Quincy Granite Railway: America’s First Commercial Railroad

May 18, 2016 1 comments

When architect Solomon Willard arrived in Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1825, and discovered a granite ledge in a wooded area, he knew he had found the perfect raw material for what would become his most famous building, and the first monumental obelisk erected in the United States — the Bunker Hill Monument. Willard envisioned a 221-foot tall obelisk with a 30 feet square base that would require some 6,700 tons of granite. Transporting the massive blocks of granite from the quarry to the site of construction presented a challenge.

Quincy was separated from Charlestown, where the monument would be erected, by 12 miles of swamp, forest, and farms. The granite needed to be delivered to Neponset River, four miles north, from where a barge would transport the stone through Boston Harbor to Charlestown. Willard wanted to move the stones to the Neponset River on sledges during winter, but Gridley Bryant, an engineer, suggested a more efficient method — a railroad.


The Incline portion of the Granite Railway, Pine Hill Quarry to Neponset River, Quincy. April 1934. Photo credit: Arthur C. Haskell/Library of Congress

With the support Boston businessman and state legislator Thomas Handasyd Perkins, Bryant ended up designing what would become the first, commercial railroad in the United states. Rather than steam locomotives, Bryant used horses to pull the railcars a distance of three miles from quarries to the Neponset River. A single horse could pull three cars loaded with 16 tons of rock over wooden rails plated with iron. Later, the wooden rails were replaced with granite rails. The iron plates were retained.

Although, Bryant benefitted from developments already in use on railroads in England, he did modify his design to allow for heavier, more concentrated loads and a three-foot frost line. The Granite Railway also introduced several important inventions, including railway switches or frogs, the turntable, and double-truck railroad cars. Gridley Bryant never patented his inventions, believing they should be for the benefit of all.

In 1830, after four years of operation, a new section of the railway called the Incline was added to serve a new mine, the Pine Ledge Quarry. The incline was 315 feet in length and rose to a level of 84 feet. At the top was the new mine while at the bottom was the railroad system. Wagons moved up and down the incline in an endless conveyor belt, delivering loads to the bottom and returning to the top empty. The incline continued in operation until the 1940s.


Photo credit: Warren S. Parker/www.digitalcommonwealth.org

The new railroad soon started to attract tourists who journeyed out from Boston to watch the mechanical and technological marvel in action. Tourists would step into the empty wagons and would be pulled up the incline. During one such tour, the cable broke and a wagon derailed throwing its occupants over a cliff. One perosn was killed and three other passengers were badly injured. The accident which occurred on July 25, 1832, became one of the first fatal railway accidents in the United States.

In 1871 the Granite Railway was acquired by the Old Colony and Newport Railway. The new management replaced the granite tracks with contemporary construction. Steam trains then took granite from the quarries directly to Boston without need of barges from the Neponset River. During the early twentieth century, metal channels were laid over the old granite rails on the Incline and motor trucks were hauled up and down on a cable.

Today, a section of this railroad is preserved as a trail and its famous incline is listed on the National Register.


Photo credit: Warren S. Parker/www.digitalcommonwealth.org


Photo credit: C Hanchey/Flickr


Photo credit: C Hanchey/Flickr


Photo credit: C Hanchey/Flickr


Photo credit: Warren S. Parker/www.digitalcommonwealth.org


Replica of the first carriage of Granit Incline exposed on 1934. Photo credit: www.funimag.com


The old Quincy quarries have given way to recreational activities such as rock climbing and graffiti. Photo credit: Robbie Shade/Flickr


Photo credit: vikramjam/Flickr


Photo credit: Jason Eppink/Flickr


Bunker Hill Monument, Charlestown, Massachusetts. Photo credit: Chensiyuan/Wikimedia

Sources: Wikipedia / American-Rails.com / geologywriter.com


  1. Completely love this, and thanks for bringing to attention. Looking at the present-day graffiti, alongside the achievements of the 1800s, one could comment that not all human progress has been in an upward direction


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