The following is a complete transcript of Soonish Episode 3.02, The Track Not Taken, published in audio form on Friday, November 9. Hear the episode above, and see the full show notes here.
[Music: Soonish theme]
You’re listening to Soonish. I’m Wade Roush.
And most of the time, what we do here on the show is look at the near future.
Personally, I think the most powerful factor shaping that future is technology.
It’s the one big force that makes the present feel different from the past.
And it’s the force that’ll make the future feel different from the present.
But that force isn’t impersonal.
It doesn’t come from outside society.
It comes from us.
We all make choices every day about which technologies we want in our lives.
That’s the meaning of the motto you hear at the top of the show.
But just because we have choices about technology doesn’t mean we always choose well.
And today, instead of taking you into the near future, I want to go the other way, into the past.
I’m gonna drag up a bit of history from my home town of Boston that turns out to be a perfect case study in bad decision making.
It’s a story that’s almost completely unknown, even to people who live in Boston.
Heck, I didn’t know about myself until I was out walking in my neighborhood one day in 2016 and I stumbled across an obscure plaque in East Cambridge put up by the Cambridge Historical Commission more than 40 years ago.
[Audio clip: Roman Mars: “Always read the plaque”]
I was astonished to learn, when I read this plaque, that my home town of Cambridge MA
[Audio clip: Car Talk: “Our Fair City”]
was home to one the world’s first monorail systems.
This experimental track was in place from 1884 to 1894,
And it was intended as the prototype for a regional rapid transit system that would have made Boston into a kind of steam punk utopia.
The city would have been criss-crossed by these marvelous tubular trains that looked like they were designed by Captain Nemo.
Which I think would have been amazing.
But of course I would say that. Because I’m a major monorail fanboy.
You know how Roman Mars over at 99 Percent Invisible says every city deserves a well designed flag?
Well, I think every city deserves a well designed monorail.
The fact is that when you compare monorails to other mass transit technologies like subways or light rail, monorails stand above the crowd. So to speak.
They’re faster, safer, and cheaper.
And just cooler.
To hear why, you can go back to Soonish Season 1 Episode 2.
Or you can just trust me.
The point is that we never got that awesome steam punk version of Boston, because in 1887, the East Cambridge monorail project got abruptly… derailed.
And the story of the track not taken is what I’m going to tell you about today.
[CUT TO FIELD TAPE]
That story started right here.
I’m standing next to a busy six-lane boulevard in East Cambridge called Monsignor O’Brien Highway.
To be specific, I’m at 225 Monsignor O’Brien Highway.
The building at this address today is big four-story factory owned by the Superior Nut Company.
Inside they roast almonds and cashews.
And on a breezy day I can smell a truly luscious aroma from my apartment half a mile away.
But back in the 1880s, before the neighborhood went… nuts, this was called Bridge Street.
It crossed a tidal marsh called Miller’s River, which, at that point, was gradually being filled in to make new land.
And if you’d been standing here at 225 Bridge Street in 1884, you would have been looking at the headquarters for the Meigs Elevated Railway Company.
This is where an inventor and Civil War veteran from Tennessee named Josiah Vincent Meigs built the demonstration track for his patented monorail system.
There was a shed here that sheltered a steam locomotive, a tender, and a passenger car, all built using Meigs’s unusual tubular design and tilted wheels.
There was a single iron track that 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.
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.
And the reason I can sort of visualize all of this is because Meigs included copious diagrams and maps in a book he published in 1887.
[BACK TO STUDIO TAPE]
The book was called The Meigs Railway: The Reasons for Its Departure from Ordinary Practice, and How and Why a Safe Railway Is Possible.
Joe Meigs: The track was built so as to test every kind of way as to its quality, strength, curves, grades, post-settings, and the safety of its form and material. Every engineering difficulty which could possibly occur in any situation was put into the track and successfully overcome.
That’s Joe Meigs in his own words, voiced for us by audio producer Charles Gustine from Soonish’s sister Hub & Spoke podcast Iconography.
Joe Meigs: The location purposely selected for the experiment of setting foundations for the tracks was the worst to be found, the entire surface being made land by filling. The refuse of the city, dumped upon the dock-mud, silt, and wash of Miller's River, covered in by order of the Board of Health....If a post-supported railway could be built here without inordinate cost, it could be built anywhere in Boston or even about its marshy suburbs.
When Meigs wrote “anywhere in Boston,” he really meant it.
Because he had what you might call a one-track mind.
He looked at the streets of 1880s Boston and saw a chaotic tangle of horse-drawn carriages, horse-drawn streetcars, and pedestrians.
And he wanted to fix it.
Charlie Sullivan: All of these horse drawn street cars funneled into Boston in a hub and spoke system and created a great deal of congestion there. So the first thought in the Boston area was that they needed to build elevateds.
That’s Charlie Sullivan. Since 1975 he’s been the executive director of the Cambridge Historical Commission.
He’s the only historian I could find who knows anything about the Meigs monorail system.
In fact, he’s the guy who wrote that plaque I stumbled across.
Now, Charlie says that when Meigs looked at Boston’s congested downtown, he 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 cinders and shadows over the streets below.
If you’ve ever visited New York’s High Line, take that and then imagine miles of those elevated tracks running all over lower Manhattan.
Meigs knew he didn’t want Boston’s system to looking anything like that.
Charlie Sullivan: Meigs came along and in the early eighteen eighties developed his concept of a monorail that would be a single track or a track on a single line of posts that would run down the center of a street. He probably looked at the New York elevated technology and said, ‘This is really dumb. You know, we can make it a lot simpler and have the same good result.’
The heart of Meigs’s idea was to build an elevated railway with a slimmer profile, so that wouldn’t interfere with what he repeatedly called “light and air.”
Joe Meigs: By the advice of counsel I called together many persons interested in street-railways and sought their alliance. They agreed that my models offered the best plan, with the least obstruction to light and air, with the greatest capability for turning crooked streets, and, for this reason, the only solution of the difficulties of street-railway traffic suitable to Boston.
We have built our way at East Cambridge within eight feet of the windows of a frame-dwelling, and it was declared by the woman living in the house...that during the passage of our train at all speeds, "she was less disturbed by the passage of our engine than by the horse-cars in the street." It is self-evident, to anybody who inspects it, THAT LIGHT AND AIR ARE NOT AT ALL INTERFERED WITH. Everybody who knows anything of the history of elevated roads in New York knows exactly the contrary to be the case.
Everybody likes light and air, right? It turns out that even before Meigs built his test track, the people of Boston fell in love with his idea.
Joe Meigs: THE PEOPLE WANT ELEVATED ROADS. 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, which means that if Meigs’s figure is correct, more than one in six residents signed Meigs’s petitions.
But one of the strange things about this whole story is that nobody really knows much about Joe Meigs the man, or where he got his monorail idea.
Charlie Sullivan: Yeah, well, Joe Meigs is still pretty much a mystery. He comes out of Tennessee born in the eighteen forties served in the Civil War had been a railroad mechanic ended up in Boston…in the 1870s, and had this concept for urban mass transit. [14.9]
We do know that Meigs grew 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.
But an injury forced him to resign, and he spent the rest of the war developing his skills as a tinkerer.
After the war Meigs became a kind of protégé of Benjamin Butler, who was sort of the Donald Trump of his day.
Butler was a former Union general and Massachusetts Congressman.
He owned cotton mills and cartridge factories in Lowell, Massachusetts, but his family also made an illicit fortune selling goods to the Confederacy during the war.
Meigs met Butler in Washington DC 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 to build the elevated railway in downtown Boston.
The charter basically gave Meigs the right to use the airspace above Boston’s streets for his monorail tracks.
But there was one little problem.
The street car industry hated Meigs’s plan.
And their reason was pretty predictable.
If Bostonians had a convenient way to travel above the streets, they’d stop paying to ride horse-drawn cars on those streets.
So lobbyists for the streetcar companies forced the state 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 that’s what he did, using money borrowed from Butler and land in East Cambridge borrowed from a local meatpacker.
Charlie Sullivan: The track was a loop that included some steep grades and tight curves and basically proved as concept. It showed that he had a highly workable concept for a monorail that would have been steam powered that would have done probably less intrusive than the Manhattan locomotive-hauled elevated trains.
Joe Meigs: We have tried all we could to break down our track and disable our engine, for if it could be done it was to be done in an experimental yard. It is but fair to say that since we made the tests we have carried many thousand passengers over these grades, angles, and curves which in a properly constructed road would never occur. Yet the motion of the train was so regular, easy, and noiseless that the passengers did not know or suspect what sort of road they were riding over.
Now, this is where I’ve got to take a minute to talk about Meigs’s actual design, and why it was so different from the other elevated railways being built at the time.
The track itself was a simple iron girder a few feet high, with a flange at the bottom.
Each truck on Meigs’s monorail cars had four wheels: two drive wheels and two support wheels.
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.
The support wheels were mounted at 45 degree angles to the girder, forming a V shape that rested on the flange and gripped the rail like a clenched fist.
Now if you’re having trouble visualizing all that, you can just check out the pictures at our website, soonishpodcast.org.
The key thing to understand about the wheel design was that it 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.
Also, because of the way the wheels pivoted, the Meigs monorail had an extremely tight turning radius.
That meant the track could be built to go around the crooked corners of downtown Boston.
But all of that stuff with the wheels was going on underneath the train.
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.
Not Meigs’s train.
His cars were round, almost like they were designed to whoosh through a pneumatic tube.
Charlie Sullivan: Well I mean these these trains do look odd because they're they're cylindrical they look like sausages riding along a elevated track. Think of a winner of Wienermobile riding on a stick. … that seems to have been a nineteenth-century version of streamlining…They don't look like conventional railroad cars. They look like something quite futuristic look like Jules Verne could have sketched this for one of his his novels. [41.7]
And that Wiener-mobile design wasn’t just for looks.
Meigs argued in his book that that giving the cars a cylindrical shape made them stronger, required less material, and cut down on wind resistance.
But what really mattered about Meigs’s system was that it worked.
The design may have looked a little crazy.
But three years of testing have given Meigs time to overcome every possible technical objection.
Charlie Sullivan: It was very well engineered and well thought out. This was the system was operated for a number of years. …Moved large numbers of people on demonstration rides and seemed to be entirely practical. 14.2]
So at this point, in a perfect world, the Massachusetts legislature would have told Meigs, ‘Hey, cool invention! You’ve clearly met the testing requirements in the charter. Now go build monorails all over Boston.’
But… that’s not what happened.
By 1887, Meigs was more of a threat to the streetcar lobby than ever before.
Charlie Sullivan: I think it's a war between two different means of moving people. 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. 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, streetcar operators decided to do something drastic to protect their investment.
If you turn to the very last page of Meigs’s book, you’ll find this sad postscript.
Joe Meigs: At four a.m. on the morning of February 4, 1887, 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 it was pretty clear what had happened.
Charlie Sullivan: Foul play was suspected and it was just a lot of hostility to this that never abated. I think you know street railway men saw this as a huge threat. They employed thousands of men and horses all of whom could see their jobs changing or being threatened by something like this. So it wouldn't take too much to generate that kind of hostility and there were a number of street railway strikes in the 1880s. It was volatile time in the industry. And yeah it's certainly conceivable that that kind of hostility resulted in arson here. [29.2]
Meigs was pretty stubborn guy, and this wasn’t the first experience with vandals.
So his defiant tone after the fire was totally in character.
Joe Meigs: This is the last of a series of attempts of a like nature to hinder my progress. First, out of pure malice, my models were mutilated and broken, at the State House. Then the building, No. 89 Courts Street, where my lecture-room and models were placed, was set on fire...They have mutilated the car at East Cambridge by cutting, and other petty annoyances. These criminal acts are merely futile, and grieve me, but do not hinder the enterprise in the least.
But the truth is that after the fire, the Meigs Elevated Railway Company never really bounced back.
Benjamin Butler left the governor’s office in 1884, and Meigs’s battle with the state legislature dragged on for years.
He didn’t get final approval to start building his monorail systen until 1894.
But by then, he had several new problems.
In 1888, a storm dubbed the Snow Hurricane dumped five feet of snow on Boston and paralyzed the city for weeks.
Which strengthened the argument that if Boston was going to get a new rapid transit system, it should probably be built underground.
On top of that, Meigs was utterly convinced that his locomotives should run on coal and steam, at a time when most new transit systems were switching to electricity.
Meigs’s stubbornness scared off most of his investors.
And in the end, it cost him almost everything.
By 1896 he was out of cash.
All he really had left was the charter rights to the airspace above Boston’s streets, which he decided to sell to his remaining investors.
Charlie Sullivan: The investors went back to the legislature for permission to build new conventional elevated systems in Boston and prevailed. The company was bought out by JP Morgan eventually and built the rapid transit system that we have in Boston today…it became the Metropolitan Transit Authority was acquired by the state, now the MBTA.
I asked Charlie Sullivan if he ever allowed himself to imagine how Boston might look today if Meigs’s competitors hadn’t torched his beautiful monorail.
Charlie Sullivan: Well, almost all of our elevated lines are gone now and these probably would have disappeared too, replaced by subways or relocated to active rail lines. But it's interesting to think that something as light as this might have hung on….long enough to be upgraded and modernized to a 20th century technology.
In other words, maybe there’s a parallel universe where today’s MBTA still uses a single-track system.
Maybe parts of that system are above ground.
Maybe others are at grade or below ground.
Maybe it has all the advantages that Meigs touted,
with tracks that are easier and cheaper to build and trains that run faster and more safely.
Not to mention all that light and air.
But that’s not the universe we live in.
In our universe, financiers from New York City gave Boston the MBTA, with a helping hand from the streetcar lobby’s arsonists.
Speaking as a monorail believer, I’d argue that our nineteenth-century forebears not only made the wrong choice, but they made it in the wrong way.
If streetcar operators had given Meigs a chance to compete for customers in a fair and open market, his system might have prevailed.
But they weren’t willing to risk it.
So instead they resorted to legal legerdemain and violence.
But let’s face it, sometimes that’s how we roll here in America.
In the 1940s, 50 years after the Meigs system failed, the shoe was on the other foot, when automotive and petroleum interests bought up dozens of streetcar companies around the U.S., then proceeded to rip out the rails, and convert them to bus lines.
So, look, we humans always have the power to choose which future we want to live in.
That’s what this show is all about.
But we don’t always have a great process for choosing. So the decisions we make can be messy, undemocratic, profit-driven, and sometimes downright corrupt.
“The best plan, with the least obstruction to light and air,” isn’t always the winner.
Sometimes the best plan just ends up as some words on a plaque.
Soonish is written and produced by me, Wade Roush.
Our theme is by Graham Gordon Ramsay.
Additional music this week from Titlecard Music and Sound in Boston.
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Another great way to support the show is to become a patron on Patreon. If you go to patreon.com/soonish, you can sign up to make a per-episode gift at whatever level feels right for you. This season, if you sign up as a new supporter at the $5 per episode level or above, I’ll send you a Soonish coffee mug with the new Season Three logo on it. So along with your daily caffeine you’ll get a little dose of informed optimism. Check out the mug and all of our other cool rewards at patreon.com/soonish.
Thanks so much to all of our current Patreon supporters, including Andy Hrycyna, Bob Mason, Kent and Celia Ramsay, Charles and Gail Mandeville, Daniel Imrie-Situnayake, David Assaf, David Stenman, Deborah Rossum, Elizabeth Blanch, Evan Blanch, Ellen Leanse, and Neils Rot.
A special thank you to Charlie Sullivan for sharing the story of Joe Meigs and to voice actor and podcaster extraordinaire Charles Gustine of the Iconography Podcast for bringing Meigs to life.
This show is a proud founding member of Hub & Spoke, a collective of smart, independent, story-driven podcasts.
And this week I want to urge you to go subscribe to a great Hub & Spoke show called Culture Hustlers. Host Lucas Spivey drives across the country with his Mobile Incubator and recording studio, a rebuilt 1957 Shasta camper, and gets the inside scoop from artists and creators about how they make their livings blending art and business.
One recent episode took Lucas to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he talked with photographer Leandra LeSeur, who describes her work as an attempt to break down the power constructs that marginalize blackness, queerness, and femininity. You can hear Leandra and check out all of Lucas’s other episodes at culturehustlers.com.
That’s almost it for this episode. I also want to thank Nick Andersen from Masterpiece Studio and Ministry of Ideas for reminding me that you can never play the Simpsons monorail song too many times.
[MUSIC: SIMPSONS MONORAIL SONG]