The History of Route 128

09May08

128 signs

“Route 128 is the road we all love to hate,” David Kruh told the audience at last night’s Sweetser Lecture 2008 season opener at the Wakefield-Lynnfield United Methodist Church. Kruh then proceeded to deliver a fascinating photographic history of the highway that runs around Boston, from Cape Ann to the South Shore.

Kruh was making his third Sweetser appearance, having previously given talks on Scollay Square and the Big Dig. Currently a full-time marketing manager for Analog Devices, during his varied career Kruh has worked as a copywriter, a computer programmer, a radio producer/engineer and a spokesman for the Big Dig. He has also dabbled in acting, stand up comedy and playwriting. His play, “Curse of the Bambino,” premiered on Boston’s Lyric Stage in 2001.

He has also written two books on Scollay Square, as well as “Building Route 128,” which he co-authored with Yanni Tsipis.

In the early 20th century, Kruh explained, the region’s transportation system was in a “spoke and wheel” design. Boston was the Hub, and the roads led in or out from its center. There was little need for a north/south roadway around Boston in those days, according to Kruh, as the small roads and trolleys that ran north and south were more than adequate for the times.

“Then of course some darn fool had to go and invent the automobile,” Kruh said. Suddenly all the small roads built for horse and buggy traffic were inundated with motorized cars, trucks, buses and taxis. “By the 1920s,” Kruh pointed out, “Boston was in perpetual gridlock.”

If you lived north of the city and wanted to get to Cape Cod, or lived south of the city and wanted to get to New Hampshire, Kruh explained, you had little choice but to fight your way through Boston.

“In an effort to combat the problem,” Kruh said, “in 1925 the DPW assigned a number of existing roads approximately 15 miles outside the city as a circumferential route around Boston. They called it Route 128.”

There was no highway, Kruh stressed, just these local streets labeled as Route 128. Kruh described the convoluted north to south route that would have been taken along these roads during the 1930s and 1940s by any driver wanting to avoid Boston. For awhile, Kruh said, this “ad hoc” route around Boston was more than adequate to handle the traffic volume.

But by the 1930s, Kruh noted, the downtown areas of communities like Woburn, Lexington and Waltham that the old Route 128 ran through were inundated with traffic, and Boston traffic was no better as many people still chose to drive through the city to get north or south.

In the 1930’s, new state DPW Commissioner William Callahan (for whom the Callahan Tunnel is named) secured enough money to start building what he proposed as a six-lane highway 16 miles outside Boston. The first major construction was the Route 1 overpass in Lynnfield.

“Callahan continued to build Route 128 in pieces as money became available,” Kruh said. Construction was suspended during World War II. But after the war, Kruh explained, as more and more people moved from the city to the suburbs, highway construction became an easier sell.
Route 128
In 1949, when a $200 million highway program became available, Callahan made the completion of Route 128 a top priority. The topology of many areas had to be altered to make way for the highway, and countless homes were moved, Kruh explained. The extent of blasting work needed to construct the Beverly to Gloucester stretch, begun in 1952, made Route 128 one of the most expensive per mile highways in the history of the state.

Kruh said that construction of the 22 mile section of Route 128 from the Wakefield-Lynnfield border to the Wellesley-Needham border took place between the spring of 1950 and the summer of 1951. That stretch of the highway opened in August 1951 with a series of ribbon cuttings in each town through which the highway passed. Kruh projected a film clip of a parade of cars allowed to drive on the new highway for the first time.

“There you have it,” Kruh quipped, “a film of the first traffic jam on Route 128.”

When opponents blocked I-95 from continuing into Boston as originally intended, Kruh said, Route 128 from Canton to Peabody inherited the I-95 designation, making it eligible for federal highway funds.

“The new highway was an unbelievable success,” Kruh said of Route 128, with 50,000 cars jamming the northern portion on the first day it opened. “Before the southern portion was completed.” Kruh added, “stretches of the northern portion were already being widened from two to three lanes.”
128 North, Burlington, Massachusetts
Kruh explained the rapid growth of technology companies around Route 128. There was plenty of cheap land around Route 128 and lots of public and private money fueling research and development at places like MIT, Kruh explained.

With little room to build in Cambridge and Boston, Gerald Blakely of the development firm of Cabot, Cabot and Forbes conceived a plan to recreate the college campus environment in developing areas along Route 128, with well-designed buildings and lots of green space. Blakely’s plan attracted numerous electronics firms and other manufacturers to locate along the highway.

By 1967, Kruh said, there were 729 commercial enterprises located along the highway employing 66,000 people.

Shopping centers like the North Shore and Burlington malls sprang up, Kruh explained, as farmers were more than willing to sell land at inflated prices to developers.

The stunning prosperity that Blakely’s industrial parks brought to the area also brought more traffic, Kruh noted. Route 128 also wound up absorbing the traffic burden of other proposed highways that were part of an overall transportation master plan, but were never built.

“I suggest buying books on tape,” Kruh advised, “because traffic will likely not be getting better any time soon.”

[This story originally appeared in the Wakefield Daily Item.]

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