The Vault

Witness the Controlled Chaos of Boston Traffic, As Filmed From a Streetcar in 1906

To make this short documentary of Boston streets, cinematographer Billy Bitzer stood on an electric streetcar operated by the Boston Elevated Railway and filmed what he saw. The vantage point offers a view of the way wagons, streetcars, and pedestrians jostled for space and dodged around each other in hectic early-20th-century traffic. The New England Historical Society, which recently shared the film on its blog, called this “one of the first films of the city ever made.” 

The film captures a mix of traffic emblematic of a city that had embraced streetcars but was not yet under the sway of the automobile. The Historical Society’s blog notes that Bostonians had been wary of the electric streetcar when it was first introduced in the 1880s, but by the time Bitzer made this film, pedestrians seemed none too afraid of the cars in their midst. Bitzer’s camera also captures horses pulling wagons, traveling in front of the cars, plodding along the rails set into the road. 

Bitzer’s little tour of Boston offers some high points. The streetcar passes by the department store Jordan Marsh at 1:39, and you get a view of its plate-glass windows. Watch the middle of the screen starting at 2:20; sharp-eyed historian Larry Cebula commented that he thought he saw a fist fight break out. The camera quickly swings away, leaving the little moment of aggression behind. At 2:45, Bitzer captures passing train cars on the raised tracks of the Boston Elevated Railway. In the last minutes of the film, the streetcar rolls through Copley Square, offering a view of the Boston Public Library’s flagship building, built by Charles Follen McKim in 1895.

The Boston Public Library’s website offers a collection of films of Boston streets from around the same time; another one not to miss is also by Bitzer, and captures people swimming at the city’s L Street baths in winter.