorails that glide above the streets don’t block the sun as much as elevated train platforms do. Most monorails use rubber tires instead of steel wheels, giving them enough traction to accelerate and brake quickly. That means a monorail system doesn’t need to leave as much space between trains — which, in turn, means they can carry more passengers per hour than traditional light-rail lines.
Cambridge’s brief experiment with a monorail began at what is now 225 Monsignor O’Brien Highway, where a four-story factory owned by the Superior Nut Company stands today. But in 1884, the address was 225 Bridge Street, headquarters for the Meigs Elevated Railway Company. This is where an inventor named Josiah Vincent Meigs built the demonstration track for his patented monorail system.
According to copious diagrams and maps in a book he published in 1887, a shed on the Cambridge site sheltered a steam locomotive, a tender, and a passenger car, all built using an unusual tubular design and tilted wheels. A single iron track exited the shed, turned left in a tight half circle, and went back past the shed. The track went along at ground level for about 300 feet and then climbed up to a section built on posts 14 feet above the ground. This elevated section curved to the left again and crossed over Bridge Street, leaving plenty of room below for traffic and horse-drawn streetcars. The track stopped on the other side of Bridge Street, above what’s now the parking lot of a Holiday Inn.
* * *
Meigs had grown up in Nashville, and worked as an apprentice engineer on the Memphis and Charlestown Railroad. When the Civil War came he joined the Union Army and led a light artillery division. After an injury forced him to resign, he spent the rest of the war developing his skills as a tinkerer. He ended up in Boston in the 1870s.
When he looked at Boston streets in that era, he saw a chaotic tangle of horse-drawn carriages, horse-drawn streetcars, and pedestrians. “All of these horse-drawn street cars funneled into Boston in a hub and spoke system,” said longtime Cambridge Historical Commission executive director Charlie Sullivan, “and created a great deal of congestion there.” Sullivan, who wrote the commemorative plaque, is the only historian I could find who knows anything about the Meigs monorail system.
Meigs imagined a network of steam-powered trains sailing overhead, 15 or 20 feet above the street. He knew that railway companies in New York were already building elevated lines in Manhattan. But the idea there was to put standard dual-track railways up on stilts, where they threw smoke and shadow over the streets below.
Meigs wanted to build an elevated railway with a slimmer profile, so that it wouldn’t interfere with what he repeatedly called “light and air.” He proposed a single track or a track on a single line of posts that would run down the center of a street.
Even before Meigs built his test track in East Cambridge, the people of Boston fell in love with his idea. “THE PEOPLE WANT ELEVATED ROADS,” Meigs wrote (emphasis his). “We sent out many, many thousand circulars, attempting to instruct the people of the city as to my invention and its effects upon property. The result was that sixty-four thousand citizens of Boston signed petitions in favor of permitting me to try my system.” In the 1880s the population of Boston was only about 360,000.
Meigs also had a powerful backer: Benjamin Butler, a former Union general and Massachusetts congressman who owned cotton mills and cartridge factories in Lowell. Butler’s family had also made an illicit fortune selling goods to the Confederacy during the war.
Meigs met Butler in Washington, D.C., and after the war he moved to Lowell to run one of Butler’s factories. Butler was a big supporter of Meigs’s monorail idea, possibly because he saw money in it. And after Butler became governor of Massachusetts in 1883, he helped Meigs get a charter that gave Meigs the right to use the airspace above Boston’s streets for his monorail tracks.
Unfortunately for Meigs, the streetcar industry hated his plan. If Bostonians had a convenient way to travel above the streets, they’d stop paying to ride horse-drawn cars at ground level. Lobbyists for the streetcar companies persuaded the Legislature to put a minor condition into the charter. Before Meigs could get final permission to build his railway, he’d have to prove the concept by building a working prototype.
So he did, with money borrowed from Butler and land in East Cambridge borrowed from a local meatpacker.
Meigs’s design was different from the other elevated railways being built at the time. The track itself was a simple iron girder a few feet high. The drive wheels were mounted horizontally. Under hydraulic pressure they’d be brought together until they squeezed the central girder hard enough to pull the train forward.
Interestingly, the wheel design was more stable under unbalanced loads. If a strong wind came along, or if there were ever an accident, the cars basically couldn’t derail. The Meigs monorail also had an extremely tight turning radius. The track could be built to go around the crooked corners of downtown Boston.
But to a bystander on Bridge Street in 1884, the most striking thing about the Meigs design would have been the cars themselves. If you took a conventional train car and sliced through it, the cross section would be a square. Meigs’s cars were round, almost like they were designed to whoosh through a pneumatic tube. Meigs insisted that the cylindrical shape made the cars stronger, required less material, and cut down on wind resistance.
His system worked. Between 1884 and 1894, the Meigs system whisked thousands of curious riders back and forth on this test track at up to 20 miles per hour. The design may have looked a little crazy, but three years of testing gave Meigs time to overcome every possible technical objection.
* * *
At this point, the Legislature could have told Meigs to go build monorails all over Boston. But by 1887, Meigs was more of a threat to the streetcar lobby than ever before. “You had a street railway system by the 1880s that was highly developed and was moving a lot of people and was making a lot of money for its investors,” Sullivan said. “So any kind of elevated system or a subway system and any other kind of competing technology would have been opposed by them simply because it was disruptive and destructive to their investment.”
And in the winter of 1887, disaster struck.
At 4 a.m. on the morning of February 4, Meigs wrote at the end of his book, “an incendiary fire burned the greater part of the shed containing my engine, tender, and car. But for the police and fire departments my whole train would have been destroyed by the intensity of the fire built around it. As it was, ‘the most magnificent car ever built’ was melted down by the furnace into which it was thrust. Its metal plates were melted down and the little wood and upholstering burned out.”
No criminal charges were ever filed, but foul play was suspected. Street railway companies employed thousands of men. “It wouldn’t take too much to generate that kind of hostility,” Sullivan said, “and there were a number of street railway strikes in the 1880s. It was a volatile time in the industry. It’s certainly conceivable that that kind of hostility resulted in arson here.”
The Meigs Elevated Railway Company never really bounced back. Butler, Meigs’s mentor, left the governor’s office in 1884, and Meigs’s battle with the Legislature dragged on for years. He didn’t get final approval to start building his monorail system until 1894. But by then, he had several new problems. In 1888, a storm dubbed the Snow Hurricane paralyzed the city for weeks. The 5 feet of snowfall strengthened the argument that, if Boston was going to get a new rapid transit system, it should probably be built underground.
Moreover, even visionaries like Meigs sometimes make the wrong bets. He was utterly convinced that his locomotives should run on coal and steam, at a time when most new transit systems were switching to electricity. That scared off most of his investors.
By 1896 he was out of money. He still had the charter rights to the airspace above Boston’s streets, which he sold to his remaining investors. That sale led eventually to the creation of the conventional dual-track subway system that still carries Bostonians around today.
If streetcar interests had given Meigs a chance to compete for customers in a fair and open market, his system might have prevailed. Instead they resorted to legal legerdemain and, quite possibly, violence. “The best plan, with the least obstruction to light and air” isn’t always the winner. Some of the best ideas of yesteryear changed the world, while others just ended up as some words on a plaque.
Wade Roush, a technology journalist, is the host of the podcast Soonish. This article is adapted from the episode “The Track Not Taken.” The audio version is available at soonishpodcast.org.