This Day in History 9/1: The First running US subway opens in Boston

Flying junction on the Tremont Street Subway a...

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It’s a system that’s younger than London’s, older than New York’s, and best known as the setting of a oft-sung folk ditty…

A ditty customarily sung under the influence.

On September 1, 1897, the Tremont Street Subway opened in Boston, the first fully functioning subway in the United States. Today, this original tunnel forms part of the Green Line of Boston’s subway system, or “T” as it is known locally.

Like its famous streets, Boston’s mass transit history was haphazard at best, with breaks and bends along the way. The Tremont Street line was, funny enough, not designed as a mass transit system. Rather, it was a way for city fathers to cut back on trolley lines on the surface. In fact, the first subway cars in Boston were trolleys, powered by overhead wires.

By 1947, the Tremont Line was folded into the Metropolitan Transit Authority or MTA—today known as the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority or MBTA. In order to increase fare revenue without updating equipment, the MTA instituted an “exit fare” of a nickel. Only by paying this fare could a rider leave the system and return to the surface.

This practice inadvertently spawned the Boston subway’s most famous legacy—“MTA” or as it is commonly known, “Charlie on the MTA.”

In 1949, Walter O’Brien ran as the Progressive Party candidate for mayor of Boston. One of his major campaign promises was to remove the exit fare system (a system so complicated that it required a nine-page booklet to explain it all). Unable to afford radio ad time, O’Brien enlisted local folk singers to write and sing campaign songs from a truck with a loudspeaker as it careened through Boston’s windy streets.

The best known of these campaign songs attacked the exit fare system with a curious predicament. Jacqueline Steiner and Bess Lomax Hawes wrote “MTA” using the tunes of earlier ballads like “The Ship that Never Returned” and “The Wreck of the Old 97.” The song featured Charlie, an unfortunate Bostonian who boards a Boston subway car without the required exit fare. Since he can’t pay to get out, poor Charlie is doomed to spend his days on the subway as it speeds past station after station.

The song has since become legendary in Boston folklore—even if its original intent has been lost to younger generations. It’s been recorded numerous times and often been the basis of numerous sing-alongs in bars from Marblehead to the Cape. Even the MBTA got into the act, naming its electronic-based fare-collection system the “CharlieCard.”

Attached is the most famous recording of the song, by the Kingston Trio in 1959. They changed the name of the candidate to George O’Brien, since the aforementioned Walter was perceived by many as a Socialist—an obvious faux pas in the paranoid 50s.

I also included a modern rendition and a personal favorite, “Skinhead on the MBTA” by the Dropkick Murphys. It’s not for everyone, but who cares? Enjoy.

 

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