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Railways in the

Islands of Massachusetts

The mainland of Massachusetts is well served by railways and these are described in the pages relating to the contiguous states. However, there are two islands in the Atlantic Ocean, south of Cape Cod, each of which had their own railway system and deserve special mention.

The islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket came to prominence in the 19th century with the rise of the whaling industry, and later became popular tourist resorts. Each island had a small network of railways, built to 3ft (914mm) gauge.

Martha’s Vineyard

Oak Bluffs Wharf
Train leaving Oak Bluffs Wharf

The first line of the Martha’s Vineyard Railroad opened in 1874, running from the wooden pier at Oak Bluffs, down the east side of the island, through Edgarstown to Katama. A short branch to South Beach was added two years later, bringing the total length of line up to 9 miles (14.5km).

The entire line was worked by a single steam locomotive, Active, and three passenger cars. Traffic was frequently disrupted by storm damage to the line, partly built on trestles on the exposed east coast. It was quickly realized that there was insufficient local traffic to sustain a railway that was so expensive to maintain, and the line closed in 1896.

Trams on the island fared somewhat better. The first horsedrawn tram line actually opened in Oak Bluffs in 1871, before the railway. A number of other lines were later constructed and from 1895 were converted to electric operation. The lines closed in 1917 and the tracks were taken up for war purposes.

Nantucket

Nantucket Railroad
Nantucket Railroad leaving the town, circa 1917

The first railway on Nantucket opened in 1881, from the town of Nantucket, south across the island to Surfside. In 1884, it was extended to Siasconset (also known as Sconset). Like the Martha’s Vineyard line, the coastal route suffered from storm damage and erosion. Here, however, the solution was to build a new line across the island from a point just south of Nantucket directly to Tom Nevers Head. The new line connected with the original line to provide a shorter route between Nantucket and Sconset. It opened in 1895, and the original line via Surfside was closed.

This was not enough to save the railway from its inevitable fate, however. Declining traffic and rising motor car usage brought about its eventual closure in 1918.

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© 2006-2017 Glyn Williams
Photo image of Martha’s Vineyard from the Stan Lair Collection
Photo image of Nantucket from the Nantucket Historical Association
US flag image from CIA World Factbook
Massachusetts flag image from Wikipedia
Special thanks to SPV for their excellent Railroad Atlases

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