End of the line for the `El'

BORN in the glory days of the trolley, the turn-of-the-century Boston Elevated Railway was once the way to go. For 5 cents a ride, Bostonians sped out to the suburbs of Roxbury and Jamaica Plain along a line of unsurpassed engineering and architectural grace. But on April 30 the last trains of the old Orange Line slipped through the southern portal of the downtown tunnel, climbed the back of the steel structure, and snaked over Boston's hills to the final stop at Forest Hills. A shiny new Orange Line has just opened, eclipsing a system whose early laps were the finest in transit design. The elevated's 4.9-mile arborway of architecture, now a forest of chipped ``trees,'' drops nuts and bolts like acorns along a derelict Washington Street. Yet it is not hard to recall the old elegance. Atop a handsome arcade of steel columns, stations bear the signature of the city's finest architects.

Beaux Arts-bred Alexander Longfellow Wadsworth, nephew of the poet, beat out eight architects in a competition for the first batch of stations - Dover, Northampton, and Dudley. He took skills honed in Paris and the office of H.H. Richardson to fit his airy stations to the poise of the spidery structure below. Robert Swain Peabody, a master in his day, followed with alterations. Edmund March Wheelwright completed the chain at Forest Hills in 1901 to blend with Frederick Law Olmsted's Emerald Necklace of parks.

Throughout, the architects perched green copper roofs above and installed oak waiting rooms below. They added ornate details, turned their engineering needs to aesthetic punctuation, and framed expressive spaces to shelter the waiting passengers.

Sentiment is sentiment, but even in its youth, nobody wanted to sidle up to the elevated for long. ``The dissonant clang of its bell, the lung-a-lung-a-lung hammering of its air compressor, the whispering sound of the trolley gliding along the overhead wire, a rhythmic clash of steel wheels on intricate track work echoing in canyonlike streets,'' made the transit giant a questionable neighbor, one historian writes.

Looming over South End parks and suburban picket fences, cheek to cheek with the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, the Elevated blighted what it passed. Time robbed the stations of their adornment; bureaucrats sent bits and pieces to rubble or to the transit museum.

Some stations may yet survive - in a more down-to-earth role - as shelters. Other artifacts are up for grabs, and bids for demolition of the ``El'' go out next month. The steel will be sold for scrap; the light fixtures and ornaments put who knows where. And as the rumble stills, the last remains of the Elevated will be grounded.

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