A Brief History of Franklin & Bellingham Rail Trail

In 1826, the Granite Railway was incorporated in Massachusetts and is popularly termed the first commercial railroad in the United States. Its wooden rails were laid on stone crossties 5 feet apart and were plated with iron. The railroad ran 3 miles from a quarry in Quincy to a dock on the Neponset River in Milton. Horses were used to pull the wagons along the rails.

In 1847, which was 13 years before the American Civil War, the Norfolk County Railroad was chartered to bring rail service to this part of Massachusetts. By 1849, tracks had been laid on the 17.5 miles stretch of the rail bed from Walpole to Blackstone and the first passenger train steamed west from Boston. The Norfolk Country Railroad employed many Irish Catholic immigrants to lay track, and to do other back breaking tasks. These immigrant laborers were the first Roman Catholics in the town of Franklin, and helped to found St. Mary’s Parish in later years.

The Norfolk County Railroad was merged with the Boston and New York Central Railroad in 1854, and 9 years later in 1863 was acquired by the Boston, Hartford and Erie Railroad. When the Boston, Hartford and Erie Railroad folded during the disastrous 1873 Wall Street panic, the railroad was reorganized as the New York and New England Railroad. During the heyday of the NY & NE, a speedy passenger express train ran between Boston and New York in less than six hours, an astonishingly direct and fast route for the time. The new passenger train had started running in 1884, but it gained a new nickname in 1891 when the new, white cars were introduced to the line. Onlookers dubbed it the “Ghost Train” and it only ran till 1895.

The name of the railroad was shortened to the New England Railroad in 1895, but three years later the company was taken over by the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad (often simply called the New Haven) – one of the rail giants of New England – and the line on which you are standing was renamed the Midland Division. During the early 1900s, the Midland Division became a vital route by which the City of Boston was supplied with fresh milk each morning. After loading up thousands of jugs of milk from farms in far off Willimantic and Norwich, Connecticut the daily milk train would rumble up the line to Boston, picking up more milk along the way from communities such as Millville and Franklin. Dairy farmers needed to get up early each morning to milk their cows, but it was a matter of surviving. Without the milk train in the wee hours of the morning, they would not be able to sell their milk. Almost all dairy farmers on the Midland Division sold their milk to a major distributor. There were 5 major distributors for the city, each dominating a different rail line; but the one that mattered on the Midland Division was the Elm Farm Company.

The New Haven owned and operated this line for more than half a century. By the 1950s, however, the railroad was facing fierce competition from passenger automobiles and new semitrailers carrying freight on the highways. To make matters worse, heavy rains and high winds of Hurricanes Connie and Diane in 1955 knocked out bridges along the length of the rail line, and it was simply too expensive to rebuild them all. Thus, passenger service beyond Blackstone, Massachusetts came to an end and in 1966; the last passenger train ran between Boston and Blackstone. At last in 1968, the New Haven went out of business and its locomotives, railcars, and rail lines were acquired by the Pennsylvania Central Railroad.

Penn Central ran passenger trains to the current day Franklin-Dean College station through the early 1970s; but it was expensive to keep passenger trains running on schedule, especially with ridership at low ebb. Gasoline was cheap, and almost everyone had a car. There was no need- it seemed- to keep the trains running. Passenger service had ended beyond Franklin, and the Midland Division had been largely abandoned.

Then, in 1976, Penn Central went out of business. Worried that all the large railroads on the east coast would die out, the federal government combined Penn Central and other dying railroads to keep passenger and freight services going. The new company was known as Consolidated Rail or Conrail. But this merger came too little, too late to save the old Midland Division. What was left of the old dairy and passenger route was finally abandoned and ceded to the Mass Department of Environmental Management in 1984. Today, the Southern New England Trunkline Trail (SNETT) is managed by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation & Recreation, with a trailhead on Grove Street in Franklin.