Episode: The Track Not Taken

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The Track Not Taken

The Meigs Elevated Railway—one of the world’s first monorail systems—looked like something out of a Jules Verne novel. But it was very real. In this week’s episode, hear how nineteenth-century Bostonians missed their chance to build a steam punk utopia.

The monorail system was the brainchild of Joe Meigs, a Civil War veteran and tinkerer who had political and financial backing from Massachusetts governor Benjamin Butler. Meigs envisioned a system that would soar above the streetcar traffic clogging Boston’s streets. Beginning in 1884, thousands of people boarded his distinctive cylindrical train cars for 20-mph rides around a test track in East Cambridge, MA. The system was a technical success, and eventually Meigs obtained a charter to build miles of monorail track around Boston. But a fateful attack one winter night in 1887 dashed his hopes—and proved that the best technology isn’t always the one that wins widespread adoption.

Featured guest: Charles Sullivan of the Cambridge Historical Commission. Charlie also provided key historical perspective in Soonish 1.09, A Tale of Two Bridges.

Featured voice: Charles Gustine, producer, Iconography

To browse an extensive gallery of images of the Meigs monorail, check out our show notes.

A full episode transcript is available in the Extras section of the Soonish website.

Related episode: Soonish 1.02, Monorails: Trains of Tomorrow?

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0:55 Opening

1:58 The Unknown Railway

2:49 Monorail Fanboy

3:37 225 Bridge Street

5:42 Readings from The Meigs Railway

6:42 Untangling the Streetcar System

8:32 Light and Air

10:10 Who Was Joe Meigs?

11:42 One Little Problem

12:18 Building the Demonstration Track

13:09 Four Wheel Drive

14:20 Sausage on a Stick

15:58 Two Ways of Moving People

16:37 Foul Play

18:05 A Stubborn Guy

20:01 Parallel Universe

21:49 How We Choose the Future

22:22 End Credits and Announcement

The Soonish theme is by Graham Gordon Ramsay. Additional music from Titlecard Music and Sound. For complete details on this episode go to soonishpodcast.org/302-the-track-not-taken.

Soonish is a proud founding member of Hub & Spoke, a collective of smart, idea-driven nonfiction podcasts. Learn more at hubspokeaudio.org.

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