Martha’s Vineyard Railroad: A Beautiful Disaster

The narrow-gauge Martha’s Vineyard Railroad ran on Martha’s Vineyard Island, connecting Oak Bluffs with Edgartown, MA. (Right of way). 

From Oak Bluffs, steamships of the Old Colony Railroad would transport passengers to Woods Hole on the mainland, whose line today has since been abandoned as well.

The train Active leaving Oak Bluffs wharf for Edgartown. From a stereoview. Scan courtesy via Wikipedia Commons.

It took just eight weeks to build this line in 1874, after a decline in the whaling industry left Massachusetts industrialists scrambling to develop a new source of revenue. The natural beauty of the island made tourism a viable option, and thus the line transported island tourists to and from ferry operations to connect to mainland Massachusetts. 

Say what you will, but you have to love the aesthetics in this picture! (Wikipedia Commons)

While an eight week timetable for construction sounds like a good idea on paper, it turns out all of those environmental reviews, planning, and designing stages that are nearly universal in transportation projects today are all necessary. As the Vineyard Gazette puts it, "recklessness is the handmaiden of speed, and the building of the Martha’s Vineyard Railroad featured misaligned bridges; a first locomotive that wasn’t strong enough to pull coaches or nimble enough to take curves; and a second locomotive that fell over the edge of the steamboat wharf into Woods Hole harbor and had to be hauled out and reconditioned in Boston before its trip by steamer over to the Vineyard."

Further still, financial issues almost immediately bankrupted the railroad, and a fire destroying the Sea View House in 1892 would seal its fate, as the line would close four years later.

Interestingly enough, the Martha's Vineyard Railroad was not the first, or the last, railroad operation on the island, as several trolley lines also existed.

According to Martha's Vineyard Museum, "the first trolley line on the Island was completed in 1871 as a horse car line from the Highland Wharf in Oak Bluffs that wrapped around the Methodist campground. Reportedly, the “horse railroad” line ran directly from the wharf to the campground so that people attending the camp meetings could avoid the “sinful” parts of Oak Bluffs. Within the Cottage City Street Railway Company’s first year in operation, they made a decent profit. The lines operated only during the summer tourist season. Subsequently, more streetcar line companies popped up around the Island: the Martha’s Vineyard Street Railway Inc., the Dukes County Street Railway Co., and the Vineyard Haven Line. 

A more detailed chronology of Martha's Vineyards' Railways can be found in Rails Across Martha's Vineyard by Herman Page.

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Thanks as always for reading!


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