Mapping Massachusetts Digitization Project by the State Library

Chronicles the the development of transportation systems in Massachusetts


During the 19th and early 20th centuries, transportation systems and infrastructure emerged in Massachusetts, starting with canals, followed by the development of railroads and harbors and finally the laying out of highways. The State Library of Massachusetts has digitized Massachusetts state documents and other material in its collection related to the development of transportation systems in the state during the 19th and early 20th centuries. These materials include maps, manuscripts, photographs, annual reports and hearings.

This project was supported by the Institute of Museum and Library Services under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act as administered by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners.

Canals and Hoosac Tunnel


During the height of canals in the early 19th century, proposals were made in the Massachusetts legislature to create canals between the Hudson River and Boston to allow for the flow of goods between the Midwest and New England. Among those proposed were canals between the Connecticut River and the Albany/Troy area near the Erie Canal and also between the Connecticut River and Boston Harbor.

The canal through western Massachusetts, first proposed in 1819, would flow through a tunnel in the Hoosac Mountains. Plans and reports were developed in the 1820s, culminating with a study done by Loammi Baldwin for the legislature in 1829 that looked at two options: creating a canal tunnel through the Hoosac Mountains or building a railroad line to the south of the mountains. Neither of these options was ultimately chosen, and these ideas were not actively explored for almost 20 years.

Hoosac Tunnel

By the 1850s, railroads had supplanted canals as the preferred mode of transportation and the idea of connecting Boston to New York was debated again. Technology progressed to the point where a tunnel was again proposed through the Hoosac Mountains, although this time as a railroad tunnel. Taking over 20 years to complete, the 4 ¾ mile tunnel was the longest in the country until 1916. The first train went through the tunnel on February 9, 1875, with regular passenger service beginning the following year.

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The first railroad in Massachusetts was chartered in 1826. Over the next few decades railroad lines were established throughout the state and became the predominant means of transportation. By 1875, sixty railroad corporations were operating in the state on 3701 miles of track.

Starting in 1836, railroad corporations had to submit reports of their activities to the Secretary of the Commonwealth. In 1871, a Railroad Commission was established to oversee these companies and rail lines. The State Library has digitized many of these reports, proposed railroad maps and related manuscript materials.

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Until the early 1890s, roadways in Massachusetts were maintained by local authorities. Poor road conditions were seen as an impediment to commerce. Therefore, in 1892, the legislature established a commission to improve the highways in Massachusetts. As part of their report, the commission photographed roads around the state to illustrate their condition.

Many of these locally maintained roads were old stage routes and were improved to create the basis of the state highway system. The annual reports and other materials produced by the Massachusetts Highway Commission document the development of the state highway system in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

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Water and Land Development

A number of reclamation projects and improvements to harbors took place in the latter half of the 19th century in Massachusetts. Among these, the Back Bay was filled in, South Boston Flats was developed and dredging work was done in Boston Harbor. During this time, several state commissions, including the Board of Harbor and Land Commissioners, oversaw the work. These commissions also supervised the sale of public lands, approved the structures built in tidewaters and documented boundary demarcations between cities and towns.

This collection includes maps and documents related to this work, as well as atlases produced by the Massachusetts Board of Land and Harbor Commissioners showing boundaries between the state's towns and cities.

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Contact   for Mapping Massachusetts Digitization Project by the State Library


Open M-F 9 a.m.–5 p.m.

Open M-F 9 a.m.–5 p.m. *Advance appointments are strongly recommended


(617) 727-9730


Main Library
Massachusetts State House, 24 Beacon Street, Room 341, Boston, MA 02133
Special Collections Department
Massachusetts State House, 24 Beacon Street, Room 55, Boston, MA 02133

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