How did Wilmington come to have a railroad track running diagonally across town? There are two north-south main lines running through town. And then there is the Wildcat. Why would anyone build such a track, connecting two main lines?
The Wildcat line starts just north of the Wilmington station, crosses Main Street, Clark Street, Glen Road and Salem Street. Its northern end is at a place once known as Wilmington Junction, where it meets the Haverhill line, once known as the Portland Division.
When first built about 1840, it was was not built as a connecting line. There was no second track to connect to. The Andover & Wilmington Railroad linked the Town of Andover to the Boston & Lowell Railroad, the only railroad in the area. Andover had several mills, and the owners wanted a rail connection.
Beyond Wilmington Junction, the one-track railroad ran up to Andover on a route that is now abandoned. It later extended north through Haverhill, then into New Hampshire and Maine.
There was extensive rivalry among the railroads. The B&L had an early start and had locked up exclusive rights to run trains between Boston and Lowell. As a result, other railroads were jumping hurdles to reach Lowell, which had become a busy manufacturing hub.
The Andover & Wilmington eventually became the Boston & Maine. By 1930, the company had swallowed its rivals to become the largest railroad in New England.
In the mid-late 1840s, the B&M built a line from Wilmington Junction to Boston, through North Wilmington, Reading, South Reading (Wakefield), Melrose, Malden and Somerville. At Wilmington Junction, it tied into the original trackage of the Andover & Wilmington. Also known as the Western Division, it was to become the Portland Division, the railroad’s primary line north to Maine.
The first train from Boston to Lawrence in 1848 featured a new English locomotive called “The Antelope.” Railroad superintendent Charles Minot, seeking publicity, boasted that the train would travel 26 miles in 26 minutes. Locomotive development, though, had outpaced rail technology. The 15-foot rail sections of that era were suitable for horse-cars, but not for a 10-ton locomotive running in excess of 60 m.p.h.
The engineer, named Pemberton, told Minot he was taking his life in his hands.
“You take it, and I’ll ride with you,” said Minot.
In preparation for the high-speed run, the switches along the line were spiked. Every crossing was guarded with railroad employees and town officials. People gathered along the railroad, some very skeptical.
Members of the press filed their wills with their editors before boarding. They also brought bandanas to secure their hats.
The Antelope started off with a vast amount of snorting and a shower of sparks. The run was de-scribed by Lucius Beebe in a 1936 book, “Boston and the Boston Legend.”
“The reporters held to their seats and grew pale. Someone produced a flask of Old Tannery Dew,” wrote Beebe.
“At Somerville crossing, Charlie Minot was wheeling the Antelope along at 40 m.p.h. and Pemberton was helping the fireman throw dry pine into the firebox.
“At Malden, the single coach was believed to be on the rails only at infrequent intervals and the reporters were lying on the floor asking one another and God why they had ever embarked on this ultimate folly.
“At South Reading (Wakefield) the Antelope came into view on the Crystal Pond stretch in such a blaze of brass, red paint and rolling woodsmoke that it was an object of fright.
“Cyrus Wakefield, the town’s first citizen, was jumping up and down in his Congress gaiters from the sheer delighted excitement.
“At Reading, the town drunkard took one look at the demon and was strictly sober for a fortnight.
“At Ballardvale, Supt. Minot smelled hot metal. He leaned so far out of the cab that he lost his hat, a brand-new white beaver, which had been bought for him in London.”
The locomotive had no self-feeding oil cap, as it hadn’t been invented. When it began to overheat, the fireman crawled out on the running board with an oil can and clung perilously to the cow-catcher while he doused the running parts with liquid paraffin.
“The Antelope sounded a piercing whistle for North Andover. A loose stretch of track was encountered. The strap-iron rails, torn from the granite ties by the speed of the train, flew up behind in a shower of curling snakeheads.”
But the train made Lawrence in 26 minutes.
“The reporters were in absolutely no shape to write their stories until they had been introduced by some of the populace to the nearest tap room.
“This was the first time a mile a minute had been achieved in a protracted run. The passengers said they ‘would never duplicate the performance. It was plainly against the will of God.’”
The Wildcat today is used by the Downeaster, the Amtrak train running from Boston to Maine.