It’s a great rail-trail now, but our fan, Adam, was curious about its history. So we went right to the expert, Jim Shea. Jim is the president of Friends of Bedford Depot Park. Below is the fascinating history he shared with us.
Thank you for asking questions like this, and please keep them coming.
Bedford’s “Two Footer” Was the Country’s First
By Jim Shea, Friends of Bedford Depot Park
August 31, 1877, was an exciting day in Bedford. People from near and far traveled to the rural community to witness a novel engineering concept tested. Its promise was to solve a local transportation problem and to do so relatively inexpensively. News of the innovation extended far and made an enduring impact throughout the railroading world.
Let’s first set the calendar back to the 1830s, the onset of aggressive railroad building in our country. The upstart Boston & Lowell Railroad was charting a route for a line between two important cities of commerce in the Commonwealth, Lowell and Boston. The town of Billerica laid in the path of the proposed new road. Some of the community’s more vocal inhabitants “feared and repelled” the coming of the iron horse. So facing opposition, the B&L compromised upon a path through the town’s northern outskirts, bypassing Billerica Center.
Now, let’s jump ahead four decades to 1873. The Boston & Lowell’s Middlesex Central Railroad subsidiary had extended service from Lexington Center to Bedford and Concord. Quickly, Bedford realized the social and economic advantages that come with direct access to modern and fast transportation. Billericans took note of Bedford’s good fortune and came to regret their earlier decision to keep out the railroad. What to do now, though? How could Billerica’s residential, commercial and agricultural centers obtain the transportation benefits which by this time were common in many other communities? That was Billerica’s growing dilemma.
Enter one George E. Mansfield of Hyde Park, Massachusetts. Mr. Mansfield in 1875 was back from a trip to Wales where he observed the Festiniog Railway. This carrier used track of just 23-1/2 inches between the rails. By contrast, most American railroads by this time had adopted the present standard gauge of 4 feet, 8-1/2 inches. The Festiniog caught the fancy of Mansfield, and he went on to build a test track in his backyard to study the principles of a miniature-gauge railway. As luck would have it, around this same time he heard of Billerica’s transportation problem and thought the narrow-gauge idea just might be the answer.
George Mansfield succeeded in convincing Billerica’s leaders that a railroad built upon a skimpy two-foot gauge was a cost-effective way to link their town with the world around them. It was a way to possibly rectify a regrettable decision that was made a few decades earlier. Mansfield proposed an 8.63-mile rail line between the Boston & Lowell’s station in North Billerica and the Middlesex Central’s Bedford Station to the south. His chief argument for settling upon the 24-inch gauge was that it would be less expensive to build and to operate than a conventional railway. This was so because a two-footer’s rail and ties are substantially lighter and smaller; less land is required for the right-of-way; the smaller rolling stock is cheaper to build; and the diminutive locomotives consume less fuel.
The Hyde Park promoter also succeeded in enticing the people of Bedford with the benefits of his plan, in particular Dr. William R. Hayden, proprietor of the renowned hotel and resort at Bedford Springs. Dr. Hayden foresaw the financial advantages of a railway that stopped at his hotel, and he became a strong advocate of the plan. When a corporation was chartered in 1876 to build the new line, named the Billerica & Bedford Railroad, Dr. Hayden was appointed to a committee to secure investments and George Mansfield was hired as the road’s general manager.
The company quickly went about raising the projected $50,653 needed to build and equip the railroad. The Town of Billerica subscribed to 120 shares ($12,000) in the new company. Several prominent citizens of Bedford and Billerica also aided financially. Groundbreaking took place in South Billerica on September 6, 1876, with some 500 people in attendance. But it was at a public ceremony in Bedford on May 12, 1877, when construction commenced in earnest.
Only 111 days later on August 31, the first trains were run over the line amid a backdrop of much enthusiasm and merrymaking. Two little Forney-type steam engines named Ariel and Puck pulled cars loaded with excited passengers through the woods and along meadows over the newly formed roadbed. Those first curious riders were able to answer for themselves a question that had earlier cast some doubt upon the narrow-gauge concept. Cynics felt that the rolling stock used on such a small track would “oscillate,” giving riders an uncomfortable ride or worse, causing the cars to jump the track. To the delight of Mansfield and his associates, however, the mechanics of their little railway performed very well under the scrutiny of the state’s railroad commissioners and the public.
Work to complete the B&B steadily progressed over the next few months. Turntables to reverse the locomotives were established at Billerica and North Billerica. A wye, which is a track arrangement to reverse the direction of trains, a car shed and an engine house were built at the Bedford terminus. Full timetable service on the Billerica & Bedford commenced on Thanksgiving Day 1877. The printed schedule called for seven passenger, mail and freight trains each way daily. Trains were run even on Sundays despite criticism from some locals who believed that their “holy day” should be without the clank and hiss of the steam locomotive.
For several months, the unassuming towns of Bedford and Billerica played host to professional engineers, businessmen, journalists and visitors from around the country and across the Atlantic who came to study the unusual enterprise. All accounts are that they were quite favorably impressed. A prominent national publication of that time, The Railroad Gazette, and one that is still with us today, Scientific American, both published detailed technical accounts of the B&B.
It was recorded that the railroad’s daily income exceeded operating expenses. Only nine passengers at the 25¢ one-way fare were required to pay for labor and fuel expenses of $1.12 per trip. Against these positive figures, however, a dark financial cloud was forming.
Construction cost overruns caused the company to become short on cash in the autumn of 1877. When all was said and done, the railroad’s total price had risen to some $71,000. To add insult to injury, certain of the stock subscriptions turned out to be unsound—Mansfield himself was on the list of delinquent shareholders. The scarcity of capital money also precluded the erecting of depots at any of the 11 stations between the termini. It seems that the trains simply stopped at designated locations along the route to discharge and receive passengers.
For several months the B&B continued to operate while attempts were made to resolve the financial problem. By early 1878, the company was placed into bankruptcy when creditors demanded their payments on a faster schedule than the railroad could afford. The corporation’s assignees decided to liquidate the company’s assets in order to pay its bills. On June 6, an auction was held at the railroad’s engine house in Bedford. The successful bidder for the locomotives and cars was a Mr. Brown of New Hampshire. The price: just $9,000.
In early 1879, a new company was chartered to buy back the narrow-gauge equipment and reopen the line. The charter called for a capital investment of $20,000. The Town of Billerica was to take $10,000, the Town of Bedford $2,000, and the remaining $8,000 was to be raised by individual subscription. At two Bedford Town Meeting sessions, a majority of votes were cast in favor of funding the initiative—but it was not the two-thirds majority as required by law. When the article came up a third and last time, the results were less favorable: a majority of 23 votes were against the measure.
Although the Billerica & Bedford’s final flicker of hope had been extinguished, this was not so for the two-foot-gauge concept itself. It was proven to be a success here in Bedford and was allowed to have a future elsewhere. Even before the B&B’s trains made their last runs, the citizens of Farmington, Maine, were contemplating a local railroad of their own. Hearing of this, Mansfield traveled north to promote the two-foot idea to people there, just as he had done earlier in Billerica and Bedford. When final efforts to save the B&B failed, the new Sandy River Railroad found a great bargain in acquiring the rolling stock and track of the now-defunct Massachusetts two-footer. Once in the woods of Maine, the two B&B steam locomotives were converted to burn the abundant fuel source of their new surroundings, wood. The Sandy River Railroad went on to flourish for decades and even spawned other two-footers in the region.
The novel railway that bridged Bedford and Billerica is remembered for being small in size but large in its promise of improved transportation and prosperity for the communities it intended to serve. Over 140 years later, the history of the Billerica & Bedford Railroad still fascinates people around the globe. Who among us wouldn’t enjoy traveling back in time to ride those open excursion cars on a summer day through the scenic woods between Bedford and Billerica, skirting Fawn Lake and Nuttings Pond on the way? We should want to sit next to George Mansfield, too, and ask him a few questions.
The Boston & Maine Railroad opened a standard gauge extension of its Lexington Branch over much of the B&B’s roadbed in May 1885. Bedford Springs remained one of the station stops, and the B&M routinely used the route to make coal deliveries to the Veterans Hospital. Passenger trains traversed the line until 1932 and freight trains operated on it through 1962.
A few tangible reminders of the Billerica & Bedford remain today. Much of its right-of-way has become the Narrow-Gauge Rail-Trail, a three-mile walking and cycling path between Loomis Street and the Billerica border. A boiler from one of the B&B’s locomotives is preserved in Phillips, Maine. The building that was constructed in 1877 as the railway’s engine house was later converted by the Boston & Maine to be a freight house. It was restored in 2009 as part of the Depot Park project and is today a welcome center and museum at the South Road terminus of the Minuteman Bikeway.
For more reading, a comprehensive hardcover book by longtime B&B historian Donald Ball, George Mansfield and the Billerica & Bedford Railroad, is available from the Freight House online store: www.BedfordDepot.org/store