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Ode to the Mattapan Trolley

Will McElroy

A metal chime rings out on the Mattapan Trolley as an elderly woman in an enormous pink puffer jacket reaches for the overhead cable, signaling for the driver to stop. Rather than feature the electronic yellow strips of the Green Line or bus—which summon the commanding yet reassuring voice of Frank Oglesby to inform the driver a stop has been requested—the trolley uses a more archaic system. These 1945 Pullman Standard PCC streetcars instead rely on a nylon cable running all 43 feet of the trolley, which, when pulled, rings a bell in the driver’s cockpit, fulfilling the same function as the automated alarm. The mustard-yellow streetcar slows as it approaches Butler station, finally breaking with a slight jolt. The woman and a few others file out either of the doors onto the cement platform and, from there, onto wherever their destination may be, knowing there will be another trolley later that day to carry them home.

The officially titled “Ashmont-Mattapan High-Speed Line” has meandered its 2.6-mile journey around the Neponset river—from Ashmont station in Dorchester to Mattapan Square—since Aug. 26, 1929 (1), 59 days before Black Thursday ushered in the Great Depression. While in many other North American cities, these heritage streetcars are preserved only as tourist attractions, they remain an integral part of the MBTA’s mass-transit system in Boston, serving over 6,000 riders a day. While it tends to screech rather than glide along the track, and passengers can be jostled without warning, there is a definite charm to these living relics.

To connect its titular neighborhoods, the line traverses the leafy suburb of Milton. Milton is my hometown, and the trolley would often serve as my friends and I’s mode of transit to downtown Boston on days off. The mustard-yellow of the trolley has colored many of my memories, from getting chocolate-chip cookie dough cones from The Ice Creamsmith in Lower Mills to stopping at the Thursday farmer’s market to watch a live folk performance.

So much of my life has revolved around those dingy old trolleys, from childhood to commuting to campus today. This could change in the coming decade, however, as the MBTA has announced the Mattapan Line Transformation Project to modernize the route, including new carriages (2). In the typical turtle-pace of the MBTA, the agency plans, in the next ten years, to replace the wartime trolleys with new Type-9 light rail trams—the same used on the Green Line. While this change will most likely be for the best, especially in terms of accessibility, I personally will miss those tired old trolleys. They’ve been tracking that same route for 78 years and I can only hope they enjoy their long-awaited rest.

1. Belcher, J. (2023, January 23). Changes to Transit Service in the MBTA district 1964-2023. Transit history.

2. Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. (n.d.). Mattapan Line transformation.

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