Today’s post was written by CHC Executive Director Charles M. Sullivan.
In 1894 the Union Switch & Signal Company installed signals that prevented trains on the Boston & Maine and Fitchburg railroads from proceeding in or out of North Station when the Charles River drawbridges were in the raised position.
The company publicized the project by distributing this photo of three empty coal barges passing through the drawbridges. The three-masted barge in the foreground was probably built as a schooner, but it retains only vestiges of its original rig. A similar vessel leads the procession.
The second vessel was a steel whaleback barge, a rarity on the East Coast. This type of vessel was developed to carry bulk cargoes on the Great Lakes. The first, Barge 101, was launched at Duluth, Minnesota in 1888.The design was a mixed success, but over the next eight years the American Steel Barge Co. built about 40 more whaleback barges and steamships. The company also had two vessels, Barge 201 and Barge 202, built in Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1890 for saltwater service.
The Charles River photo shows the 190-foot-long Barge 202 returning to Boston Harbor after delivering coal to a wharf upstream on the Charles River. On June 18, 1892 the Cambridge Tribune noted that the whaleback then discharging 1,400 tons of coal at Richardson & Bacon’s wharf near Harvard Square was “the largest boat that ever came through the Craigie Bridge.”
Even in the late 19th century the Charles remained an important avenue of commerce; in 1893 sixty-four sailing vessels and sixty-one barges called at wharves in Old Cambridge (Harvard Square) and Watertown.
This photo was taken in 1897, soon after Barges 201 and 202 brought cargoes of coal from Edgewater, N.J. A year later both vessels were sent to the Great Lakes via the St. Lawrence River and the Welland Canal. The last whaleback on the Great Lakes was taken out of service in 1969 and is preserved at Superior, Wisconsin.
C. Roger. Pellett, Whaleback Ships and the American Steel Barge Company (Wayne State
University Press, 2018)
Susan E. Maycock and Charles M. Sullivan, Building Old Cambridge: Architecture and
Development (MIT Press, 2016)
Boston Globe, Boston Post, Cambridge Chronicle, and Cambridge Tribune