William Deen is a professor emeritus of chemical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His profile on the faculty website says his research interests include “bioengineering, transport phenomena.”
That seems like an almost contrived play on words to describe the author of a new book on the history of the Boston & Maine Railroad’s Lexington Branch, which served Bedford for more than 100 years.
Deen, acting president of the Friends of Bedford Depot Park, this month unveiled Minuteman Railroad, a 212-page oversize volume rich with historical detail, 191 photographs, and 27 maps. He will be the centerpiece of the Friends of Depot Park open house from 2 to 5 p.m. on Sunday at the Freight House, 120 South Rd., and the passenger car alongside. The book is published by the Friends of Bedford Depot Park.
As the book dust jacket explains, Minuteman Railroad “traces the long and colorful history of the B&M’s Lexington Branch. Operating northwest of Boston from 1846 to 1981, it began as a country short line, evolved into a double-track railroad with dozens of daily passenger trains, and reverted eventually to a quiet existence in which the train crews knew the remaining passengers by name.”
Deen moved to Bedford in 1976, just months before commuter rail service to Bedford ended. As his book relates, when after the self-propelled rail car arrived at the depot amidst a major snowstorm, “the train would not budge in either direction.”
The three-year project reflects his “lifelong interest in trains, which grew from just watching and enjoying them and building model trains,” Deen said in an interview. That began as a preschooler in Seattle, which he eventually left to earn chemical engineering degrees at Columbia and Stanford Universities. He was on the MIT chemical engineering faculty from 1976 until his retirement in 2020.
Over the years, Deen said, he found himself “becoming more and more interested in railroad history, thinking about how profoundly transportation affects how people live and where they work.”
The B&M Lexington branch was an ideal subject to explore. As the jacket notes summarize, “Begun as a local enterprise to link West Cambridge and Lexington with Boston in the 1870s, it became a pawn in contests among regional railroads. That decade also saw the arrival of the Billerica & Bedford Railroad, a pioneering two-foot narrow gauge line.”
“That the Lexington Branch’s services were once vital is unquestionable. In 1900, Arlington saw 60 steam trains daily, Lexington 44, and Bedford 28.”
The local rail era began its slow decline with the arrival of trolleys, followed by the automobile.
“As late as 1949 there were still five round trips,” Deen noted.
The book also addresses the freight operations along the line.
- “I never had first-hand knowledge of the railroad, other than the abandoned yard tracks,” Deen related. “But I had the background, and as time went on, I got more and more curious. I finally got to the point where, nearing retirement, I had the time to look into the history with increasing depth.
“A few years ago, it became a retirement project,” he continued. “I started to look into all aspects of the railroad: physical characteristics, schedules, the way trains were operated, its reason for being – and its very profound effects on the five towns that it served: Arlington, Lexington, and Bedford, where the line split to Concord and Billerica.”
All of those towns are historically tied to the skirmishes that launched the American Revolution on April 19, 1775, he noted, “so they are all properly called Minuteman towns – and thus the title of the book.” He added that it’s also the name of the bikeway that has followed the rail line’s right-of-way for the past 30 years.
“I used lots of sources, ranging from contemporary newspaper articles to state Railroad Commission reports to company annual reports to a number of oral histories, of people who worked for or commuted on the railroad,” Deen said.
The oral histories were recorded by Jim Shea, considered to be the founder of Bedford Depot Park and the Friends of Depot Park. The book is dedicated to Shea, who died in September 2022. “He tirelessly gathered information about local railroad history,” reads part of the dedication.
Deen joined the friends in 1995 when the group was established and became vice president in 2011.
“The photo collection was crucial for a book like this, as well as lots of other documents in our collection and the extensive archive of the Boston & Maine Railroad Historical Society in Lowell,” Deen said. “A lot of historical documents have been digitized,” which was especially helpful while he worked nearly full time on the project during the pandemic, he added.
“One of the best things about this project is I got to meet – in person or by correspondence – a bunch of amateur rail historians who are passionate about preserving and writing about transit history,” Deen said. “It has been a real pleasure to meet them and become an accepted part of that crowd.”
He added, “I made many of the maps by tracing original documents. I learned a lot of skills that I hadn’t encountered before.”
Besides Shea’s research, which was “enormously helpful,” Deen said he gleaned first-hand information from retired railroad engineer Alan MacMillan, who was an engineer-in-training on the Lexington branch. Deen also consulted “the number one authority on the history of the Boston commuter rail, Tom Humphrey.”
Information about online sales of the book can be found under the “store” category at https://bedforddepot.org.