Last revised: January 1, 2024
By: Adam Burns
Massachusetts is home to the first railroad in the United States, the Granite Railway which opened in 1826. The little line never used a steam locomotive (initially) and was built largely to move granite slabs for construction of the the Bunker Hill Monument project.
At its peak, Massachusetts contained more than 2,100 miles of railroads. Most of this was operated by the famous New Haven system, along with the Boston & Maine and Boston & Albany (New York Central). As such, the state has a long and interesting history with the iron horse that dates back to its earliest days in North America.
In addition, Massachusetts was home to several electrified streetcar and interurban systems which were once prominent throughout New England. Today, both are recognized at a number of museums and heritage railroads found within the state.
The information presented here highlights those organizations which offer train rides during the Christmas season. These trips are typically themed around meeting Santa Claus or a visit to the "North Pole" by train although each organization offers their own unique aspect to the experience. They are quite popular and usually sell out quickly!
(Hyannis): A fabulous place to ride a train along the southern New England coast, the Cape Cod Central departs from the historic New York, New Haven & Hartford depot in Hyannis.
Trips can be enjoyed throughout the spring, summer, and fall with specials hosted at various times of the year. At its entirety the railroad runs from Hyannis to Buzzards Bay (a distance of 24.6 miles according to the New Haven Railroad's 1930 timetable) along the Cape Cod Canal.
The railroad gains its name from the same corporate entity, formed in 1861, which built the tracks running towards Cape Cod's eastern tip between Yarmouth and Orleans.
It connected with the similarly named Cape Cod Railroad with a heritage that can be traced back to 1846. Both wound up as part of the Old Colony Railroad, a major New England system that served all of eastern and southern Massachusetts, including Cape Cod.
It went on to join the New Haven on March 1, 1893. Today's Cape Cod Central hosts its popular The Train To Christmas Town during the holiday season.
The journey is similar to The Polar Express where kids are encouraged to wear pajamas, treated to cookies and hot chocolate, sing along to Christmas songs, and witness the train's arrival at Christmas Town. You can choose from three classes of service: Standard, First, or Diamond.
(South Carver): This heritage railroad is one of the few built entirely from scratch and does not utilize a former right-of-way.
It was the vision of Ellis D. Atwood who opened a tourist attraction on his 1,800-acre cranberry plantation in South Carver, Massachusetts in 1947.
The timing of his venture is interesting since rail preservation was still in infancy; almost all of the nation's rail infrastructure, except for interurbans, remained in use at that time.
It was only the steam locomotive whose future seemed in question with the diesel's arrival. In any event, his Edaville Railroad, which used 2-foot gauge steam locomotives, proved popular.
With his death in 1950 the property was acquired by F. Nelson Blount. For many years the railroad hosted the annual "Festival Of Lights" which always drew large audiences each season.
Blount died in 1967 and when Atwood's widow passed away in the 1980's. As a result, the railroad's future remained in limbo. Trains stopped running and did not return until 1999. In 2005, part of the line was scrapped and reduced to a 2-mile loop, a setup which remains today.
The operation is now referred to as the "Edaville Family Theme Park" featuring trains, 32 amusement rides, and "Thomas Land" (a tribute to "Thomas The Tank Engine, And Friends").
All are big draws for kids and families. For a number of years the tourist line hosted official The Polar Express rides. Today, they again offer the Christmas Festival Of Lights from mid-November through early January. The event offers several different activities encompassed in a wonderland of Christmas lights.
(Shelburne Falls): Another museum dedicated to New England's rich interurban and streetcar heritage.
The group began in the 1990's when Marshall Johnson donated Shelburne Falls & Colrain Street Railway trolley car #10. The SF&CS was the town's local streetcar service. It opened in 1896 and served Buckland, Shelburne and Colrain.
Alas, it proved an early casualty to the automobile and service was suspended in 1927. Interestingly, Massachusetts holds a rare distinction in history; it is the only state to contain more streetcar/interurban trackage than traditional, standard-gauge freight railroads.
This occurred in 1917; afterwards the state's streetcar network rapidly disappeared. The museum offers their Moonlight Magic Friday on the Friday after Thanksgiving.
The town is bedecked in holiday lights, stores throughout the town (Shelburne Falls) are open late, and the museum gives trolley rides in equipment dressed with holiday lights.