article first appeared in the Summer 2000 issue
of Historic Nantucket.
The Nantucket Railroad
By Peter Schmid
Though precious little tangible evidence remains of it today, Nantucket enjoyed rail service for thirty-six years -from 1881 until 1917.
Along with the promise of profits for investors, it was the distances of the south shore and eastern beaches and the cottages of Siasconset that drove the effort to establish a railroad, even on such a tiny island. By the 1880s Nantucket had already made the transition from whaling center to resort destination, so a conveyance that could provide transportation to the charming cottages of 'Sconset and the south beaches without the dusty and jarring ride of a carriage made sense for Nantucket's burgeoning tourist industry.
The first surveys for the railroad were made in August of 1879, and envisioned the road departing from the waterfront and going north along the cliff, but a southern departure from town was decided upon, and roadbeds running out to Surfside were completed by spring of 1881. Rails and used rolling stock in the form of an engine, tender, and two open-air passenger cars were purchased, the engine being named Dionis after the wife of settler Tristram Coffin. The road was a narrow-gauge with a three-foot distance between the rails.
To further entice people to ride the rails, a depot and restaurant opened at Surfside in July of 1881, and it was estimated that by the end of the first season the train had carried over 30,000 passengers and traveled nearly 6,000 miles!
Clearly, in spite of opposition from some of the town's businesses and the hack-drivers who feared a loss of business, Nantucket's summer visitors adored the train, and were more than willing to part with the 35-cent round-trip fare. In spite of two thwarted attempts by unknown parties to wreck the train, local boosters declared the opening season of the NRR a success. The years 1882 to 1884 witnessed the development of the Surfside Hotel (it had been moved piece-by-piece from Providence!) and the incorporation of the Surfside Land Company, which had a realty office in the depot and sold nearly 180 lots by the end of 1882. The railroad, along with willingly offered capital and speculation, had made Surfside a resort destination. But the railroad did not stop there. As originally planned, the rails had been extended along the south shore to the new terminus at Sconset by July of 1884.
1895, after posting losses and changing hands due
to expensive repairs and the tracks washing out
along the eroding south beach during winter storms,
the Nantucket Railroad closed down and was reorganized
as the Nantucket Central Railroad Company. The new
overland route avoided the south shore and attendant
washouts and instead ran from Agricultural Society
grounds near Old South and Fairgrounds Roads directly
to Tom Nevers Pond and thence to 'Sconset. Surfside,
once buoyed by the tracks, is now left "out
of the loop," and predictably, both the hotel
and land company are left high and
dry. The hotel eventually fell into disrepair and the Surfside Land Company sold out 900 acres of land, at a huge loss, for only $2.80 per acre.
The railroad changed its rolling stock several times. In 1885 another used engine, dubbed the .Sconset for the new terminus, was added along with a new closed passenger car that could carry sixty-four passengers. To replace the aging Dionis, a new engine known only as "No. 1" was purchased in June of 1901. From 1907 until 1913 a tiny gasoline-powered car and its companion baggage car (affectionately known as the "Bug" and "Bird Cage," respectively) plied the rails to .Sconset, including winter service. Encouraged by the performance of gasoline engines, the railroad company purchased a brand new, twenty-five-foot car that with its sixty-horsepower engine could carry twenty-four people plus another passenger car. However, after several derailments and failure of both the drive shaft and transmission, the car was returned to its maker in Allentown, Pennsylvania. In 1910, a new engine and two passenger cars were purchased, but the engine, dubbed "No. 2," was small and looked incapable of hauling the regular-sized passenger cars.
After sustaining accidents, further financial losses, and changing hands several times, the railroad finally succumbed to the ubiquitous automobile and in 1918 the rails, two cars, and engine No. 2 were sent to Bordeaux, France, for use by the Allied Expeditionary Forces. The railroad's fate was similar to that of many small, speculative narrow-gauge lines of the nineteenth century. Today, the Nantucket Historical Association is pleased to hold the original bell of the engine Dionis, a headlight, some manuscript material, and a good number of photographs graciously donated by Mrs. David Gray in 1976.
Schmid was the Nantucket Historical Association's
photo-archivist from 1999-2001.
Farson, Robert H. Cape Cod Railroads, Including Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. Yarmouth Port: Cape Cod Historical Publishers, 1990.
Lancaster, Clay. The Far-Out Island Railroad. Nantucket: Pleasant Publications, 1972.