When Big Bill Callahan Tried to Move the Charles River

Turnpike CardBy late 1962, William F. “Big Bill” Callahan was in a rush to finally build the Boston Extension of the Massachusetts Turnpike — and he was ready to move the Charles River, or a good portion of it, to do it. There were few obstacles, natural or political that could contain his ambition. “When we start we go. We don’t waste time.” He’d already moved the Sudbury River when it proved convenient for his plans, and the Charles would be no different.
Callahan had been trying to build the turnpike to Boston since its inception in 1953. When opposition from Waltham and Watertown proved overwhelming, he dropped a planned eastern terminus outside of Watertown Square, retreating back to Route 128 in Weston. This was no rout but merely a temporary fallback. He was determined that his road would continue east to meet the new Central Artery, and he fought a concerted battle particularly from 1960 on to make it happen.
Even at 71, Callahan, the “Maharajah of Macadam,” was one of the most powerful men in Massachusetts politics — although he never held or sought elected office. The shoemaker’s son from Stoughton, the once ambitious young stenographer, was now driving the highway policy of the state. One critical legislator dubbed him the “Fourth Branch of State Government.” And Callahan was often likened to his contemporary Robert Moses the storied New York powerbroker.
“The nearest thing Massachusetts has to the dedicated, ruthless, unrelenting drive of New York’s Commissioner of Parks Bob Moses is Bill Callahan.”
Norton E. Long, Visiting Professor of Political Science, Harvard University
As a Democrat, Callahan had twice served as the Commissioner of Public Works. He was removed in 1939 under accusations of scandal by the incoming Republican Governor, Leverett Saltonstall. He returned triumphant in 1949 under Governor Paul Dever to oversee the “Accelerated Highway Program” of the early 1950s, a program most remembered for the “Northern Circumferential Highway,” Route 128. He learned, like Moses, to build and consolidate his power base and insulate himself from his opponents through a nearly autonomous agency, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority (MTA), virtually created for him in 1952.
Also like Moses, Callahan augmented his power by becoming Chairman of the Massachusetts Parking Authority and the State Office Building Commission and serving on the Mystic River Bridge Commission. As Chairman of the MTA, he oversaw construction of the largest highway project undertaken in Massachusetts to date, a toll road from the New York State line to the new Route 128 in Weston, a road he’d built just a few years earlier. Simultaneously, he built a new tunnel under Boston Harbor which he named for his only son, a World War II casualty.
Callahan worked with teams of professionals, including financiers and in-house and consulting engineers, but he always promoted himself as the man in charge, calling the shots. His admirers believed his self-burnished persona and promoted him as the “man of action.” “Let Callahan do it” read the headline in 1934 when he first joined the Public Works Commission after building his reputation in marine engineering; tough, public projects needed “a man like Callahan,” “the greatest builder of public projects in the state’s history.” He was personally formidable as well. He had survived a laryngectomy ten years earlier and arduously learned “diaphragmatic speech.” He used the disability to his advantage in his often-repeated joke, “In 1952 I had my throat cut – by a doctor. I’ve had it cut in many other ways, in many times since.” When in 1963 an intruder disguised as a Catholic priest invaded his Waban home and pistol-whipped him, Callahan shook that off as well. His critics thought him fast and loose. Fast wasn’t the problem but loose was.
“He gets things done but…he is convinced that the end is more important than the means and …will exploit all devices to get what [he] want[s].” Elliot S. Richardson, U.S. Attorney
“He has bought power over investment houses, bankers and insurance companies and he has bought it with public money.” Senator Phillip A. Graham
Callahan was a master power broker and political operator with deep support in the legislature, which he cultivated through financial and political favors. He was also reputed to be a prodigious political fund-raiser. He boasted that he’d never lost a legislative vote regardless of the party in the majority. His MTA, as created by 1952 legislation, was virtually autonomous, accountable to no other state entity — not even the Auditor. As Commissioner, Callahan could negotiate contracts directly, unburdened by competitive bidding. Only the DPW held any oversight, and that was to approve the location of the turnpike. The always savvy Callahan stayed on as DPW Commissioner until the Public Works Commission which he chaired, approved his proposed route, a highway lay-out developed largely in secrecy. If he could sell the bonds, he could build it and apparently no one and nothing could constrain him.
Even as what Callahan would call the “initial pike” was still under construction in 1955, a compliant legislature changed one word in the original legislation to permit him to continue the highway into Boston. He was seemingly at his peak, but the limits of his power were at last showing and there were efforts to restrain him. He’d stepped down from the Parking Authority, reportedly voluntarily, and he was  forced to resign from the State Office Building Commission on reaching mandatory retirement age. (the subsequent building would be named for his one-time political nemesis, Leverett Saltonstall.) Still he managed to block the creation of a regional planning agency for several years for fear of interference, until he got the road he wanted.
Before the 1960 gubernatorial election, Democratic Governor Foster Furcolo pushed through Callahan’s reappointment as Chairman of the MTA months ahead of the expiration date, and in advance of the Republican John A. Volpe’s election as Governor. Volpe was well-liked and respected; he was one of the rare Republicans to survive the Kennedy Democratic wave of 1960. His election was a challenge for Callahan and his Boston Extension plan when Volpe committed himself to a competing freeway in his inaugural address. The two would spar over their road schemes for the next two years.
Volpe had succeeded Callahan as DPW Commissioner in 1953 and often leavened his measured criticism of Callahan with muted praise. In 1958, a politically ambitious Volpe criticized Callahan for his inaction on the proposed Turnpike Extension, even though the 1958 Recession had stymied any bond sales. Taking aim at the vanity of a man who boasted that he didn’t “waste time,” Volpe again lambasted Callahan in 1960 for making no progress since the 1955 legislative green light.
Volpe’s criticism was both political and targeted to promote his own competing road scheme, the “Western Expressway”. Since 1956, it was understood that Callahan wanted to continue the Pike into Boston along the right-of-way of the Boston & Albany Railroad (B&A), now controlled by the struggling New York Central Railroad. The B&A had been eyed as a highway location at least since 1930, when the “Boston Thoroughfare Plan” debuted. But in 1948, the DPW, the State Planning Board, and the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC), under Republican Governor Robert F. Bradford collaborated on a new “Metropolitan Highway Plan,” which proposed a comprehensive ring of radial highways from the city to the suburbs. Unlike the 1930 Boston Thoroughfare delimited by the city line, the more ambitious 1948 plan proposed a new “Western Expressway,” largely paralleling the Charles River and terminating near the Boston University Bridge at an Inner Belt, a ring road arcing from Roxbury to Somerville. But just as the 1930 plan hadn’t anticipated or ignored the prospect of the Worcester Turnpike “Super Highway” of that same year, the authors of the 1948 plan didn’t foresee of the Massachusetts Turnpike of 1952 or expect the return of the formidable Bill Callahan. The “Metropolitan Highway Plan” might be the putative highway policy of the Commonwealth but the master builder had his own plans.1930 Plan1930 Plan1948 Met Plan1948 Plan
Supporters of a toll-free expressway, including Volpe, argued that it could be built with 90% federal reimbursement and that Pike extension would only worsen traffic in the center of the city. Callahan countered that he could deliver a roadway in two years, while the rate of federal funding would mean years of delay in constructing the Western Expressway and Inner Belt. He also knew he had the support and independence to build his road. His only notable opposition came from the City of Newton led by Volpe allies Mayor Howard Whitmore and his successor Donald Gibbs. Callahan characterized the opposition from wealthy suburbs as “smug selfishness.”
Callahan’s plans were boosted in 1959 when the Department of Public Utilities, dominated by three Furcolo appointments, approved the B&A’s petition to drop statewide train service from 30 trains daily to 4 freeing up his preferred location. Complicating matters but again adding to Callahan’s advantage — was the Prudential Insurance Company’s massive redevelopment plan for the B&A railyard in Back Bay. In one a failed strategy, Callahan sought legislation that would permit the MTA to acquire the railyard site, construct and operate the three levels of the garage, and lease out air rights to the insurance company. Prudential would commit to buying a portion of the turnpike bonds. The state Supreme Court however killed this idea, and the race was on between Volpe and Callahan.
Volpe requested that the Interstate Commerce Commission delay approval of B&A’s plan to drop service; Callahan’s longtime ally, state Attorney General Edward J. McCormack, deemed the Western “Freeway” “unconstitutional” because the Turnpike Authority had an exclusive right by legislation to build the Extension. When Volpe tried to test this opinion before the Supreme Judicial Court, Callahan pressured the Executive Council, the bane of every Governor, to block the request.
This was a battle that Volpe couldn’t win. The urgency of the Prudential project to lift a depressed city was compelling and no one wanted to block it through confusion or delay. Callahan’s influence in the legislature was also too great; Volpe would never get the necessary funds and his Western Expressway had a critical flaw. It required the Inner Belt which was hugely unpopular in Cambridge and Somerville. Callahan argued persuasively that the Inner Belt and Western Freeway would be hugely expensive and starve needed highway projects across the state. But in an ironic parallel, Callahan’s only real obstacle too was financial as well. If the cross-state turnpike had been the most expensive road project to date, the cost of the Boston Extension would dwarf it with a per-mile cost four times greater than that of comparable roads. The original turnpike ran a deficit for its first eighteen months of operation, and financiers were increasingly skeptical of turnpike bond issues as reliable investments. Academics at Harvard and MIT deemed the road and its financing plans financially unworkable. Indeed, just as Callahan awarded construction contracts to three firms, the first attempt at a bond issue, for $175,000,000, failed to sell out in April of 1961. A second bond issue of $183,000,000 in June failed as well. In a surprise October announcement, Jimmy Hoffa of the Teamsters Union announced that he had put together a syndicate of labor unions that would buy a portion of the Extension bonds for their pension funds. The Teamsters represented Turnpike workers but in the background, the AFL-CIO was attempting to take over representation of the turnpike workers, with Callahan unsurprisingly backing Hoffa in the fight.
At last in January 1962, the third $180,000,000 bond issue was proclaimed a success — which was only technically true. It would take several more months for the underwriters to resell the bonds. To celebrate the long delayed start, Big Bill inaugurated construction on March 5th and with his usual bravado personally set off the first blast of dynamite at Weston end of the project.
Time and money and perhaps his secretly failing health – he’d undergone surgery the previous year – were now the dynamic factors for Callahan.. He must build within the terms of his bonds and there were no contingencies in his budget. Thus he began looking to shave costs and they found what appeared to be easy savings in Allston where the Extension must wedge between Commonwealth Avenue and Soldiers Field Road within the narrow railroad right-of-way. He needed to maintain two railroad tracks preserving the minimal remaining commuter rail service but that required a viaduct with an ICC mandated clearance of 18 feet over the tracks. Better, he decided, to eliminate the expensive structure and lay his new road over the adjoining stretch of Soldiers Field Road which would be pushed out into the neighboring Charles River by filling eight acres with the effect of twelve lanes of traffic across the two roadways, along with necessary medians and barrier, all between the rail tracks and a shockingly narrowed river channel. For good measure, he could save disposal costs by using stone blasted away in Newton as the fill. Narrowing the river’s width from 500 feet to 320 feet was no issue for the Chairman. Still, the threat of flooding caused by reducing the river was something Callahan would not be able to ignore.
Callahan often boasted of the beauty of his roads; he likened Route 128 to Connecticut’s storied Merritt Turnpike but he was no environmentalist. His plan was”… the best and cheapest way to [do} it.” As for filling the Charles River, he wondered, who would want to “save eight acres of a polluted, muddy river bottom?” But the Charles River would in fact swamp his plans for a time. He had dismissed Republican opponents handily. He’d swept powerful politicians like Governor Volpe and Senator Howard Whitmore out of his path. Republican Mayor Gibbs of Newton was no obstacle. Gibbs managed to gain some modest concessions through an appeal to the Interstate Commerce Commission but those concessions were mostly face-saving items – Callahan had his road across Newton exactly where he wanted it. It would be a fellow Democrat and sometimes ally who would ultimately check Callahan’s overreach.
It’s hard to conceive now, over half a century later, the kind of autonomy that Callahan’s Turnpike Authority enjoyed. “Neither clapping nor tears will move this authority,” pronounced Associate Commissioner Grout at one public hearing. There was a near total lack of oversight over its activities and plans and absolutely no environmental stewardship. NEPA, MEPA, EPA, DEP, 4F, ACHP, SHPO- the alphabet soup of environmental regulators we rely on today – none existed in Callahan’s day. Negotiations occurred out of the public view among the most powerful political and financial figures of the day — all men — in a complicated game in which Callahan usually held the advantage.
Two years earlier in October 1960, and just weeks before the gubernatorial election, Governor Furcolo reluctantly appointed Lieutenant Governor Robert F. Murphy as the MDC Commissioner in response to a scandal at the agency. Reluctantly, because Murphy was a political rival and the MDC Commissioner was a powerful position, overripe with opportunities to grant political favors through its important responsibilities overseeing the water supply and sewage collection systems for the metropolitan area, tens of thousands of acres of regional parks around Boston, skating rinks, pools, beaches, a police force (whose policing responsibilities included the Central Artery and over 150 miles of key regional roadways), hundreds of thousands of acres of watershed land in the center of the state; and numerous flood control facilities, none more significant than the Charles River itself. InkedSoldiers Aerial_LIAerial view not to scale
Murphy was alarmed by the flooding risk potential of Callahan’s scheme and dismissed it as “an eleventh-hour effort to cut construction costs…” The construction of Storrow Drive several years earlier had filled sixty-four acres of river, and a study by the Charles B. Maguire engineering firm warned that the river’s flood storage capacity was now at a critical level. If the locks couldn’t be opened during a large storm, due to a high tide or storm surge or both, there was no way to draw down the flood-swollen river basin. (That capability wouldn’t be added to the system until the construction of the new Gridley Dam and Pumping Station opposite the Museum of Science nearly twenty years later.) In a compromise and to avoid the need for filling, Murphy suggested that Soldiers Field Road be relocated over the river on pilings, as MDC had done just a few years earlier in 1958 with the Cambridge Parkway Extension beside the Longfellow Bridge. Callahan dismissed the flood risk and objected to the cost of Murphy’s solution. The Army Corps of Engineers, the sole regulatory authority over the project, agreed that the river could be filled with the condition that a commensurate area be dredged in compensation. Callahan proposed to excavate the necessary amount and even fifty percent more on the Cambridge side, essentially moving the Charles for three-quarters of a mile, and for good measure straightening out a bend in the river. What loss was Magazine Beach, MTA representatives asked? The beach was abandoned to pollution and now was only used as free parking for Boston University students! Alarmed Cambridge forces organized to protect Magazine Beach and a contemptuous Callahan pledged that he would “not touch a single weed or tin can on the play fields of Magazine Beach.”
To win over Murphy, in June 1962, Callahan finally settled an MDC lands claim from years earlier and conceded a design modification in the planned turnpike bridge over the Muddy River that would save the MDC $400,000 on its Charlesgate bridge – today’s Bowker Overpass. But Murphy did not relent. By December 1962, with the roadway construction to the west well underway and negotiations over the river deadlocked, the MTA took the unprecedented step of attempting to seize the disputed river acreage by eminent domain. Callahan boldly (and preposterously) announced the contractor would be at work in the area within two weeks.
Murphy succinctly observed:We are a state agency; they are a state agency. The state cannot take land from itself.”Murphy’s attorney, Harvey E. Weir, was sworn in as a special assistant to Attorney General McCormack to procure a temporary injunction, and he called out the cops, directing the MDC to block any work in the disputed area. Callahan, bluffing or perhaps convinced that he would win the fight with Murphy as he had with others, continued engineering and design on his plan. In February, MDC police chased Turnpike Authority surveyors off the frozen river, purportedly for safety reasons. Legislators, beholden to both men, chose to sit out the battle, eliminating one of Callahan’s familiar options.
Time also worked to Murphy’s advantage. The Authority was reportedly paying $22,000 a day in interest, so a significant delay would be expensive — and of course the construction contracts included penalties for delays as well. Callahan bluffed that if he was denied the river, he would shift the road to the south, taking millions of dollars of taxable properties along Commonwealth Avenue in Boston and Brookline. In reality, he had no reasonable options for relocating the extension, because he couldn’t afford anything else financially or politically. He was anchored by his massive Allston interchange and the freight and tandem-trailer yard on one end and the constraints of the BU Bridge area on the eastern side, where construction work had already begun.
At last on June 20, 1963, after six months of dispute, the state Supreme Court appeared to resolve the issue by finding that the Turnpike Authority lacked the authority to take the river acreage, but Callahan wouldn’t yield until the following September when he announced a plan for a 3000-foot viaduct, from the Allston intersection to just west of the BU Bridge, to carry the Extension over the railroad tracks. Callahan had been bested by a surprising adversary he couldn’t overcome, — a neglected river abetted by its champion in Murphy.
Callahan wouldn’t live to see the completion of the Extension in 1965. He died on April 20, 1964, just months afterwards the first segment of the road from Weston to Brighton was opened on September 3rd. There would be no dynamite this time, the subdued ceremonies were a muted celebration of the road’s opening and a commemoration of Callahan himself. At the unveiling of a plaque in his honor, the rarely concise Richard Cardinal Cushing, in a bit of uncharacteristic understatement, commented, “I doubt if this could have been built without him.” Newton Mayor Donald Gibbs was present and peevishly commented, “What does one say who fought the road for five years?” Years earlier he asked, “Why should we be forced to pay tribute to one man named Callahan?” Now they were memorializing him in bronze.
The dynamite this time would be the explosive announcement by Callahan’s successor, John T. Driscoll, that the Extension had cost $35,000,000 more than projected. The Allston viaduct wasn’t the only factor in the increase. In his customary “build fast” improvisational style, Callahan hadn’t anticipated the special construction precautions through the Copley Square portion of the project necessary to protect the likes of Trinity Church and the Boston Public Library. Another casualty of the budget and the rush to build was the promised lush parks, complete with sparkling fountains, proposed for the unsightly cleared parcels, the site of today’s Copley Place. One thing did more than meet the promises, the 90,000 vehicles expected to use the Extension daily which in fact was easily exceeded. Despite Callahan’s assurances and confidence, the traffic chaos at the Extension’s intersection with the Central Artery predicted by the critics also ensued. Forty years later the massive Central Artery project, whose notorious costs far surpassed the record-breaking cost of the Extension, would attempt to remedy it.

2 thoughts on “When Big Bill Callahan Tried to Move the Charles River

  1. Just found this blog. What a great read! Seems like a much more interesting gig than being the Chair of the Boston Conservation Commission!


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