Building of the Boston & Worcester Railroad

Boland began recruiting Irish Catholic immigrants as laborers. These laborers lived with their families in shanties built along the construction area and moved wherever the work took them.

The Boston & Worcester Railroad


By 1835 there were three railroad systems opened in Massachusetts. The Boston & Worcester Railroad was the first, opening July 4, 1835, closely followed by the Boston & Providence and the Boston & Lowell that also opened in 1835. The urgency of building the three lines simultaneously was primarily due to the immediate success of the Blackstone River Canal as a major shipping route from Providence to Worcester and the uncontrolled deterioration of the Worcester Turnpike

When the Boston & Worcester Railroad, chartered in 1831, built the railroad through Westborough and offered full service in July 1835, it was a pioneer of railroad development in Massachusetts and the first passenger train in New England. Although the new rail line had many supporters, it also had many Westborough detractors.

The contract to build the B&W went to Tobias Boland, born in Tipperary, Ireland. Boland had just completed construction of the Blackstone River Canal and had previous experience in railroad and bridge construction. Boland hired Philip Norton, an experienced builder as the superintendent of the works. Boland then began recruiting Irish Catholic immigrants as laborers, as he had done for the canal project. These laborers lived with their families in shanties built along the construction area and moved wherever the work took them.

These laborers were referred to as Gandy Dancers (from the Gaelic, cinnte-continuous). They not only did the pick and shovel work but also set the sleepers, then inched the iron rails into place with a lining bar while others spiked the rails to the sleepers with sledge hammers. Their movements to the rhythmic singing of the line boss set the pace and appeared as though the men were dancing.

Construction of the line began in August 1832 but did not go without loss of life and major construction issues. Quicksand took several lives while black powder explosions used in blasting the rock took the lives of several laborers and injured nearby families. Major cuts were made through solid rock obstacles, swamps were drained and filled with rubble rock while grades were raised to support the weight of the trains and rails along the 44-mile route.

Entering Westborough from the east, the rail line was built on a raised grade that ran parallel to the Sudbury River. The line passed over a level grade crossing of Fruit Street and Flanders Road at Rocklawn and into Cedar Swamp. The line continued on a raised road bed through the entire length of the 3 mile swamp before entering downtown Westborough. The rail line was built at grade here, bisected the downtown crossing over East Main Street and proceeded in a northerly direction between Milk and Summer streets until making a turn west and passed under Milk Street where Boland built  a wooden bridge for the road. Continuing west, the railroad made substantial cuts at Otis and Fisher streets while grades were increased and bridges built over Otis Street, Fisher Street, Maynard and Arch streets.

The first train to arrive in Downtown Westborough on November 15, 1834 was called an iron horse. It was a noisy, smoke and embers belching wood powered steam locomotive pulling the first passenger coaches that were nothing more than recycled stagecoaches adapted to run on the railroad. For the next seven months the train was dead ended at Westboro and returned to Boston while construction of the road continued to Worcester.

Photo:  The Boston & Worcester Railroad                                                          

 The inaugural run from Boston to Worcester was on July 4, 1835 and consisted of 12 passenger cars carrying 300 persons drawn by two locomotives, the Yankee and the Meteor. Westborough residents turned out in mass for the gala event to welcome the latest means of transportation.  


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Ron Goodenow November 03, 2012 at 01:39 PM
Wonderful history Glenn. Can't wait to read it all. You referenced Gandy Dancers and that really interested me. As I have mentioned I lived in Wyoming in the mid-1960s on the Union Pacific. Every spring these enormous trains of 20 or 30 sleepers, dining cars, and cars filled with supplies, tools, etc. would cross the prairies for track maintenance after a long winter. In local terms these were 'Gandy Trains', and they were staffed by native Americans hired at union wages for perhaps six weeks of work. What I remember is that when they were paid on Fridays the local taxis, bars, banks, and package stores did a good business even though the UP kept the trains a few miles from town. I am trying to run down more info on these trains, in part to refresh my memory. In those days Wyoming was a place unto itself, and a wonderful place to live. I think it probably still is. The UP has pulled all is yards out of places like Laramie, the big whistling turbine engines are in museums and I don't have a clue as to whether there are still these 'Gandy Trains' though, of course, here are work trains everywhere on that now huge sysem.. I've done a page of UP photos, timetables, etc. from those days here: http://www.trainweb.org/theattic/ and perhaps with your next post the editor can put my contemporary Westborough train pics on the Patch in the sidebar menu. Its wonderful to get perspectives ver the centuries! Thanks. I.
Andy Koenigsberg November 05, 2012 at 01:42 AM
Does the old right of way follow the current rail system? Given that you said "The line continued on a raised road bed through the entire length of the 3 mile swamp before entering downtown Westborough" I wonder if the CSX tracks run over this original road bed.
Glenn R. Parker November 06, 2012 at 12:21 AM
Andy, sorry I didn't get right back to you... CSX is running over the rail line established in 1899. Then is was the Boston & Albany, then for freight the NY Central then Penn Central ETC today CSX.
Sue Murphy October 28, 2013 at 11:53 AM
Hello I liked your post, I am writing an essay about Tarriers of the Early American Railroad. Do you have any information on what a tarrier is? Also what the drills looked like back then to drill the granite etc. Thanks for your time, Any info you have is great. Sue Murphy smurphy7@edison.edu


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