Updated: Apr 27, 2021
This article previously appeared in a 2017 issue of our newsletter, The Crow's Nest, by
Dr. Jeffrey Miller, Director of the Mattapoisett Museum.
“... Nowhere in the world is there a greater opportunity for the street railways to increase pleasure travel, nor anywhere such an opportunity for the trolley tourist to find such varying charms of landscape, historical spots and delightful rides as here in the old Bay state.” (Derrah 1904: Introduction)
When Robert Derrah penned his New England guide to trolley travel in 1904, he may have thought that electric trolleys were the wave of the future. At the turn of the century, trolleys (also called trams or streetcars) were an affordable and reliable mode of transportation for many people, and new lines were being opened all over the world, including Massachusetts. In 1901 Mattapoisett was connected to New Bedford to the west and Onset to the east via an electric trolley line built and operated by the New Bedford and Onset Street Railway. Derrah noted that the New Bedford to Onset line was “not only a model one in construction and general equipment, but also a ready means of obtaining access to a section of southeastern Massachusetts refreshing in its natural charm and with historic and Indian associations” (Derrah 1904: 61). Unfortunately, Mattapoisett’s trolley line, like many was relatively short-lived – by the late 1920s the streetcar’s era had passed and the line was shut down.
The New Bedford and Onset Street Railway first began life as the New Bedford and Fairhaven Street Railway in 1872. At the time, they operated horse-drawn cars within New Bedford and Fairhaven, but did not go as far as Mattapoisett. Horse-drawn carriages had some difficulties, however. The horses themselves were expensive and labor intensive to care for and feed, they dirtied the streets with manure, and they had trouble with hills: “When the horsecar reached the New Bedford end of the New Bedford-Fairhaven Bridge, a boy ran alongside with a third horse and hooked him up beside the team. It took three horses to get a car from the end of the bridge to the top of the hill at Summer Street” (Ackerman n.d.). While electrification of the service in New Bedford began in 1890, it was another two years before the Fairhaven part of the line followed suit – reportedly, this was due to the residents fear of electrocution from the overhead power lines.
By the beginning of the 20th century Mattapoisett, Marion, Wareham, and Onset were growing, in part due to their popularity as summer retreats, leading to an increasing demand for transportation and the proposal for a new electric trolley line linking New Bedford, Onset, and the towns in between. By the summer of 1900, talks were underway with the various towns in order to plan routes and stops, determine fares, and decide upon matters such as maintenance, staffing, and facilities. These negotiations were not straightforward, however, and there were several impediments to the line’s success. In Wareham, for example, the company proposed a 10-cent fare, while in Mattapoisett and Marion the fare was to be only 5 cents. Understandably, the people of Wareham weren’t particularly happy about this, and balked at the proposal, leading to a special town meeting. In Marion there was some opposition to the whole idea of the line coming through town, leading to a heated debate. The differences in opinion seem to have split the town between summer residents, who wanted to refuse the trolley in order to preserve the character of the village, and year-round inhabitants, who argued that the line would generate income and provide quicker and easier transportation to the shops and attractions of New Bedford.
In Mattapoisett, the selectmen readily assured the trolley company that a route through town would be found and that the residents would be agreeable to the project. For the most part, this was true, but it didn’t go as smoothly as they had hoped. The first draft of the plan proposed that the trolley would run along Water Street. As in Marion, however, some felt that this route would detract from the attractiveness of the village and its scenic harbor. Consequently, the Boston Globe reported that “a petition is being circulated asking for a change in the proposed location of the New Bedford & Onset street railway from Water Street to Church Street This route would keep the trolley away from the waterfront for the most part and would be more acceptable to the city people whose summer houses are situated on Water Street ... It is thought probable that the change in location outlined will allay much of the opposition that is cropping out here against the enterprise” (Globe 1900: 23).
Notably, summer resident Edward Atkinson was one of the prominent opponents of the initial Water Street route, despite his own house being back from the shore. Atkinson was no stranger to voicing dissent, and was well-known at the time as a prolific activist and founder of the American Anti-Imperialist League. Atkinson sided with neither those in support of the trolley nor those directly opposed to it – instead he argued that the trolley line should be located in the northern part of town, along the border with Rochester. Unfortunately for Atkinson, however, while the petition to divert the trolley from Water Street was successful, the new route proposed by the selectmen ran along Church Street and continued to the east, bisecting his own property.
Despite his protestations, including bringing a lawyer to argue his case at the town, the town voted to proceed, and construction in Mattapoisett began in the summer of 1901. The track through Fairhaven and into Mattapoisett was completed relatively quickly, and by August 3rd, the first car from New Bedford made its way into the town as far as the train station at Depot Street. The trolley had to run underneath the railroad tracks, however, and difficulties in completing the underpass delayed the tracks reaching the rest of the village. Despite some delays in finishing bridges over both the Wareham and Weweantic Rivers, progress on the line continued, until it was formally opened in the fall of 1901.
The path the trolley took through Mattapoisett is clearly marked in the New Topographical Atlas of Surveys, Plymouth County, published in 1903. The line entered town from the west following what is now Rt. 6, then took a sharp right turn to swing by Depot Street and cross under the Fairhaven Branch Railroad tracks before coming out at the corner of Church and Main Streets by the town hall. From there it followed Church Street and Church Street Extension to Marion Road and then on to Marion. From at least 1914, the trolley operated with a turnaround near the present-day Turks. There the car would be put on a turntable and turned around to go back towards Fairhaven (Seth Mendell, pers. comm.). There were also stops at the Dexter Elm or Tub Mill Brook (along Rt. 6) and at Kinney’s store on Church Street (opposite Center School). To continue on to Marion or beyond, the riders would switch to a car on the other track. The trolley fare was 5 cents, which led to one of the conductors, Donald Nicholson, being nicknamed ‘Billy Nick’, since he collected nickels from the passengers. Today little evidence of the track remains.
While the trolley was undoubtedly a convenience, in the early years a ride was also considered a form of entertainment: “The connection of Mattapoisett with her neighbors by trolley is still something of a novelty, and the route which encircles all of the old Rochester territory charming and varied in scenery. It leads through town and country, under stretches of woodland shade, gives fleeting glimpses of the sea and more lingering visions of beautiful lakes and streams” (Tilden 1908: 14). During Mattapoisett’s semi-centennial in 1907, an organized trolley ride was planned as part of a week-long series of events, which also included a parade, clambake, concerts, baseball games, and fireworks. The trolley was also used to bring high school students to and from school, which was then in Fairhaven. The kids were known to play pranks on the driver and conductor – the most popular was to get the car rocking so that the pole disconnected from the overhead line and the trolley was stopped.
Unfortunately, the service was not to last. At the turn of the 20th century the mass-production of personal automobiles was just beginning. Within a few years, however, production had skyrocketed. From the time the trolley opened in 1901 to when it closed in 1927 the number of cars produced in the US had increased nearly 1,000-fold. In particular, improvements to efficiency in manufacturing had led to automobiles that were affordable to the middle-class – the well-known Ford Model T, for example. By 1926 it had become clear that the New Bedford and Onset Street Railway was struggling. In an attempt to save the line, Wareham voted to place $3,000 in a fund to be used to continue the service, and Mattapoisett and Marion soon followed suit. The community investment may have helped to delay the closing, but it seems to have been inevitable. By the summer of 1927, the company was still not profitable, and the decision was made to terminate the venture entirely. The last trolley ran through Mattapoisett on September 30, 1927.
Sources: Ackerman, John H. (n.d.). Not-so-rapid transit. [newspaper clipping] 2004.009.034. Marion: Sippican Historical Society. Anon (1900). Marion Summer Residents Opposition to Trolley Road. [newspaper clipping] 2006.003.113. Marion: Sippican Historical Society. Anon (1916). Trolley Trips Through New England. Hartford: The Trolley Press. Boston Daily Globe (1900-1927). Various. Boston Evening Transcript (1900-1901). Various. Boston Herald (1901-1908). Various. Bunnewith, Richard S. and Pursley, Gene (1976). Mattapoisett – The Bicentennial. Mattapoisett: Mattapoisett Bicentennial Committee. Commonwealth of Massachusetts (1915). Second Annual Report of the Public Service Commission, January, 1915, Volume II – Returns. Boston: Wright & Potter Printing Co. Derrah. Robert H. (1904). By Trolley Through Eastern New England. Boston: s.n. Finnie, John (2012). Retracing the Path of a Street Railway. In American Society for Engineering Education 2012 Northeast Section Conference. Lowell, Massachusetts, April 27-28, 2012. Globe (1900). Petition Being Circulated for Change in Location of Street Railway. Boston Daily Globe, Aug 5, pg. 23. L.J. Richards Co. (1903). New Topographical Atlas of Surveys, Plymouth County. Springfield: The L.J. Richards Co. Plymouth-Home National Bank (n.d.). Home is a Place to Remember. [pamphlet] 0500.2.563. Mattapoisett: Mattapoisett Historical Society. Railroad Commissioners (1907). Map of the Electric Railways of the State of Massachusetts. [map] 1962.14.1. Mattapoisett: Mattapoisett Historical Society. Tilden, Irving N. (1908). An Account of the Celebration of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Incorporation of the Town of Mattapoisett, Massachusetts, August 18-24, 1907. New Bedford: E. Anthony & Sons, Inc.