The “underground” Natick Center train station

 

 

About 120 years ago a new passenger train station was built in Natick Center. Its platform and canopy are still there. The original station building itself is still there—but it’s invisible. Commuters see an asphalt and concrete platform, with a functional canopy.

What remains of that Romanesque-style passenger station is now the basement of Dion’s South Avenue liquor store. Some paneled walls, and the waiting room and bathroom of the old granite/brownstone structure are still recognizable. The street-level building that houses Anton’s Cleaners and Dion’s was built over the roof of the track-side station in the early 1960s.

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The railroad was an important catalyst for the growth of Natick, beginning 185 years ago.

The old Boston and Worcester Railroad (chartered June 23, 1831) first laid tracks at street level through Natick beginning in August 1834. The arrival of the “iron horse” was an economic boon for the town. This transformative transportation technology gave a real boost to Natick’s growth and importance in the expanding commerce of eastern Massachusetts, at a time when Natick’s entrepreneurial shoe industry was in its early growth phase. In the 1830s the Natick-to-Boston rail passenger fare in summer months was 75 cents. The original single track stretching from Boston to Framingham became a double track five years later. A branch line from Natick to the Saxonville section of Framingham became operational in 1846. By 1870 the B&W, with three other railroads, merged to become the Boston and Albany Railroad, and later the trackage was owned by Penn Central until the MBTA acquired the rail line from Framingham to Boston in 1973.

 
 

Natick’s first passenger rail station was built in the mid-19th century at street level at the corner of South Avenue (then called Railroad Avenue) and Washington Street. Land owned by the Harwood & Sons baseball company was taken by an eminent domain procedure for the station.

Natick’s first train station was a modest structure, built only a few feet from the tracks.

Natick’s first train station was a modest structure, built only a few feet from the tracks.

 

Later the modest structure was moved closer to Main Street. Two other stations (no longer existing) were located at Lake Crossing (at Pond Road on the border with Wellesley to the east) and Walkerville (at Speen Street to the west). The tracks in the center of town were at street level through the early 1890s, when population growth and increasing rail and street traffic created more frequent congestion and concerns about safety.

 
The original (1850s) Natick station building is on the left, and excavations to lower the tracks have begun on the right.

The original (1850s) Natick station building is on the left, and excavations to lower the tracks have begun on the right.

 

The town decided in 1894 to lower about a half mile of the rail bed up to 30 feet below street level in the town center to eliminate grade crossings (bridges were built on Main Street and Marion Street to handle pedestrian and vehicle traffic). Work was completed in the fall of 1897.

 

In that year a new railroad station was built between Main Street and Washington Street (the current station is on the same spot), and the old mid-century station was removed. The imposing new 1897 station was built by Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge, Boston architects who installed most of the stations of that period on the Boston and Albany line. Constructed of granite and brownstone, the station stood at track side with a sloped pathway that led down from South Avenue. The rear of the station was accessible to horse-drawn wagons and carriages, and later, to motorized vehicles.

 
A postcard image of the 1897 Natick station and track platform.

A postcard image of the 1897 Natick station and track platform.

 

The 1897 station was designed by Alexander Wadsworth Longfellow Jr. in the so-called Richardson Romanesque style, with heavy walls and curved arches that matched other stations on the B&A line. It was constructed with a sloping roof and a canopied waiting platform.

 
 
 

The station had distinctive rough-hewn granite walls with decorative stone embellishments.

Early photo of rear entrance for passenger access at upper level of the 1897 station.

Early photo of rear entrance for passenger access at upper level of the 1897 station.

 

Within 10 years after the station was built, increasing traffic demands led to the construction of a third and then a fourth set of tracks through downtown Natick.

By the mid-20th century, cars and trucks were taking more and more passenger and freight business from the rails. Rail service was reduced to two tracks through Natick in 1962, and railroad company divested the town center station. The sloped roof of the station was removed and the station itself was enclosed within a street-level building now occupied by Anton’s and Dion’s. The side walls and back walls of the station were buried and became the foundation of the new structure.

 
 

The north station wall facing the tracks was concealed behind a cement block facade that’s covered by the splendid mural that’s visible today.

Detail of the mural.

Detail of the mural.

 
The 1897 station walls, still visible in the basement of Dion’s.

The 1897 station walls, still visible in the basement of Dion’s.

 

The old station is now the basement of the liquor store, where a bay window in the north wall that may have served as a passenger ticket window is still visible. The original canopy on the inbound track platform is still in use. The current station is not accessible for handicapped passengers—commuters use stairs to get down to the platform.

 

On January 12, 2015, responding to the town’s request, the MBTA officially changed the name of the station to Natick Center.

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The West Natick commuter rail station was opened on August 23, 1982. Most non-express inbound and outbound trains stop at both stations.

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The extension of the rail line in the 1830s contributed to the impending failure of the for-profit east-west turnpike enterprise that had been big news 30 years earlier. The Boston and Worcester Turnpike (incorporated in 1806) had stimulated commerce and development along its length, passing through Natick on the route of what is now Rt. 9. By 1835, the turnpike corporation was struggling financially. The turnpike owners opposed the original rail route closely paralleling their turnpike, and so the track in Natick was laid two miles to the south (its present location). Passenger and commercial traffic quickly shifted to more efficient railroad transportation, and the turnpike owners surrendered their charter on September 1, 1841, making the Worcester Road (Rt. 9) a free county highway.

Natick historian Oliver Bacon wrote of the turnpike’s economic demise:

            “The old Turnpike is a pike no more,

            Wide open stands the gate.

            We have made us a road for our horse to stride,

            Which we ride at a flying rate.”

 

Selected sources and additional reading:

 

Natick Historical Society collections.

 

Natick Center Cultural District. “Natick Center History.” Accessed June 19, 2019.

https://www.natickcenter.org/natick-center-history