Why Our T-Passes Are Called “CharlieCards”

The little plastic cards we scan to gain access to the MBTA’s public transport have a tendency to become almost invisible to the typical Boston commuter. We use them so often that the words and images on the cards lose all meaning. But there is an interesting and historical reason behind the name “Charlie” and the jolly little character printed on our T-passes.

#MBTA fare machines have been updated so that you can put $2.10 on your #CharlieCard, the exact subway ride cost.

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In 1948 Walter A. O’Brien was campaigning as Boston’s Progressive Party candidate for mayor. At the time, the Boston subway system – then known as the MTA (now the MBTA), had proposed a fare hike which would have required one fare to get on the subway and another to get off.

O’Brien was against the change, and the song, “Charlie on the MTA” was written by Jacqueline Steiner and Bess Hawes in support of his campaign.

Depending on where you grew up, you may very well have sung along to the catchy little tune in your elementary school music classes – I know I did!

It starts out with a stern male voice delivering the following warning:

These are the times that try men’s souls
In the course of our nation’s history the people of Boston have rallied bravely whenever the rights of men have been threatened
Today a new crisis has arisen
The Metropolitan Transit Authority, better known as the M.T.A.
Is attempting to levy a burdensome tax on the population in the form of a subway fare increase
Citizens, hear me out, this could happen to you!


The lyrics go on to tell of a man named Charlie who boarded the subway only to become trapped for all eternity when he found himself short of change.

“He may ride forever ‘neath the streets of Boston/He’s the man who never returned.”

#tbt #charlieonthemta

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Charlie’s wife comes to the Scollay Square station every day at quarter past two to hand him a sandwich as the train zooms past – but she apparently never thinks to include the extra nickel her husband needs to get off the train!

Throughout its many bars, the song mentions several Boston-area stations like Chelsea, Roxbury, Jamaica Plain and Kendall Square.

The Kingston Trio popularized the tune in 1959 and 56 years after it was written, “Charlie on the MTA” was performed by the folk group at a 2004 dedication ceremony for the card system. Governor Mitt Romney even joined in for a few bars!

So the next time you break out your electronic card to swipe your way onto the Boston public transport system, take a moment to remember poor old Charlie!


H/T to New England Today

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