A Brief on Railroads in Holden

In 1869, the Boston, Barre and Gardner Railroad (BB&G) commenced construction of a railroad from Worcester (at Barber), through Holden, to Gardner. This 26-mile line, which cost 1.2 million dollars to build, opened in 1871. It was extended 10 miles to Winchendon in January, 1874 and later that same year the company leased the Monadnock Railroad north another 16 miles to Peterborough, New Hampshire. The BB&G thus attained a total length of 52 miles.

Beset by financial reversals, the Monadnock lease was surrendered to the Cheshire Railroad in 1880. The BB&G was leased itself to the Fitchburg Railroad in 1884. The following year it was merged into the Fitchburg and became that road's Worcester Division. In 1900 the Fitchburg was leased and soon thereafter merged into the Boston & Maine Railroad (B&M), becoming the B&M's Fitchburg Division. As a part of the B&M system's Fitchburg Division the line through Holden was referred to at different times by various names including the Worcester & Contoocook (N.H.) Branch, the Worcester & Hillsboro (N.H.) Branch, the Peterboro (N.H.) Branch, and finally after the line was severed north o f Gardner, as the Worcester Branch of the Fitchburg Division. At Worcester, the line joined the B&M Portland Division's "Worcester Main Line" at Barber.

The original 52-mile BB&G line through Holden remained under B&M control for 73 years. In 1974, the line was bought by the Providence and Worcester Railroad (P&W). The last B&M freight left Holden for Worcester in January 1974 and the P&W operated its first train over the line on February 2, 1974.

At various times, passenger stops existed at Chaffins, Dawson, Holden, Jefferson, and at North Woods. Holden and Jefferson were small country depots, while the others were flag stops with small shelters. Only two station structures remain: the Holden depot in its original location and the Jefferson depot which was moved in 1975 to a site next to the Wong Dynasty Chinese Restaurant on Reservoir Street.

In 1878 there were four round trip passenger trains between Worcester and Winchendon. This increased to six round trips at the turn of the century. Under B&M ownership, the old BB&G line became part of a rather unlikely through passenger route from Worcester to Concord, NH. This service ended after the floods of 1936 severed the line north of Peterboro. However, a round trip passenger local from Worcester to Peterboro would survive another 17 years, handling passengers and mail. In its last years, it acquired a certain degree of fame and became known as the "Peterboro Local" or the "Blueberry Special." By the early 1950s the B&M was hemorrhaging financially from passenger train losses and was given permission to discontinue this train. It made its last run, with extra coaches and much fanfare, on March 7, 1953. It had remained a steam train with an ancient wooden combine and one coach almost to the very end, at which time steam power had been taken off and a diesel locomotive substituted.

In the late 19th century, traffic was mostly milk and ice. Ice originated at many ice-houses on the ponds along the route. In winter, the first passenger train north would stop at each of these ice-houses to let off the ice harvesting crews. In summer, long strings of box cars would be lined up on the ice-house sidings. They were loaded with ice and dispatched daily to Worcester, Boston, Providence and other cities for next day delivery by horse-drawn wagon. This business declined rapidly with the advent of modern refrigeration.

B&M operated through symbol freights Worcester to Mechanicville, NY (WM-1), and Mechanicville, NY, to Worcester (WM-2), as well as a local freight that switched customers between Worcester and Gardner. The through freights between Worcester and Mechanicville, NY, operated until about 1968. WM-1 would arrive punctually in Holden at 7:30 every evening, switch the small yard, and then depart for Gardner and points west. The eastbound WM-2 passed through in the small hours of the night. The local switcher out of Worcester worked during the day. By the end of B&M control, through service on the line had been discontinued and the Worcester switcher ventured out the line only to service customers as needed.

The line underwent a dramatic renaissance when the P&W commenced operations in 1974. The P&W rehabilitated the line and operates through freights from Providence, RI, and other southern New England points to Gardner, where traffic is interchanged with the B&M. Currently (2005), P&W runs about six trains each way through Holden weekly, hauling coal, lumber, scrap iron, paper goods, plastic resins and other commodities. Currently there are no customers receiving or shipping by rail in Holden.

Twelve years after the BB&G was built, a second railroad line, the Massachusetts Central Railroad, was built into Holden, running roughly east-west across the northern part of town. This railroad, which was chartered to build a line from Stony Brook on the Fitchburg Railroad west to Northampton (distance of 98 miles) opened as far as Jefferson in 1882. The company then encountered financial problems and promptly shut down in May 1883. In November of that year the company reorganized as the Central Massachusetts Railroad.

The directors contracted with the Boston and Lowell Railroad (B&L) to operate the line until final lease arrangements were consummated and operations restarted on September 28, 1885. The line was formally leased to the B&L on December 7, 1886 and construction of the line westward from Jefferson into Rutland and beyond resumed. The line was completed and opened to Northampton in December 1887. Meanwhile, the B&L had been leased for 99 years to the B&M on April 1, 1887, and was later purchased outright by the B&M on February 20, 1902. Thus the Central Massachusetts came to be the B&M Southern Division's Central Massachusetts Branch.

Passenger service began as soon as the line opened. There were four station stops in Holden: Springdale, Canada Mills, Quinapoxet, and Jefferson. Thus, the BB&G and the Central Massachusetts each had their own separate Jefferson Stations. The two lines intersected at a point known as Holden Junction on the Central Massachusetts and Carr Junction on the BB&G. One can still view the old abutments that once carried the Central Massachusetts over the BB&G. Although the two lines were connected at this point, little traffic was ever interchanged here.

The Massachusetts Central/Central Massachusetts Railroad is often cited as a railroad that should never have been built. It was largely a redundant road from the start, located as it was between two dominant east-west roads: the Boston & Albany to the south and Boston & Maine's Fitchburg Division across the northern part of the state. Although there were times when freight and passenger traffic were strong, the road served a very sparsely populated area and it ultimately failed to meet expectations. All service from Oakdale through Holden to Rutland was discontinued June 1, 1938. This turned out to be a prescient decision as the line was seriously compromised later that year by the Hurricane of 1938. On November 7, 1939, track was formally abandoned between Oakdale and Barre Junction, thus breaking the Central Massachusetts into western and eastern parts.

Listen carefully and you will sometimes hear especially in the night train whistles (2 long, 1 short, and a long) at Industrial Drive, Bailey Road, Pleasant Street, Sunnyside Avenue, Quinapoxet Street and Princeton Street. On still nights, one can sometimes hear the whistles for crossings further out the line into Princeton for Brooks Station Road, Ball Hill Road, and Hubbardston Road. Today, while the remaining railroad line through Holden is part of a viable, modern railroad, the locomotive whistles offer an unmistakable sense of historical continuity.

Bradford G. Blodget
December 1, 2005