Interviewed September 9, 1992
A two part interview with Anna Manon with title
The Railroad Depot as Gathering Place
Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.
Click here for audio in .mp3 format
Railroad centers always occupy a very special place in the heart of any town -- the commercial life around them that grew, the vitality of the hustle and bustle of the Depot. What can you tell us about life at the Depot and around the Junction?
If I may borrow from Barry Higgins, I would like to say this presentation is "Junketing Around the Depots (Plural)." The time frame is around 1920 to 1942. At that time there were two Depots, the Concord Junction Depot and the one named "Reformatory," the central division of the Boston & Maine Railroad located in the Barrett's Mill Road area.
I hope to answer a couple of questions, "What is missing" and "What is new?" I've chosen to begin on Highland Street, where I lived from September 1922 to October 1956. Ralph Warner, the owner of the land, laid out his plan for house lots on Highland Street and the north side of Main Street abutting Highland Street in 1896. My parents moved there in September 1922 from 200 Commonwealth Avenue which was in the fork of the "Harvard Road" and the Ayer Road. A gasoline station and garage sat in the "Vee" of the fork and our house was behind it.
This is the first item of "What is missing?" Both the house and garage have been removed and a new gas station has been installed. Not far from this location, on Barrett's Mill Road was the "Reformatory" railroad station. one of the station agents was Mr. Leighton, Marguerite's father. The tracks entered what is now the reformatory rotary and swung behind the present parking lot at the end of the White Row joining the New York, New Haven & Hartford tracks. I imagine that the train would proceed to "the Junction," the center of West Concord. The engine would be turned around on the round table and would lay over for its return on the central division tracks down through Bow Street in Concord, Bedford, Lexington, Arlington and finally Boston, or proceed down the Fitchburg division tracks eastward to Boston. One could reach Concord Junction by more than one route from Boston.
Back to Highland Street. Running parallel with the street at a distance of about an eighth of a mile were the Boston & Maine's Fitchburg division tracks. The land on the northerly side of the street from the houses to the tracks was owned by the West End Land Company. Whitney Coal and Grain occupied much of this land and across the tracks was the Allen Chair Company.
So from our house on Highland Street we had a sweeping view of the trains passing this stretch of the trackage. Supposedly Highland Street was built on a ledge that stretched up to the Assabet River, so, when a train approached, the house would vibrate, the dishes would rattle in the china closet and the swinging mirrors on the bureaus in the bedrooms would begin to move. One could detect that a train was coming from the west long before it could be heard.
Lying in bed at night in the summer with the windows open, one could hear the steam engines chug, chug, chug, all the way to South Acton and beyond. Just when you thought it was out of hearing, you would hear chug, chug, chug, chug, as the engine began its climb westward.
The passing of a long freight train, sometimes 125 cars or more, would do either of two things: in the summertime, completely bring to an end any conversations, or anytime of the year, lull you to sleep.
Well, Highland Street was a short cut for commuters from upper Central and Main Streets. As the engine tooted its whistle at the Parker Street grade crossing in South Acton, late risers would start to jog their way to the Depot: Margaret and Ann Coughlin, Elmer Wetherbee, Dorothy Garfield and many others.
Highland Street intersected with Church Street opposite Our Lady Help of Christians Church and the driveway to the West Concord and Harvey Wheeler schools. Put the West Concord School on the "missing" list, but before we leave Highland Street, let me point out that there were three men there who were employed either directly or indirectly by the railroad. One was Harry Marrs, station agent, Albert Hicks, the signal tower man, and Paul Barnes, agent for the railway express office in old Concord. I might also mention Burleigh Lincoln Pratt, coal dealer; Irving Linwood Bumford, automobile dealer; and Wells A. Hall, Superintendent of Schools in Concord, as well as John H. Adams, owner of Adams & Bridges; Dr. Isaiah Pickard, general practitioner; and my father, Robert W. Carter, all residents of this short street.
Well, let us begin a short trip down to the Depot. After passing Whitney Coal and Grain on the left, going down the hill, the road runs nearer to the railroad tracks where there was and still is a fence. However, the fence of the twenties and thirties was more like a farm fence than the present one, and one could command a good view of the freight activities. It was fascinating to watch the trains detach and shunt freight cars into a choice of several locations. After the air lines to the brakes was disconnected with the sound of a hundred champagne corks popping and the hissing of escaping air, the trainman would uncouple the coupler, the engineer would start to move in the direction he wanted the freight car to travel and the uncoupled car would start to roll towards its destination. The great thing was to watch the brakeman climb to the top of the car and manually stop the train by turning the big wheel at the top. The whole activity reminded me of the game "Snap the Whip." As kids we could watch for hours or until the train discharged its freight and picked up empty freight cars and went on its way.
I remember as the train approached the stationmaster would come out into the waiting room and say "Train for Boston." Then he would go out onto the platform and he always had papers to hand to a trainman or a conductor and I suppose they were directions and messages he had received on his telegraph. He was to pass that news on to whoever was in charge of the train. The other thing that I always remember was the loading and unloading of mail. The train probably would be delayed a few minutes if there was a lot of mail to 'unload. Of course, the fascinating thing was to watch an express train go through and with this side arm sticking out as it went by, would grab a bag of mail that had been placed in this certain spot to pick it up. Then it would come inside and on their way to either Boston or to the west, the mailmen on the train would sort it. So they could through it off at various stations as they went by. It seems to me that delivery was much quicker then it is today.
This station didn't have a Western Union telegram attached to, this had it's own telegraph system. I think there was a Western Union station in Concord Center but not in West Concord. They had the messages coming in from the New Haven railroad as well as the Boston & Maine and I suppose that central division also was connected somehow. Of course, they were all connected by railroad telephone.
One thing I remember standing out on the platform when an express train would go through or a freight, the amount of dust and debris that it would kick up, you'd have to turn away from it to protect your eyes because you would just get blinded by the debris, the sand, the papers and everything that just seemed to collect around a railroad station.
The other thing was meeting people at the railroad station. I can remember going to meet relatives who came to spend the weekend or the day or something, and how important it was to be able to be there on time when they arrived, so that they would know that they were properly met.
Going to Boston was always a great joy to me. They used to call it the shoppers train, the 9:30. When we would get into the North Station, of course the engines came up to practically the station itself, and you would walk by it and feel the heat of that steam engine and the smell of the warm metal and the hot oil that they used to lubricate the various connections on the train. That's another childhood memory. Also amazingly, I think there were 26 or 28 tracks in the North Station and you sat in your train waiting for the 5:14 to return to Concord, you'd watch other trains go out and they all had to go through this rather narrow drawbridge area and you wondered why they didn't collide. They were minutes apart. Just like today, planes take off minutes apart and don't seem to collide, well, trains used to do the same thing.
I do remember that the development of stores especially in Concord Junction were around the Depot. The first new store was the West Concord Supermarket. They built on railroad land that they were able to acquire from the Boston & Maine. The other building was also opposite the tracks and was called the Bartolomeo block. It's where Condon's liquor store is and Condon's now own that block. Then as you advanced up the hill towards Our Lady's Church, that stretch used to have a block of stores, a rooming house and a fire station. I guess everybody knows about the fire station burning down back in 1934, with the fire engines inside the fire house. I recall watching the boarding house, Mrs. Simpson's boarding house, and watching the bathtub fall from the second floor to the basement. George Simpson, who lived there, was one of the early casualties of World War II.
Another interesting thing, the next building to the block of stores that is now where the fish market is was Hogan's Spa. They lost the third floor of their store in that fire. When they rebuilt it, it wasn't built as high as it had been previously. It still had an attic area but it wasn't a full attic. This was on Church Street. That was where all of us got penny candy and our five-cent ice cream cone and our ten-cent soda or fifteen-cent sundae. I can see Mr. Hogan with his hands in his jacket pockets jingling the change hoping we'd make up our minds and get out quickly.
The next building going toward Concord beyond the Condon block was a restaurant owned by Mrs. Comeau's mother and father, the Doucettes. It was there in that restaurant that my folks first met the Collins. They were new people in town and they had gone over to have their noonday meal and that's where they met. That was a place, Mrs. Comeau told me, that the trainmen from the B&M would gather there for their lunches and they especially liked Mrs. Doucette homemade apple pie. The Comeau's still live upstairs over it, and I think it's a store below. It keeps changing hands and I don't know who's there right at the moment.
Rounding the corner on Main Street, there was a small store where Mr. Blasidell operated a jewelry store. That's where I bought my first Mickey Mouse watch. Then there was a little building that housed a fish store, and here my third grade, Mildred (Tommie) Bean Gale would send me on an errand to pick up fish cakes.
The second building was another of those stores with living quarters above it and this one was occupied by Jewett's Market which later became Prendergast's Market.
Across the street was Conant Machine & Steel Company's buildings one of which was Mr. Tanner's Blacksmith Shop and to the right was a hat manufacturer. A lot with a tennis court on it was next toward Maynard which belong to Harriet and Benjamin Shepard. When my dad wanted to move from the Adams & Bridges block across the tracks to a building of his own, the tennis court was the only available building lot in Concord at that time. Another did exist, but it belonged to "Wild Bill" Aldred who wanted to sell out his auto repair shop and the land with it, but his wife would not release her dower rights. So after his death, she did sell it to Holly Holden and his mother. Another new building appeared in 1929 when my father built the building that Carter Furniture Company is in today.
The Depot in West Concord was very important because of the manufacturing that took place in the town. The Allen Chair Company had their own little side tracks from the main railroad line and so did Whitney Coal and Grain on the other side of the tracks, but other people shipped through that station. The Reformatory shipped their things they made in their furniture department, the Loring Brothers Lead Factory, the Bluine, who made the bluing for whitening clothes, the Garnet Shop Mill and the Webbing Factory. They all used that station to ship all over the United States I imagine.
Freight came in on the New York, New Haven & Hartford as well as the Boston & Maine so there was a L-shaped warehouse, some of it went up Commonwealth Avenue and the other was parallel with the tracks of the Boston & Maine. Our freight arrived that way too. After the New York, New Haven & Hartford ceased operations as far as bringing in less than carload lots, we used to have to go to Framingham to pick up freight.
I mentioned a place to eat, there was a place to stay too, a hotel. The Elmwood Hotel on Commonwealth Avenue was a residence for bachelor guards at the Reformatory as well as probably for other people in town who didn't have a home of their own. Their dining room was a very popular and they served very good food, I understand. In the same building the Rodday's had a hardware store and also there was a pool hall in that building too. Further along there was a house where the Whitney's lived, Otis Whitney, on the corner of Bradford Street and Commonwealth Avenue. It's occupied by Tony the Tailor at the moment. Beyond that was also the home of Hepgood Wright. So it was a rather interesting street for its time.
One interesting piece of news that kept appearing in the local newspapers was the fact that the American Woolen Company was going to open a branch in the Junction. Each issue of the paper would discuss that plans were still underway but nothing was certain, and finally, the news came that they had abandoned the idea. But for quite a while it sounded like West Concord would have been another wool manufacturing town. I forgot to mention, I suppose that the materials that went in and out of Damondale passed through the Depot area. I don't know if they had there own siding or not.