Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

John Hepp

Railroad Suburbs

As railroads reached outlying villages and the countryside around Philadelphia during the nineteenth century, railroad companies and other enterprising real estate developers created fashionable residential enclaves, new suburban towns, and vast semirural estates. These developments enabled prosperous Philadelphians to live apart from the city while still enjoying its amenities and maintaining their positions in the urban industries, businesses, and professions that produced their wealth. In the new railroad suburbs, local shopkeepers and service workers also helped sustain semirural living for the upper and middle classes. Although automobiles later changed commuting habits, the railroads and the suburbs that developed around their stations established a geography and social order that in many ways persisted into the twenty-first century.

[caption id="attachment_33022" align="alignright" width="300"]a black and white photograph of the Ebenezer Maxwell House, a gothic revival mansion with stone facade, central turret, and mansard roof. An iron fence surrounds the property. Residents of the recently developed railroad suburbs built their homes in fashionable architectural styles to showcase their wealth. Merchant Ebenezer Maxwell built this Gothic Revival home, which still stands on West Tulpehocken Street, in 1859. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The region’s first railroad suburbs developed along the Philadelphia, Germantown & Norristown Railroad (the PGN), which introduced commuter trains running northwest from the city in 1832. Using steam locomotives, the PGN operated frequent passenger service along essentially the same routes later served by SEPTA’s Chestnut Hill East and Norristown regional rail lines. The commuter trains made Germantown, founded in 1683, a suburb connected with Philadelphia long before its consolidation into the city in 1854. By the late 1850s, in addition to its stock of colonial-era homes Germantown had a cluster of suburban villas in the neighborhood of West Walnut Lane and Greene and West Tulpehocken Streets. Farther northwest, a few commuters from Chestnut Hill connected to the PGN by stagecoach or carriage during the 1830s and 1840s, but after 1854 they could ride the new Chestnut Hill Railroad to Germantown. The construction of a new Episcopal Church, St. Paul’s (built 1856-61), signaled Chestnut Hill’s increasing status as a suburb for the elite.

As railroad commuting expanded during the later decades of the nineteenth century, it produced social and geographic segregation as upper and middle class families sought distance from the intensifying industrialization and high rates of immigration in Philadelphia and other American cities. The cost of rail fares initially put daily commuting by train out of reach for all but the wealthiest riders, while local streetcars and (later) buses remained the affordable options for others. Because rail fares varied by distance, inner suburbs like Germantown had more middle-class commuters than more distant, semirural idylls of the elite. Steam trains did not appeal to many middle-class commuters to Philadelphia because the locations of terminals on the periphery of the business district required an additional long walk or streetcar ride to get to work. Streetcars running into the central city from closer, newly developing areas of North and West Philadelphia offered more-direct access, as did the Delaware River ferries that connected with railroads serving South Jersey. This did not change until late in the nineteenth century, when the two major rail systems serving the city relocated their main facilities to Center City (the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Broad Street Station, built 1879-82, and the Reading Terminal, built 1891-93).

Similar Patterns Elsewhere

The development of railroad suburbs in the Philadelphia region resembled patterns of metropolitan expansion occurring around the same time along railroad lines radiating from other major cities, including New York, Boston, and Chicago. During the 1850s, other Philadelphia-area railroads joined the PGN in offering commuter train services. The Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad started publishing housing guides for its line through Delaware County, and the West Chester and Philadelphia touted its route for commuters between its namesake communities. In southern New Jersey, the Camden and Atlantic Railroad, which began service in 1854, led to residential growth in Haddonfield, and a group of Philadelphia merchants acquired land and developed Merchantville after the arrival of the Camden and Burlington Railroad in 1867-68. From these South Jersey suburbs, commuters traveled by rail to Camden and then crossed by ferry to the commercial center of Philadelphia east of Sixth Street.

[caption id="attachment_33031" align="alignright" width="246"]a black and white portrait of Anthony J. Drexel. Banker Anthony J. Drexel, shown here in the late nineteenth century, planned the suburb of Wayne, Pennsylvania, in collaboration with George W. Childs, his co-owner at the Philadelphia Public Ledger. Downtown Wayne centers on an 1884 Pennsylvania Railroad Main Line station, served in the twenty-first century by the SEPTA Paoli/Thorndale line. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

By the 1870s and 1880s, a period of transition for the railroads, some lines had few commuter trains but on others the service became quite intensive. For example, in 1876, the Chestnut Hill Branch of the Philadelphia & Reading (successor to the PGN) offered thirty daily round trips between Center City and Germantown and encouraged daily commuting by offering special low-fare trains. During the 1870s, the Pennsylvania Railroad created havens for the elite along its Main Line, which extended west of Philadelphia through parts of Montgomery, Delaware, and Chester Counties, and spurred similar suburban development in Chestnut Hill. Developers of new suburbs also sought to appeal to the middle class, and the railroads offered incentives (such as free or discounted tickets) to encourage middle-class families to build houses along their lines. The Pennsylvania Railroad’s activity along its Main Line inspired the president of the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad to develop a similar but more affordable planned suburb for the middle class, Ridley Park, simultaneously with the opening of a new line in 1870 through southeast Delaware County between Philadelphia and Chester. In response to the availability of rail service, Sharon Hill and Norwood also developed along the line. A new line of the Pennsylvania Railroad running from Philadelphia to Norristown and Reading, beginning in 1884, enticed real estate developers to buy up farmland to create the middle-class suburb of Cynwyd (formerly known as Academyville). Along the Main Line, during the 1880s the co-owners of the Philadelphia Public Ledger, George W. Childs (1829-94) and banker A.J. Drexel (1826-1893), developed the planned suburban community of Wayne. In South Jersey, beginning in 1885 local landholders near the Camden and Atlantic Railroad line sold building lots to create the new suburb of Collingswood. Around the same time, local entrepreneurs began to convert farmland into the new suburb of Haddon Heights and persuaded the Reading Railroad, owner of the Philadelphia and Atlantic City Railway, to establish a station to serve the community.

In the new railroad suburbs, buyers found large single-family and semidetached homes with expansive porches and yards, a distinctly different environment from Philadelphia’s row houses. Making these railroad suburbs attractive to these residents required not only countryside ambiance but also more infrastructure of the type available in the city, such as water systems and paved streets. The Pennsylvania Railroad acknowledged this in a 1916 brochure when it touted “the charm of this suburban life, with its pure air, pure water and healthful surroundings, combined with the educational advantages provided, churches, stores and excellent transit facilities to and from the city, is manifest.” Despite developers’ appeals to the middle and upper classes, however, the railroad suburbs were never solely the domain of the region’s wealthiest residents. Most evolved around or within existing communities with their own people and histories, and even the most luxurious suburban estates required a network of support from local businesses and service workers who lived close to the railroad stations in row houses or other modest homes. Starting in the 1890s, electrified streetcar lines also brought more class diversity to some of the same suburbs that had originated along the rail lines, including Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia and Merchantville and Collingswood in New Jersey. Transit fares held steady while working-class incomes rose, making more distant places affordable to a wider range of residents.

The Main Line Corridor

[caption id="attachment_33015" align="alignright" width="225"]A color photo of the Bryn Mawr Hotel, a stone and red brick hotel building in the Queen Anne Style with a prominent rotunda. The Bryn Mawr Hotel, constructed in 1872 and rebuilt in 1890, echoed the atmosphere of the elite seaside resort town of Cape May, New Jersey. Developers used community centerpieces like the hotel and new Welsh names to entice prospective buyers to villages along the Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

The Pennsylvania Railroad’s role in developing Philadelphia’s western suburbs originated from its purchase of farmland during the 1860s and 1870s in order to straighten the route of its Main Line between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. With its expanded holdings within commuting distance of Philadelphia, the railroad developed a corridor of privilege from existing villages and the surrounding countryside. To increase the area’s appeal, the company gave Welsh and Scottish place names to towns that did not already have them: Athensville became Ardmore, for example, and Humphreysville became Bryn Mawr. To give prospective buyers an opportunity to become acquainted with the area, the railroad took its cue from the resort ambiance of Cape May, New Jersey, and built the Bryn Mawr Hotel (opened in 1872, rebuilt in 1890 and later home to the Baldwin School). Railroad executives led the way by building estate homes. Alexander Cassatt (1839-1906), later the Pennsylvania Railroad’s president, had a city residence on Rittenhouse Square, but in 1872 he began building Cheswold, a mansion set on fifty-four acres in Haverford. Leaders of Philadelphia business and industry followed, including department store partner Isaac Clothier (1837-1921), who built a castle called Ballytore in Wynnewood in 1885. Collectively, the communities and estates that developed around Pennsylvania Railroad stations from Overbrook west to Paoli became “the Main Line,” a name that became synonymous with upper-class living despite the continuing presence of other local residents as well as the businesses and domestic workers necessary to support a gracious lifestyle. Many of the massive estates later became home to religious orders, schools, or other institutions.

In Northwest Philadelphia, completion of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Chestnut Hill Branch in the early 1880s set off a new wave of suburban development west of Germantown Avenue. Henry Houston (1820-95), a member of the railroad’s board of directors with extensive land holdings in Northwest Philadelphia and adjacent Montgomery County, proposed the new rail line and then followed the pattern of the Main Line by beckoning elite residents to Chestnut Hill with amenities such as the Wissahickon Inn (1883, later the Chestnut Hill Academy), the Philadelphia Cricket Club (1883), and another Protestant Episcopal Church, St. Martin-in-the-Fields (1888). In his Wissahickon Heights development (later renamed St. Martin’s), he made homes available by lease. Houston’s son-in-law George Woodward (1863-1952) continued the family tradition and Chestnut Hill’s suburban evolution in the early twentieth century with picturesque developments such as French Village (1913), Linden Court (1915), and English Village (1925). Between Chestnut Hill and Germantown, in Mount Airy, the Drexel Company built the planned suburb of Pelham between 1895 and 1910.

[caption id="attachment_33033" align="alignright" width="300"]A color postcard of the Philadelphia Cricket Club's grounds and clubhouse. Construction of the Philadelphia Cricket Club in 1883 helped cement Chestnut Hill’s image as an exclusive retreat for the wealthy. By this time, both the Pennsylvania and Reading Railroads operated competing lines from Center City to the area. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

In the golden age of railroad suburbs, from the 1880s through the 1910s, more than one thousand daily trains served hundreds of stations in and around Philadelphia. The combination of railroad and streetcar suburbs brought population growth to Philadelphia’s suburbs. The population of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, doubled between 1870 and 1920 while Delaware County, Pennsylvania, and Camden County, New Jersey, quadrupled during the same period. Most early growth took place within about an eight-mile radius of the city, because of both travel time and the distance-based railroad fares. Bedroom communities within this range included Bala, Cynwyd, Darby, Jenkintown, Lansdowne, and Narberth in Pennsylvania; and Audubon, Bellmawr, Collingswood, Haddon Heights, Haddonfield, Magnolia, Runnemede, Westmount, and Westville in New Jersey.

Autos Begin to Erode Rail Demand

By the 1920s, automobiles and buses came into the suburban transportation mix and railroad suburbs, although still located on train lines, no longer depended on the rails to link them to the city and neighboring communities. In New Jersey, the 1926 opening of the Delaware River Bridge (later renamed the Benjamin Franklin Bridge) also hastened the shift from rail to automobile commuting. As passengers left the trains, the railroads eliminated or cut back service on many lines, although the Pennsylvania and Reading railroads invested in electric trains and often increased services between 1915 and 1933. After World War II, as automobile ownership and suburban bus service increased, and by the 1960s, the once-dominant railroads wanted to discontinue their money-losing commuter trains. In Pennsylvania, the City of Philadelphia and then the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) intervened in the 1950s and 1960s, and by 1983, SEPTA had taken over the remaining trains. For the New Jersey suburbs, the Port Authority Transit Corporation (PATCO) between Philadelphia and Lindenwold took the place of earlier rail systems in 1969. New Jersey Transit’s River Line began operating between Camden and Trenton in 2004. In the automobile age, some railroad suburbs retained their appeal as fashionable enclaves while others transitioned into neighborhoods of large houses divided into cheap apartments.

In the early-twenty-first century, although most people living in Philadelphia’s railroad suburbs did not use the trains to go to work, the old commuter lines still affected the social geography of the region because the road system largely followed those lines. With the exception of a handful of edge cities like King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, much of Philadelphia’s suburban development followed the old railroad lines. In 2017, SEPTA and PATCO trains still carried more than 156,000 daily riders, including not only suburban dwellers but also working-class and lower-middle-class reverse commuters traveling to jobs in the suburbs. Along the tracks, railroad stations and homes built by the enterprising developers of the nineteenth century survived as visible reminders of the origins of the railroad suburbs.

Charlene Mires is Professor of History at Rutgers-Camden and Editor-in-Chief of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. John Hepp is Professor of History and co-chair of the Division of Global Cultures at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He teaches urban and cultural history with an emphasis on the middle classes in the period 1800 to 1940.

Locomotive Manufacturing

[caption id="attachment_25198" align="aligncenter" width="575"]Illustration of an early steam-powered locomotive. During the first phase of locomotive manufacturing in Philadelphia, Norris Locomotive Works (later Richard Norris & Son) became the most successful manufacturing firm, producing nearly one thousand locomotives between 1834 and its closure in 1866 or 1867. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

For over one hundred and twenty years, railway locomotives were built in Greater Philadelphia. From the pioneering manufacturers of steam locomotives in the Spring Garden section of the city in the 1830s to the sprawling plant of the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Delaware County in the twentieth century, the products, the companies, and the buildings were archetypes of Philadelphia’s industrial might at its manufacturing peak. Baldwin Locomotive became the largest producer of steam railway locomotives in the United States. By the mid twentieth century, however, even Baldwin could no longer compete in the world market, which had shifted to diesel and electric locomotives.

The rise, dominance, and decline of locomotive manufacturing in the region had two complementary contexts, one local, the other transnational. In the late 1820s American railroads imported steam locomotives from Britain and, because the locomotives had to be partially disassembled for shipping, employed local artisans to put them back together. Because these imported locomotives were expensive and often too heavy and rigid for the poorly constructed track used in the United States, engineering firms on the East Coast quickly began to build local alternatives. In Philadelphia, entrepreneurs drew on the city’s broad engineering base and its skilled workforce to adapt the British technology.

[caption id="attachment_25188" align="alignright" width="232"]Black and white portrait of a man in a black suit with a high collar. Matthias Baldwin was a jeweler, inventor, and manufacturer. During the second phase of railway locomotive production, which lasted from the end of the Civil War to the 1930s, Baldwin Locomotive Works dominated the industry nationwide. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

This first phase of locomotive building in Philadelphia lasted from the 1830s to the American Civil War and consisted of a variety of small-scale enterprises that tended to have difficulty surviving economic downturns, such as the Panic of 1837. In 1830, the American Steam Carriage Company was founded in Philadelphia and manufactured its first locomotive the next year. It failed. In 1831, Matthias W. Baldwin (1795-1866), a Philadelphia jeweler and machine maker, built a working scale model of one of these British imports for Peale’s Philadelphia Museum. That same year, he reassembled the English locomotives constructed for the New Castle and Frenchtown Turnpike and Rail Road, Delaware’s first railway, and learned still more about the new technology. In 1832, Long & Norris, a successor to American Steam Carriage, and Baldwin built successful locomotives for the Philadelphia, Germantown & Norristown Railroad, the first line to open in the city.

Norris Locomotive Works

During this period the most successful builder in the city was the Norris Locomotive Works (the successor to Long & Norris, which operated under various names and differing partnerships). Norris produced nearly one thousand locomotives between 1834 and its closure in 1866 or 1867. The firm achieved success through engineering innovations (it substituted a movable truck or bogie for the standard fixed front axle on English locomotives, which worked better on the poor American track) and by generating publicity (on July 10, 1836, it operated a steam locomotive up the steep rope-worked inclined plane in West Philadelphia on the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad). Its designs became so popular that it became the first American exporter of locomotives. By 1840, 30 percent of the firm's production went to foreign markets. Norris locomotives operated in England, France, Prussia, Austria, Saxony, Belgium, Italy, Canada, Cuba, and Colombia. By the 1850s, Norris was the largest locomotive builder in the United States, but it closed shortly after the Civil War during a downturn in demand for steam locomotives.

[caption id="attachment_25199" align="alignright" width="250"]Color postcard depicting a large red building. In 1906 alone, the Baldwin Locomotive Works produced 2,666 steam locomotives and employed more than eighteen thousand workers at its facilities on North Broad Street, depicted in this early twentieth-century postcard. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

The second phase of railway locomotive production lasted from the end of the Civil War to the 1930s, a period when Philadelphia’s Baldwin Locomotive Works dominated the industry nationwide. With a plant located near the Norris Locomotive Works in the city’s Spring Garden section, in the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s, Baldwin, although less innovative than Norris, produced higher-quality products. This, combined with innovations in financing, allowed Baldwin to thrive in the second half of the nineteenth century. By 1870 (four years after the death of its founder), the Baldwin Locomotive Works was by far the largest producer of steam locomotives in the United States and one of the largest manufacturers in the world. It, like Norris earlier, also exported its products worldwide. The peak of Baldwin’s production in Philadelphia came between 1898 and 1906, before railway regulation under the federal Hepburn Act (and the Panic of 1907) slowed demand for locomotives nationally. In 1906 alone, Baldwin produced 2,666 steam locomotives and employed more than eighteen thousand workers. Although the locomotive manufacturers did not know it at the time, increased regulation, two world wars, a Great Depression, and technological change would mean that demand for steam locomotives would never again reach this high point.

In the early twentieth century, as part of the City Beautiful Movement, Philadelphia and other American cities sought to relocate large-scale manufacturers like Baldwin away from central business districts and their peripheries. At the same time, Baldwin’s management desired a new and enlarged plant. The company acquired a large tract of land in suburban Eddystone, Delaware County, and slowly transferred all production there, completing the move by 1928. Constructed on a grand scale, the facility at Eddystone never operated at more than one-third of its capacity.

Challenges of New Technology

From the 1930s through 1956, Baldwin survived as not only the sole locomotive builder in Philadelphia but also as just one of a handful nationwide. Two technological changes in the first half of the twentieth century in the American railroad industry combined to decrease the demand for steam locomotives from Baldwin and its competitors. First came the electrification of commuter lines in New York and Philadelphia in the first three decades of the century. This eventually encouraged one of the railroads–the Pennsylvania–to electrify its busy main lines between New York, Washington, and Harrisburg. Then, although railroad electrification slowed, the development of diesel locomotives accelerated. First used in limited applications in the 1920s, by the end of the 1930s diesels operated as switch engines and on prestige passenger services, and by the 1940s were replacing steam locomotives in general service on most American railroads. Although more expensive than steam locomotives to purchase, diesels were cheaper and more efficient to operate.

As late as 1937, Baldwin’s management thought its future depended on the production of steam locomotives, despite changing technology. The next year, when Baldwin emerged from its 1935 bankruptcy with new management, it finally began to develop the newer diesel locomotives on a much larger scale.

During the Second World War, Baldwin continued to produce steam locomotives for both the United States and abroad and built tanks for the military at its massive Eddystone works. However, the War Production Board authorized Baldwin’s main competitors–the Electro-Motive Division of General Motors of La Grange, Illinois, and the American Locomotive Company (Alco) based in Schenectady, New York–to build diesels. This meant that Baldwin entered the postwar market in a weaker position.

After the Second World War, Baldwin introduced a full line of diesel locomotives and merged with a smaller locomotive builder to form Baldwin-Lima-Hamilton in 1950. Despite continual improvements in the products, the company’s sales remained well behind General Motors and Alco. In 1956, when the usually dependable Pennsylvania Railroad decided to place a large order with General Motors instead of Baldwin, the company ended the production of locomotives, although it continued to make construction equipment until around 1970. Baldwin had built over seventy thousand steam, electric, and diesel locomotives since 1832. With the closure of the once-massive Eddystone plant, locomotive production ceased in the greater Philadelphia area after 125 years.

Baldwin’s failed conversion to diesel production can be explained in part by the company’s late realization of the importance of the technological change, a policy offering custom-designed units in addition to a standard line, and its use of nonstandard technology (for example, electrical equipment made by Westinghouse instead of GE and, initially, its own form of multiple-unit control). On a global scale, however, none of the major steam locomotive builders that dominated the world market in the early twentieth century successfully made the transition to the construction of diesel and electric locomotives in the twenty-first. The new era simply required technology and skills that differed from steam locomotives. Baldwin, and with it the Philadelphia region’s role in locomotive manufacturing, became a casualty of massive industrial change in the second half of the twentieth century.

John Hepp is Associate Professor of History at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and he teaches American urban and cultural history with an emphasis on the period 1800 to 1940.

Railroad Stations

Railroad stations in Greater Philadelphia evolved with the railway industry into a wide variety of forms and functions. For most passengers and casual observers, railroad stations are buildings, but for the railways, these locations are also key operating points for loading and unloading passengers and freight. The vast majority of railroad stations in the Philadelphia region were small and served surrounding local communities, but a few monumental terminals were constructed in Center City Philadelphia and in the downtowns of the region’s secondary cities: Atlantic City, Camden, and Wilmington.

[caption id="attachment_19007" align="alignright" width="300"]a black and white engraving of an early railroad depot in Philadelphia with train in front Early train stations in Philadelphia were simple structures, often converted from houses. This example opened in 1832. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

The major passenger stations serving central Philadelphia went through four distinct phases in the city’s history. Initially, during the 1830s and 1840s, small, independent railroads attempted to locate their passenger facilities on the fringes of the built-up portion of the city. Later, in the 1850s, the railways moved their by-then larger depots farther from the business district and began to rely on the new horse-drawn streetcars for final delivery of passengers. The third phase began in 1881, when consolidated railroad systems started to move their much larger passenger facilities back into Center City. Finally, with the opening of Pennsylvania (Thirtieth Street) Station in 1933, a grand station met the operational needs of the railroad and connected multiple forms of transport for the region.

The earliest railroad stations in Center City were very small structures that offered minimal services other than ticketing and baggage facilities. Starting in the 1850s, newer stations became larger and more architecturally elaborate, but for the most part they offered few additional services. The movement away from these mid-century buildings began in 1876 when the Pennsylvania Railroad built a new passenger station at Thirty-Second and Market streets in West Philadelphia and the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore substantially reconstructed its facility at Prime Street (later renamed Washington Avenue) in South Philadelphia to deal with increased traffic because of the Centennial Exhibition of 1876. These two depots were important transitional structures, built largely on the scale of the mid-century terminals but with far more complex interiors offering more services (such as restaurants). Both these stations fully separated passenger traffic from freight, which typically had not been the case in earlier structures.

The trends begun in these 1876 stations became fully articulated in the three main depots built by the railways in Center City in the 1880s and 1890s. Broad Street Station, the Baltimore & Ohio facility at Twenty-Fourth and Chestnut streets, and Reading Terminal were exclusively passenger structures with complex, well-defined interiors offering a multitude of services. All three had large train sheds protecting passengers from weather while they boarded the trains. These train sheds, soaring structures made of glass and steel, were physical manifestations of Americans’ love of technology and reflected trends in Victorian architecture and engineering that also characterized the era’s world’s fairs and new department stores.

[caption id="attachment_19009" align="alignright" width="300"]A color engraving of Broad Street station at night, showing the headhouse and The first of the grand Victorian stations, Broad Street Station was built by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1881 and expanded in 1891-92. Train service ended in 1952, and it was demolished the next year. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

The first of these grand stations to open, in 1881, was the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Broad Street Station, which was qualitatively different from any previous depot in Philadelphia. Its façade, in the style and scale of a great London Victorian railway terminus, was unlike that of any existing railroad structure in the city. Closely resembling the recently completed St. Pancras station in London, the initial structure’s Gothic design by the Philadelphia firm of Wilson Brothers looked more like a massive church than a train station. Located directly across the street from Philadelphia’s still under-construction City Hall, it was a fitting temple to both the power of Philadelphia’s most influential corporation—the Pennsylvania Railroad—and the pretensions of the growing metropolis. In 1892, when the station needed to be enlarged because of the continuing expansion of the Pennsylvania Railroad and growing commuter traffic, Philadelphia architect Frank Furness (1838-1912) designed a significant addition in his eclectic modern style. The station also gained a new train shed, the largest single-span train shed in the world at the time.

[caption id="attachment_19011" align="alignright" width="195"]A color postcard of Reading Terminal Reading Terminal was constructed in 1893 by the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad. It served passengers until 1984 and was integrated into the Pennsylvania Convention Center in 1993. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Reading Terminal, at Twelfth and Market Streets in Center City Philadelphia, opened in 1893. When the Reading acquired the site it was a public farmers market, and the railroad agreed to accommodate the market on the ground level of the station under the train shed (the Reading Terminal Market ultimately outlasted the use of the station by trains). The Reading Terminal headhouse, an Italian Renaissance design by New York architect Francis H. Kimball (1845-1919), known for his work with terra-cotta, contained the offices of the Reading Railroad and was coupled to a train shed built by Wilson Brothers. After rail service to Reading Terminal ended in 1984, the train shed and headhouse became part of the Pennsylvania Convention Center and Marriott Hotel.

The final grand depot to serve Philadelphia was Pennsylvania (30th Street) Station, opened in 1933 by the Pennsylvania Railroad in West Philadelphia. Designed by Alfred Shaw (1895-1970) of the Chicago firm Graham, Anderson, Probst and White in a transitional neoclassical, art deco style, it was one of the last major railway passenger stations constructed in the United States. (Cincinnati Union Terminal opened in the same year, and only Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal, opened in 1939, is on the same scale and later).

Pennsylvania Station formed part of a complex that also included a new main post office for the city and a distribution center for the Railway Express Agency. It was built as part of a Pennsylvania Railroad scheme known as the “Philadelphia Improvements,” a series of projects to improve efficiency by enabling passenger trains to easily operate throughout Philadelphia without having to stop and reverse in Center City. The projects also included Suburban Station near Sixteenth and Market Streets, so that Broad Street Station might be abandoned and its site and approaches redeveloped as commercial offices. The Great Depression and World War II delayed the full implementation of this plan until 1953.

[caption id="attachment_19012" align="alignright" width="300"]Thirtieth Street Station, shown here under construction in 1932, is the largest rail hub in Philadelphia. It was constructed to replace Broad Street Station. (Library Company of Philadelphia) Thirtieth Street Station, shown here under construction in 1932, is the largest rail hub in Philadelphia. It was constructed to replace Broad Street Station. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Because of competition between the Pennsylvania Railroad and the allied Reading/Baltimore & Ohio system in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, secondary urban centers of the region all had multiple train stations that were smaller versions of Philadelphia’s grand depots. This pattern existed in Wilmington, Delaware; Camden and Trenton, New Jersey; and Chester and Reading, Pennsylvania, but its best example was in Atlantic City. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, three rail lines linked Camden and Philadelphia with Atlantic City, which had a variety of grand but small stations. After the competing companies merged into Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines, a new station that looked like a small version of Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Station opened in 1934.

The local or community stations in the Greater Philadelphia area can be classified in four ways. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the most common type of station provided service for passengers, express, and mail. Even the electric local trains introduced in the early twentieth century on the Pennsylvania and the Reading had combination cars that provided for all these services. The express service permitted both national shippers and local merchants (such as department stores) to deliver goods throughout the region before highway delivery services became common. A second type of station, common through the middle of the twentieth century, also combined passenger, freight, express, and mail service, but in an integrated complex of buildings. Many an awkward early-twenty-first-century commuter parking lot is located where a small freight facility used to adjoin a passenger station.

[caption id="attachment_19008" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of a Pennsylvania Railroad freight depot This freight-only facility was added to the existing Prime Street depot in 1876. It remained in use until the late twentieth century. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

Stations that served passengers only were uncommon until the middle of the twentieth century, but by the twentieth-first century they were the most common type operated by Amtrak, SEPTA, and NJ Transit. A small number of freight-only stations operated through the late twentieth century, often in industrial areas of the region. As transport of less-than-a-carload freight by rail declined because of truck competition, these facilities closed.

Architecturally, community stations were a varied lot. The railroads’ engineering departments built many of wood and by common designs, while architects designed some, especially those serving wealthy suburbs. Philadelphia’s Frank Furness not only designed central stations in Philadelphia and Wilmington for the Pennsylvania and the Baltimore & Ohio but also more than one hundred smaller stations for the Reading, many in Greater Philadelphia.

In the early twenty-first century, railroad stations continued to change. Some were rebuilt for further passenger use, others became stores, residences, and offices, and still others have been preserved for their architectural distinctiveness and their connection to an age when railroads and their stations were the primary mode of transportation in Greater Philadelphia. A total of thirty of stations in Greater Philadelphia–ranging from small community depots to Pennsylvania (Thirtieth Street) Station and Reading Terminal–have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places for their architectural significance.

John Hepp is Associate Professor of History and co-chair of the Division of Global History and Languages at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He teaches American urban and cultural history with an emphasis on the period 1800 to 1940.


The history of the railroad industry in the United States and the growth of the Greater Philadelphia region are inextricably linked. Philadelphia money and engineering built the national network and, from the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth, railroads helped make and maintain Philadelphia as a “Workshop of the World,” the nation’s largest manufacturing center. Within the region, freight and passenger lines helped define industrial and residential development patterns that still remained in the early twenty-first century.

The region’s first rail freight carrier, the Leiper Railroad, began service in Delaware County in 1810. Built by Thomas Leiper (1745-1825) to link his quarry with a stream so that the stone could be transported to Philadelphia, the horse-drawn tramway was replaced by a canal in 1828. Many historians consider this to be the first true railroad in North America because all previous lines had been built in connection with temporary projects and were intended to be abandoned once the projects were completed.

Initially railroads in Britain and the United States were like the Leiper Railroad, short-distance solutions for carrying freight when canals were impractical or too expensive. Beginning with the Stockton & Darlington Railway in 1825, however, British industrialists began to build railways to haul both freight and passengers over longer distances, and this concept quickly came to the United States. The first of these new railroads in the United States, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad chartered by Maryland in 1827 to link Baltimore with the Ohio River, began limited operation in 1830.

Other Cities Develop Rail Systems

The Baltimore & Ohio spurred most of the other major Atlantic seaboard cities to develop railroads. In 1830, New Jersey authorized the Camden & Amboy Railroad and Transportation Company to link Philadelphia with New York City. The next year, Pennsylvania granted charters to the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad, the Philadelphia & Delaware County Railroad, and the Philadelphia, Germantown & Norristown Railroad (PGN). The PGN, the first to be completed, began operation within Philadelphia County in 1832.

In urban areas, railroads competed with people, horses, and wagons for the right-of-way on busy streets. Especially after steam locomotives replaced horses, railroads running down the center of streets caused a great deal of fear and controversy in Philadelphia and other municipalities. In response to public protests, Philadelphia banned steam locomotives from its streets in 1838. One result of this ban was that passenger stations moved outside the city’s pre-1854 boundaries (river to river, between Vine and South Streets) to suburbs such as West Philadelphia and the Northern Liberties. 

[caption id="attachment_14701" align="alignright" width="300"]The Philadelphia and Reading Railroad constructing new track in 1893 at Broad and Callowhill Streets. The Philadelphia and Reading Railroad began construction of new tracks as shown here in 1893 near Broad and Callowhill Streets.(PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

Through the 1840s, most railroad companies operated a single route–either a passenger line like the PGN or a freight line such as the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad (the Reading), which was chartered in 1833 and transported anthracite coal to Philadelphia from the mines of northeastern Pennsylvania. A new vision for railroads came to the region in 1846 with the founding of the Pennsylvania Railroad, an integrated system that served a massive section of the nation.

From its headquarters in Philadelphia, in the second half of the nineteenth century the Pennsylvania Railroad acquired and built the lines that became a system stretching from New York to Washington (the Northeast Corridor) and west via Pittsburgh to Detroit, St. Louis, and Chicago. Although the Pennsylvania was a trunk line railroad that hauled passengers and general freight, the majority of its revenue came from carrying bulk commodities like bituminous coal and iron ore to industrial cities. The self-proclaimed “Standard Railroad of the World” operated a main line from New York to Chicago known as the “Broad Way” because it had a minimum of four tracks by the early twentieth century. In 1912, the railroad named its premier passenger train between New York and Chicago (via Philadelphia) The Broadway Limited, a name that continued to be used by the Pennsylvania and its successors until 1995.

Regional Railway Competitors

On a national scale, the Pennsylvania competed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with the Baltimore & Ohio (based in Baltimore but essentially serving the same region) and the Erie and the New York Central systems operating from New York. These four companies made up the major freight and passenger carriers in the Middle Atlantic and Midwestern regions when these areas were America’s industrial heartland. Like most American railroads, all four of these carriers hauled far more freight than passenger traffic. Philadelphia, like New York and Baltimore, was a major international port where shipping lines interchanged cargo from Europe and Latin America with the railroads.

[caption id="attachment_14704" align="alignright" width="195"]Postcard of the Reading Terminal, which opened in 1893. In 1890 the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company purchased this block on Market Street between Eleventh and Twelfth Streets for its new terminal, which opened in 1893. Reading Terminal became another grand passenger terminal in Center City, with its platforms and train shed extending behind the head house shown in this postcard view. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

The Pennsylvania’s main competitor in the Greater Philadelphia area, however, was the Reading, headquartered for its entire existence in Center City within walking distance of the offices of the Pennsylvania. The Reading spent its first four decades (from 1833 to 1870) hauling anthracite from central Pennsylvania to Philadelphia, but when the lawyer Franklin Benjamin Gowen (1836-89) became its president for the first of three occasions between 1870 and 1886, everything changed. Gowen wanted to build an integrated anthracite conglomerate that mined, shipped, and sold coal from Boston to Chicago. The fact that Pennsylvania law prohibited this was but a minor inconvenience to him. Gowen extended the Reading to New York, Allentown, Bethlehem, and Harrisburg. One of his successors in 1890s, Archibald McLeod, achieved Gowen’s dream of a railroad that stretched (on paper) from Boston to the Midwest, albeit briefly. Although the terms of both Gowen and McLeod ended in bankruptcy for the company, the reorganized Reading proved an effective regional competitor for the Pennsylvania for the remainder of its existence.

Both the Pennsylvania and Reading railroads exercised great political power throughout the region and the nation. For most of the second half of the nineteenth century, the Pennsylvania Railroad effectively controlled the state legislature in Harrisburg. Gowen, while president of the Reading, had himself appointed a special prosecutor of the Molly Maguires, who had allegedly acted against the railroad’s coal subsidiary. In a city and a state known for corruption, the railroads were wealthy corporations willing to spend to obtain what they wanted. By the early twentieth century, broad public disgust with corporate excess and corruption led to Progressive Era reforms that limited railroad power and earnings.

Growth of the Railway Web

During the last third of the nineteenth century, the railroads assisted in the dramatic physical transformation of the region. By 1900, the Pennsylvania, Reading, and Baltimore & Ohio (which extended its line from Baltimore to Wilmington and Philadelphia in 1886) had built an intricate web of lines that offered passenger service to virtually every community within thirty miles of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. The busiest lines had frequent and regular service all day long. The railroads also built large freight yards in the major cities and smaller yards in almost every town of any size. The massive Port Richmond terminal of the Reading in northeast Philadelphia included a freight yard along with coal and grain transfer facilities. All three systems built impressive passenger terminals in central Philadelphia that served as ceremonial gateways to the city. The main stations of the Pennsylvania (Broad Street, which opened in 1881 and was expanded in 1891-1892) and the Reading (Reading Terminal, opened in 1893) helped to spur development in Center City and the surrounding neighborhoods. The elevated approaches to these stations (especially the viaduct to Broad Street Station known as the “Chinese Wall” to Philadelphians) also hindered development in portions of city as they divided the urban landscape much the way expressways do today.

[caption id="attachment_14703" align="alignright" width="300"]A train leaving the Pennsylvania Railroad Broad Street Station in 1882. The Pennsylvania Railroad’s Broad Street Station was a large presence on Broad Street near City Hall (background, right), and the train sheds, pictured here in 1882, buzzed with arriving and departing traffic that helped make Pennsylvania an industrial giant in the nineteenth century.(PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

By the final decade of the nineteenth century, the Greater Philadelphia area was served by two integrated railroad systems that defined a region stretching from Atlantic City to Harrisburg and from Allentown to Wilmington. The Pennsylvania was a national trunk line that served the entire region except for the Lehigh Valley, while the Reading was a regional system that allied closely with the Baltimore & Ohio and New York Central to provide national services.

Change, both regulatory and technological, soon threatened both systems and railroads nationwide. As the country’s first large-scale private enterprises, railroads caused safety and financial concerns that led the industry to be regulated on both the state and national levels beginning in the late nineteenth century. At first railroads successfully fought many of these regulations but slowly accepted them. By the early twentieth century, power shifted from the railroads to the government. Federal and state agencies issued regulations that affected safety and pricing, and these rules often limited corporate earnings.

Around the same time that regulation began, technological changes created increased competition. First came electric trolleys, which carried passengers, some freight, and even mail in cities and the surrounding countryside. By the first decade of the twentieth century, the Pennsylvania concluded it could not compete with trolleys for short-distance riders and abandoned or downgraded its stations within five miles of Center City Philadelphia. To lessen expenses, the Pennsylvania also electrified its two busiest commuter lines in the region, to Paoli and Chestnut Hill.  After World War I, automobiles, buses, and trucks operating on taxpayer-paved streets and highways began to compete more effectively with the railways for a wide variety of traffic. More passenger lines in the region were abandoned, and this process accelerated in the Great Depression. Ridership declined so rapidly in southern New Jersey that the Pennsylvania and the Reading merged their competing lines between Camden and the Jersey Shore into one company in 1933 under pressure from the state government.

Twentieth-Century Declines

Passenger and freight traffic continued to decline in the 1920s and 1930s despite innovations such as mainline electric passenger and freight trains on Pennsylvania (eventually linking Philadelphia with Harrisburg, Washington, and New York), further electric commuter lines on the Pennsylvania and the Reading, the Reading’s stainless-steel Crusader between New York and Philadelphia, and two new Pennsylvania passenger stations—Broad Street Suburban Station and Pennsylvania (Thirtieth Street) Station. World War II reversed this trend temporarily, but after the war the declines resumed. The 1950s also saw an expansion of the airline industry, which adversely affected the railroads’ long distance passenger traffic. As losses mounted, more trains were abandoned and all railways in the region accelerated their conversion from steam to less-expensive-to-operate diesel locomotives. The Baltimore & Ohio abandoned all its passenger service between New York and Washington via Philadelphia in 1958.

In 1968, the Pennsylvania merged with the New York Central to form the ill-fated Penn Central. The Penn Central, headquartered in Philadelphia, declared bankruptcy just two years later. It was the nation’s largest railroad and its bankruptcy was the largest in American history at the time. As one consequence of the Penn Central debacle, many other struggling Mid-Atlantic railways became insolvent (including the Reading). The federal government intervened and created the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak) in 1971 and the Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail) in 1976. Amtrak took over most intercity passenger trains nationwide (among the exceptions were the Reading’s services to New York, Bethlehem, and Pottsville) while Conrail operated freight trains and initially commuter trains from Boston, New York, and Washington to Chicago and St. Louis. Conrail took over the operation of virtually all lines in Philadelphia, except for the freight-only line of the Baltimore & Ohio. Amtrak maintained an operational hub in Philadelphia, which also became the headquarters city for Conrail.

[caption id="attachment_14706" align="alignright" width="300"]Train derailment on the 120-year-old Arsenal Bridge in 2014. The Schuylkill Arsenal Bridge shown here was built during 1885–1886 by the Pennsylvania Railroad and was still in use when this photograph was taken in 2014. By the early twenty-first century, safety concerns were growing about aging sections of the nation's rail systems. The image shows work underway to right derailed cars from a CSX train transporting crude oil on the Arsenal Bridge crossing the Schuylkill River between West Philadelphia and South Philadelphia. (Photography by Donald D. Groff for the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

Philadelphia’s decline as a national railroad center began in 1998 when Conrail was purchased by its two main competitors: CSX and Norfolk Southern. Although Conrail continued to operate in certain areas (including Greater Philadelphia) as a jointly-owned switching line, for the first time since the 1830s no major railroad company was headquartered in the city. A few years later, in the early twenty-first century, Amtrak dramatically cut back the trains it originated in Philadelphia.

At the start of the twenty-first century, a wide variety of railroad operations served the Greater Philadelphia region. Commuter trains were run and funded by state agencies such as DART First State, New Jersey Transit, and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) over an area that stretched from Trenton, New Jersey, to Newark, Delaware, and from Atlantic City to Thorndale, Pennsylvania. In addition to the Northeast Corridor service between Boston and Richmond, Virginia, Amtrak provided long-distance passenger trains north to New England, south to Florida and New Orleans, and west to Pittsburgh. CSX and Norfolk Southern used the city as a hub on the national rail freight system. Conrail and a number of short-line railroads provided local freight service throughout the region. The ports in the region still generated a great deal of freight traffic for the railroads as the Philadelphia area continued to compete with Baltimore and New York as a gateway for international traffic. Although Philadelphia remained an important regional transportation hub, the city was no longer a center of national importance to the railway industry.

John Hepp is Associate Professor of History and co-chair of the Division of Global History and Languages at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and he teaches American urban and cultural history with an emphasis on the period 1800 to 1940.


The Port Authority Transit Corporation (PATCO) Speedline combined two sets of underutilized transit infrastructure to create a groundbreaking model for regional passenger transportation when it opened in 1969. It was one of Greater Philadelphia’s major public transportation successes of the mid twentieth century. In the early twentieth-first century, however, PATCO struggled to maintain both the infrastructure and relevance of the high-speed rail line from Center City Philadelphia and Camden to Lindenwold in suburban Camden County, New Jersey.

[caption id="attachment_5884" align="alignright" width="300"]photograph of a Patco train at City Hall Station A modern Port Authority Transit Corporation car at the City Hall Station. (Photograph for the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia by Kristen M. Rigaut)[/caption]

The earliest roots of the PATCO Speedline trace back to the passenger services of the Philadelphia region’s two dominant railroads, the Pennsylvania and the Reading. In the late nineteenth century, both systems ran extensive commuter rail operation in southern New Jersey radiating from Camden with ferry connections to Philadelphia. Many communities, such as Haddonfield, became early railroad suburbs. By the early twentieth century, however, the railroads began to cut back on this service because of competition from streetcars, buses, and automobiles. The completion of what is now known as the Benjamin Franklin Bridge in 1926 sped this decline. The railroads reacted by discontinuing more trains and, eventually in 1933, merging their southern New Jersey systems into one jointly owned company. Despite this combination, commuter train service continued to falter.   

The other key portion of what became PATCO was the Bridge Line, a subway that ran between Eighth and Market Streets in Philadelphia and central Camden (crossing over the bridge). Opened in 1936 by a predecessor of the Delaware River Port Authority, the line was owned by the bridge authority but operated initially by Philadelphia Rapid Transit (and later the Philadelphia Transportation Company). In 1951, the long-delayed Locust Street subway in Philadelphia opened and was integrated into the Camden line. The Bridge Line operated well under capacity for most of its independent existence.

In 1951, Pennsylvania and New Jersey created the Delaware River Port Authority, and among its charges was the creation of an integrated passenger rail system serving Philadelphia and its New Jersey suburbs. Initially the PATCO system was to consist of three lines with a new tunnel under the Delaware River, but by the 1960s the decision was made to construct only one of those lines and incorporate the existing Philadelphia to Camden subway into the system; both were cost-savings measures. The route from Camden to Lindenwold was built on the right-of-way of the railroad to Atlantic City (which had been one of the region’s earliest commuter lines).

Opened in 1969, the PATCO Speedline was an immediate success. It was also a model of transit innovation: The trains were among the first to be operated by computer, the line used an innovative advanced fare collections system, and all suburban stations incorporated park-and-ride facilities or coordinated local bus connections. Initially carrying 21,000 riders daily, by the early twenty-first century the number had increased to 38,000. New stations and additional rail cars subsequently allowed ridership to increase. Although most development in southern New Jersey followed the highway system during this period, the PATCO Speedline contributed to the region’s economic growth in two key ways. The park-and-ride lots drew suburban commuters from a broad area around the line, and the coordinated rail-bus schedules served both traditional and reverse commuters in the region.

Despite this success and various studies advocating either the extension of the existing line or the construction of one of the other proposed spurs, the PATCO Speedline has not expanded, largely due to high construction costs and local opposition. The next addition to local rail transportation in southern New Jersey, the River Line, opened in 2004, was not designed to coordinate well with the PATCO system. In the early twenty-first century, PATCO struggled to maintain its equipment and stations and faced decreasing rider satisfaction.

John Hepp is Associate Professor of History and co-chair of the Division of Global History and Languages at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He teaches American urban and cultural history with an emphasis on the period 1800 to 1940.


The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (better known by its acronym SEPTA) is a state authority charged with funding and operating public transportation in the city of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania counties of Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery. Created in 1963, SEPTA often struggled with management issues, employee morale, strikes, aging equipment, inadequate funding, and poor public relations. Despite its challenges, SEPTA became the sixth-largest transit agency in the United States in terms of weekly ridership of its complex system of subways, buses, trolleys, and commuter rail lines.

[caption id="attachment_13392" align="alignright" width="300"]SEPTA employees work on a commuter train that was stuck on the track because of overhead wire problems SEPTA employees work on a commuter train that was stuck on the track because of overhead wire problems one afternoon in July 2011. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

SEPTA is an example of the regional authorities formed to stem declines in urban public transportation nationwide after World War II.  The need for a regional approach for Philadelphia and its suburbs developed in the 1950s as the area’s largest provider of public transportation, the Philadelphia Transportation Company (PTC), declined financially and the two largest commuter rail providers (the Pennsylvania and Reading railroads) threatened service cuts and fare increases. Philadelphia initially led the response in 1960 by subsidizing service and purchasing equipment for use on commuter rail lines in the city through a state-created but city-funded agency, the Passenger Service Improvement Corporation (PSIC). Philadelphia then joined with three of its four suburban counties to form the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Compact (SEPACT) in 1961 to explore regional funding. Delaware County did not join the compact because the largest provider of transportation in the county was a private company that did not desire subsidies. Finally, Pennsylvania created SEPTA as a regional authority in 1963, and the SEPTA board (the existing SEPACT board plus representatives from Delaware County) held its first meeting on February 18, 1964.

Inherent in the way Pennsylvania founded SEPTA were two serious structural flaws that have caused political and operating issues for the authority. The SEPTA board has equal representation for each county, so that although Philadelphia has the bulk of service and ridership, it has the same vote as each suburban county. This has created political friction between the suburban counties, which tend to emphasize regional rail, and the city, which seeks higher levels of service and lower fares across the board. As a creation of the state of Pennsylvania, SEPTA also has struggled to deal with the reality of operating in a tri-state region. The agency offers few interline fares with transportation authorities in Delaware and New Jersey, and only Delaware has contributed to the costs of operating the regional rail system.   

SEPTA took over the functions of SEPACT and PSIC in 1965 and the next year entered into comprehensive subsidy arrangements with the Pennsylvania and Reading railroads. In 1968, it acquired the PTC and began operating public transportation services in the city and inner suburbs. Purchases of two private suburban companies in 1970 (Philadelphia Suburban Transportation, centered in Delaware County) and 1976 (Schuylkill Valley Lines with a hub in Norristown) completed SEPTA’s first phase of acquisitions. This phase established SEPTA’s initial structure: the bus, trolley, and subway lines operated by the authority with the commuter rail lines funded by SEPTA but operated by others (first the Pennsylvania and the Reading and, after 1976, Conrail).

[caption id="attachment_13406" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of people standing in a hall way, holding protest signs. The group of people fills the hallway, and most of the people are wearing casual clothes. In the foreground of the image are some people with their backs turned to the camera. In 1980, demonstrators fill the hallway in front of the mayor's office to protest a SEPTA fare increase from 50 cents to 65 cents. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

In 1983, SEPTA was forced to take over the direct operation of the region’s commuter rail lines by a federal law that allowed Conrail to withdraw from the operation of commuter trains. Because of poor planning by SEPTA, the transfer was extremely difficult and commuters suffered disruptions in service. Initially SEPTA ceased all commuter trains in the region and then, under court order, restored limited service. Shortly thereafter, a three-month strike by the rail unions caused all service to be suspended again. With exceptions of the completion of the Center City Commuter Tunnel (linking the old Reading and Pennsylvania rail lines) in 1984 and the rail line to the airport in 1986, SEPTA’s operation of commuter rail service became a story of service cutbacks, line abandonments, and fare increases.

It was not until the early twenty-first century that service and fares on the rail lines stabilized. As the second decade of the twenty-first century unfolded, SEPTA succeeded in increasing ridership, replenishing its rolling stock with more than 400 new rail cars, and improving its on-time performance. In fiscal 2013, total ridership was at 337.3 million trips, with an average weekday ridership of about one million trips. Despite this positive news, an increased operating deficit raised the possibility the system might have to shrink.

From its founding, SEPTA struggled with structural, funding, and management issues. In addition, as a creation of Pennsylvania, it has had difficulty serving a region that does not end at state lines. These issues, along with the growth of reverse commuting and labor strife, continued to challenge SEPTA and its riders in the early twenty-first century.

John Hepp is Associate Professor of History and co-chair of the Division of Global History and Languages at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He teaches American urban and cultural history with an emphasis on the period 1800 to 1940.

Artifact: Street Car Model

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[pano file="Streetcar-VR-cm/FINAL.html" width="570" height="325"]
Model of a nineteenth-century horse-drawn streetcar. (Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, transferred from Philadelphia Transportation Company, 1942, Photograph by Sara Hawken)

This fascinating model of a horse-drawn streetcar links with the transportation history of late-nineteenth-century Philadelphia as well as the social and cultural history of the city over the last two centuries. Although we do not know precisely who produced this model or exactly when it was made, we can learn a great deal from studying it. The model was donated by the Philadelphia Transportation Company (PTC) to the then-new Atwater Kent Museum in 1942, just a year after the museum opened, and was likely produced for the PTC (or its corporate predecessor, the Philadelphia Rapid Transit) to illustrate improvements made in the city’s public transportation system over the previous century.

[caption id="attachment_21704" align="alignright" width="300"]A horse-drawn streetcar of the same type depicted by the model is portrayed here traveling on Tenth Street north of Walnut (passing the original building of Jefferson College and Hospital). (Library Company of Philadelphia) A horse-drawn streetcar of the same type depicted by the model is portrayed here traveling on Tenth Street north of Walnut (passing the original building of Jefferson College and Hospital). (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

What can we learn about horse-drawn streetcars in Philadelphia from the model? First, in common with many mid-nineteenth-century horse-drawn streetcars, this is a single-ended vehicle with a driver’s platform at front and its only passenger access at the rear. This would have required a two-person crew (driver and conductor) and either a track loop or a turntable (not common) in order to reverse the vehicle at the end of its trip. On the front platform we can see the driver’s brake, which was used on most routes like a parking brake on a modern car, not to control the speed (the horses did that) but to hold the streetcar in place after the horses were detached. The fact that the car is pulled by two horses suggests it is a heavier or larger vehicle than streetcars pulled by one horse. The clerestory roof provided light and ventilation, as well as some welcome extra headroom over the aisle. We can even identify the car’s route because of the lettering on its side. Under the windows, the line is identified as the busy “Tenth & Eleventh” streets route (the “3” at center is the car number).

The horse-drawn streetcars represented by this model were the second of three transportation revolutions that transformed the residential patterns of Philadelphia in the nineteenth century for the middle and upper classes, who could afford the fares on a daily basis. The first transformation occurred in 1831, with the introduction of the horse-drawn omnibuses that allowed business owners and senior “clerks” (salaried workers) to live more than walking distance away from their firms the central business district (then centered on Second and Third streets). One of the omnibus routes (Jacob Peter’s Citizens Line) connected North Tenth Street with the business district and served a small part of the line that would become the streetcar route depicted by the model.

[caption id="attachment_21705" align="alignright" width="222"]Horse-drawn streetcars, as seen at Twelfth and Filbert Streets in this c. 1870 advertisement, changed the residential organization of the city. (Library Company of Philadelphia) Horse-drawn streetcars, as seen at Twelfth and Filbert Streets in this c. 1870 advertisement, changed the residential patterns of the city. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

The horse-drawn streetcars of the late 1850s were an evolutionary change from the technology of the omnibuses, essentially omnibus bodies that traveled on rails laid in the streets instead of the street surface. This small change allowed for a smoother and a faster journey. Operators could cover an expanded range with fewer horses and cars. The final nineteenth-century transportation change came when these horse-drawn streetcars were replaced by electric trolleys in the 1890s.  The route represented by this model was electrified on May 1, 1894, by the Electric Traction Company.

This model is a streetcar from the Citizens’ Passenger Railway Company, which initially ran from Tenth Street and Montgomery Avenue in North Philadelphia to Eleventh and Reed streets in South Philadelphia. Started on July 29, 1858, it was the third line in the city to begin service as a street railway. Above the windows of the model (you may have to zoom in to read the gold lettering on cream background) is emblazoned the northern terminus of this line as “Susquehanna & Dauphin” in North Philadelphia. This seeming geographic error (Susquehanna and Dauphin are parallel streets) actually helps to date with some precision the period depicted by the model. The Citizens’ Passenger Railway Company extended the northern terminus of the line to Colona Street (between Susquehanna and Dauphin streets) in December 1890, when it opened a new depot there to house the cars and horses. The route was converted to electric trolleys on May 1, 1894, so this model depicts the last three and a half years of the line’s use by horse-drawn streetcars.

[caption id="attachment_17373" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photo of an Italianate twin mansion built as part of Woodland Terrace, West Philadelphia. Streetcars opened new areas to development. One of the earliest streetcar suburbs in Philadelphia, shown here, was Woodland Terrace, designed by Samuel Sloan in 1861. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Beyond the realm of public transport and real estate development, this model also has two interesting connections with the civil rights movement in Philadelphia. Initially, all of the city’s horse-drawn streetcar companies restricted ridership by race. Some required African Americans passengers to ride on the outer platforms, and others segregated entire cars by race. In 1867, following lobbying by African American civil rights activists William Still (1821-1902) and Octavius Catto (1839-71), a new state law ended transit segregation in Pennsylvania. Just three days later, however, on a Lombard Street car similar to the model, a conductor refused service to Caroline LeCount (1846-1923), an African American women and civil rights activist. She had the police arrest the conductor for violating the new law.

The long battle to end segregation was just beginning in the late-nineteenth century. Just two years after the PTC donated this model to Atwater Kent Museum, the company became subject to the largest labor action during World War II when its all-white unions struck for a week to prevent the PTC from hiring African American motormen and conductors. Because of the strike’s impact on war production, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) authorized the Army to take control of the transit system and five thousand troops were sent to Philadelphia to end the strike.

This simple model tells us a great deal about not just public transportation in Philadelphia in the nineteenth century after 1854 but everyday life in the city as well. Technological change was a constant; the horse-drawn streetcars that were emblematic of the Centennial City of 1876 were completely replaced by electric trolleys just twenty-one years later. These horse-drawn streetcars allowed the middle classes to leave the heterogeneous neighborhoods of the walking city and begin the development of what would later be known as streetcar suburbs.

Text by John Hepp, associate professor of history and co-chair of the Division of Global Cultures: History, Languages & Philosophy at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where he teaches American urban and cultural history with an emphasis on the period 1800 to 1940.



For more than 150 years streetcars have served the Philadelphia area and helped Center City Philadelphia retain its commercial, retail, and entertainment supremacy in an ever-expanding region. Although the motive power switched from horses to electricity (with short detours into steam and cable), most change has been evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Perhaps the greatest transformation took place in the early twentieth century when the combination of rising working-class wages and regulated fares allowed streetcars, once a middle-class means of transport, to become a key component of a truly heterogeneous mass transit system. Because of the streetcars’ importance to urban life, twice they played key roles in the civil rights movement in Philadelphia.

[caption id="attachment_6322" align="alignright" width="300"]horse-drawn streetcar, photograph The horse-drawn streetcar was introduced in 1858 and operated in Philadelphia until around 1897, when electric trolley cars became a more reliable and less expensive alternative. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

The first streetcars in the region, running on steel rails and pulled by horses, began operating on the Frankford and Southwark Philadelphia City Passenger Railway Company on January 20, 1858. Quickly the routes pioneered by the first form of on-street public transportation, the omnibus, became street railways. The steel rails made for a smoother and a faster journey for passengers. The result for the operators was an expanded range, and fewer horses and cars were needed to maintain the level of service that the omnibus had provided.

By the early 1860s, streetcars had replaced omnibuses throughout the city. Streetcar fares were lower than those charged by the omnibuses but still remained high enough that most regular riders were middle class or above. Although streetcars were credited with allowing middle-class women to travel freely throughout the city, there were two notable restrictions on patronage in the early years: Blacks were not permitted to ride on the cars and there was no Sunday service. Between 1859 and 1867, after African Americans protested the racial restriction on ridership,  a few lines allowed black passengers (some on segregated cars).  Although white passengers in the city voted to continue the racial restrictions, civil rights activists William Still and Octavius Catto moved the debate to Harrisburg and Pennsylvania opened the streetcars to all in March 1867. Also that year, Philadelphia became the last city in the country to institute Sunday streetcar service.

The City Expands

Expansion of Philadelphia’s streetcar network allowed middle-class families to move to new residential areas like West Philadelphia east of Fortieth Street and lower North Philadelphia. These developments in areas annexed to the city by the Consolidation of 1854 became the region’s first streetcar “suburbs.”  

Streetcar service also expanded throughout the region in the 1850s and 1860s. The rails allowed the streetcars to operate in areas where poorly paved or unpaved streets had prevented omnibus service. Trenton, Camden, and Atlantic City in New Jersey had streetcars, as did Norristown and Darby in Pennsylvania.

By the Centennial year of 1876, Philadelphia could claim the largest street railway system in the country. Although true, this claim was also a result of the city’s many narrow, one-way streets that meant that many streetcars traveled out of the city on one street, then returned on another, thus doubling the length of track in use. But all was not well on the system despite an annual ridership of over 100 million passengers. In 1872 the Great Epizootic, a fast-moving equine flu, affected most horses throughout the nation. Although many horses recovered, the outbreak caused streetcar operators to consider other means of power. Operators first tried steam engines on the street railways in 1876 and 1877-8, but these were unsuccessful and unpopular.

In 1883 a trio of entrepreneurs, William Kemble, Peter A. B. Widener, and William Lukens Elkins, formed the Philadelphia Traction Company to acquire existing streetcar lines and convert them to cable operation. The higher costs of the cable car infrastructure started the consolidation of the various routes into larger concerns despite restrictions on mergers and cross-ownership (usually avoided by the use of long-term leases and holding companies).

By the mid-1880s, however, the electric trolley was invented and it was clearly the technology of the future. Unfortunately Philadelphia Traction’s investment in cable cars and the small size of most other companies contributed to Philadelphia’s slow adoption of trolleys (as did safety and aesthetic concerns among the public). Following the conservative Kemble’s death in 1891, Widener decided to abandon cable operation for electrification. The first electric line on Bainbridge and Catharine streets opened in 1892, and the horse cars made their final runs in Philadelphia just five years later. In 1895 Widener and Elkins formed the Union Traction Company and within three years it controlled nearly all the lines in the city. To help increase off-peak ridership, the company built a large amusement park at Willow Grove in the northern suburbs in 1895. One of the region’s other successful amusement parks, Woodside in Fairmount Park, was owned by the Fairmount Park Transportation Company, which operated a popular trolley line through the park from 1897 to 1946.

Beyond City Limits

Starting in the 1890s and continuing for the first two decades of the twentieth century trolleys expanded throughout Philadelphia’s suburbs. Initially from Sixty-third Street in West Philadelphia (and after 1907 from the Sixty-ninth Street Terminal in Upper Darby), routes of the Philadelphia & West Chester Traction (later known as “Red Arrow Lines") went to West Chester (1899), Ardmore (1902), Media (1913), and Sharon Hill (1917). In Norristown routes from Berks County and the Lehigh Valley met lines from Philadelphia. Southern New Jersey developed its own intricate systems centered on Camden and Trenton.

The expansion of the lines, combined with the construction of the Market Street Subway-Elevated through West Philadelphia, allowed for “streetcar suburbs” to become commonplace throughout the region. In the city itself, middle-class development moved steadily in virtually all directions from the core. The Red Arrow Lines allowed for the development of much of Delaware County, and other trolley lines opened up portions of eastern Montgomery and southern Bucks counties in Pennsylvania. In Camden County, New Jersey, the Public Service Railway owned the bulk of the network that allowed for the development of suburbs like Collingswood and Haddonfield.

In order to build the Market Street Subway-Elevated, the Widener-Elkins interests formed the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company (PRT) to take over Union Traction in 1902 and this new corporation and its financial structure would adversely affect the streetcars. The PRT struggled because of its huge debts and large annual lease payments and, in 1911, following two violent strikes, Thomas Eugene Mitten (with the backing of the banking firm of Drexel, Morgan) took over the company. Mitten began to purchase new cars (known as the “Nearside Cars”), modernize the system, and improve both employee and passenger relations. From 1920 onward, however, expansion of the PRT’s trolley lines effectively came to a halt as the company switched to using buses and trackless trolleys on new routes.

Although suburban trolley service began to contract in the 1930s as lines closed and were replaced by buses, the PRT system in the city remained largely intact (as did the Red Arrow system in Delaware County). Following Mitten’s death in 1929, the PRT struggled again and declared bankruptcy in 1934. Near the end of its existence, the PRT in 1938 placed in service a small number of modern, streamlined streetcars: the PCCs. In 1940 the PRT reorganized as the Philadelphia Transportation Company (PTC) under the control of Albert M. Greenfield, a real estate developer and civic leader, and continued to order PCC cars.

[caption id="attachment_7011" align="alignright" width="300"]Shipyard workers during the Philadelphia Transportation Company strike, photograph Shipyard workers during the Philadelphia Transportation Company strike in 1944 struggled to find daily transportation and often relied on the few military vehicles that attempted to replace normal streetcar and subway service. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]


Wildcat Strike

On August 1, 1944, a wildcat strike took place on the PTC to protest the hiring of African Americans in skilled positions (such as motormen and conductors). The protest, the largest U.S. labor action during World War II, lasted for a week and adversely affected war production. The NAACP moved to end the strike quickly and worked with many community organizations to ensure equal treatment and moderate violence. Because of the strike’s impact on war production, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the Army to take control of the transit system and 5,000 heavily armed soldiers were sent to Philadelphia to end the strike.

After the end of WWII, the PTC bought more PCC cars to modernize its existing streetcar system. In 1955, National City Lines (owned by General Motors and oil and rubber companies) acquired control of the PTC and quickly replaced twenty-four trolley routes with buses and abandoned over two hundred miles of track.

Despite National City Lines’ efforts, Philadelphia retained a large network of trolleys through the 1970s. In 1968  the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) acquired the PTC and initially no changes took place in the existing streetcar network. However, in 1975 a fire at the Woodland car barn destroyed approximately sixty of the PCC cars and SEPTA began to abandon trolley routes again. Following the purchase of new streetcars for the subway-surface lines in West Philadelphia in the early 1980s, SEPTA retired its PCC cars and abandoned all remaining surface streetcars by 1992. In 2005, SEPTA rebuilt a small fleet of PCC cars and reintroduced streetcar service on the Route 15 between Port Richmond and West Philadelphia via the Philadelphia Zoo.

In the suburbs, very few streetcars lines survived the Great Depression. The notable exception was the Red Arrow system radiating from Sixty-ninth Street Terminal.  Although buses replaced the trolleys to West Chester in 1954 and Ardmore in 1966, the two remaining routes (to Media and Sharon Hill) are today still operated by SEPTA, which acquired Red Arrow in 1970. Starting in 1981, SEPTA reequipped both lines with a fleet of trolleys similar to the cars used on the subway-surface lines in the city.

John Hepp is associate professor of history and co-chair of the Division of Global History and Languages at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where he teaches American urban and cultural history with an emphasis on the period 1800 to 1940.

Public Transportation

For more than three centuries public transportation has helped both to shape and define the Greater Philadelphia region. Befitting one of the world’s largest cities, Philadelphia and its hinterland have been served by a bewildering array of transportation options, and these vehicles and routes have helped to define the extent of the region.

Public transportation – consisting of vehicles that operate on fixed routes used by the public – began in the region in 1688 with a ferry between Philadelphia and what is now Camden, New Jersey. This early line, though not a success, spawned additional ferry service and quickly established a Philadelphia hinterland in New Jersey. It was an early example of land outside Pennsylvania being tied economically and culturally to the city and established a precedent for southern New Jersey to develop in association with Philadelphia.

It would be more than one hundred years before local public transportation extended beyond ferries, but during the early nineteenth century an explosion of options developed as the city sought to expand both physically within the region and economically across the region and nation. In December 1831, Philadelphia ceased to be a walking city for those who could afford the fares of the new omnibus service in the city and its immediate suburbs in the county. The next year saw the introduction of commuter trains on the Philadelphia, Germantown & Norristown Rail Road, which allowed the middle classes and above to separate home from work not just within the city but also in portions of Philadelphia County like East Falls, Germantown, and Chestnut Hill, and in neighboring Montgomery County. 

Not long after Philadelphia’s political consolidation in 1854, the streetcar, a technological change in public transportation, became the vehicle that allowed the city’s grid to expand throughout the once rural county. On January 20, 1858, the first streetcars in the region began to be operated by the Frankford and Southwark Philadelphia City Passenger Railway Company. These horse-drawn streetcars quickly replaced omnibuses as the streetcars were larger, quicker, and more profitable. Soon the streetcars extended throughout the region to areas previously poorly served by public transportation. Coupled with an expansion in commuter rail service, Philadelphia could justly claim one of the finest transportation systems in country by the time of the nation’s Centennial Exhibition in 1876.

Network of Streetcars and Trains

[caption id="attachment_5756" align="alignright" width="300"]print depicting Cooper's Ferry Cooper's Ferry helped to establish an early transportation link between Philadelphia, all of New Jersey, and New York. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

By the 1880s, middle-class Philadelphians had a more-than-adequate system of horse-drawn streetcars and steam-hauled commuter trains to serve their transportation needs in both the booming metropolis and its expanding hinterland in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The lines of privately-owned streetcar companies occupied every major (and many minor) streets in Center City and extended southward, westward, and northward from the original urban core along the Delaware River into the adjoining neighborhoods. In addition to these routes centered on the business district, a large number of local lines operated in the other densely populated portions of the city like West Philadelphia.

Commuter trains served not only the city but also the larger region. The 1870s and 1880s were a period of transition for the railroads; some lines had quite intensive service while others still had surprisingly few trains. Overall, however, the steam trains were not used by many middle-class Philadelphians for their daily commute in 1880 simply because all of the downtown termini were a long walk or  streetcar ride from the business district. By 1893, all three rail systems serving the city relocated their main facilities to Center City, and the daily commute by steam train became more viable for those who could afford the fares. The electric trolley, introduced in the mid-1890s after a brief and unsuccessful flirtation with cable cars, quickly became the typical mode of middle-class transport and eventually served as a symbol of the late-nineteenth century. In just five years, from 1892 to 1897, trolleys replaced all the horse-drawn streetcars and cable cars in the city. 

In addition to a reasonably well-to-do ridership, all forms of public transportation in the region had comparatively low entry costs and only moderate regulation, and, through the 1860s, this meant that most providers were small, specialized organizations with just one or a few routes. Railroad and streetcar companies tended to go where their names claimed and not elsewhere. For example, a potential passenger knew the ultimate destination of a West Chester & Philadelphia train. Following the Civil War, however, a period of intense competition between long-distance railroads (such as Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Railroad) brought about consolidation in the railway industry nationally in the 1870s and 1880s. Technological changes, such as cable cars and electric trolleys at approximately the same time, encouraged similar mergers in the streetcar industry. The result was a dramatic transformation from a competitive environment in the 1860s of many small companies to a monopoly streetcar company in the city, known by 1902 as the Philadelphia Rapid Transit (PRT), and only two railroad systems – the Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia & Reading. Combined, by 1900 these two companies provided virtually all passenger rail services for a region that stretched from the Jersey Shore to Harrisburg.

A combination of events in the 1890s began the shift from nineteenth-century public transportation, serving primarily the middle classes and above, to twentieth-century mass transportation aimed at moving as many people as possible. Some of the changes were largely technological: the development of subways and elevated railways and electric streetcars allowed for lower fares. Coupled with these technological changes often were political changes. New franchise agreements allowed for increased government regulation at a time when both politicians and civic boosters envisioned a New Philadelphia in which working-class Philadelphians could live at greater distances from their work. Other changes were economic with political ramifications. Although the organizers of the new monopoly traction company in Philadelphia became quite wealthy, service deteriorated and strikes increased, creating a political consensus that more government planning and regulation was needed in public transportation. The most important change, however, was that rising working-class wages, together with falling or static fares, allowed more people to ride the trolleys and subways more often for work, shopping, and pleasure.

Market Street Subway-Elevated

[caption id="attachment_5754" align="alignright" width="300"]print depicting the Green Street depot On November 24, 1832, the first steam-powered train to run in Philadelphia carried commuters from the central city to Germantown with a stop at the Green Street station. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Technological change continued in the early twentieth century. The Market Street Subway-Elevated opened between 1905 and 1908, offering the city its first rapid transit line which, when coupled with suburban trolleys, gave the region its first affordable high-speed system. Because of the financial weakness of the private company that instituted the line, the city took the lead in subway-elevated development over the next few decades, extending the original line to Frankford in 1922 and opening the Broad Street Subway in sections between 1928 and 1932. Although the trolleys and the subway-elevated caused the commuter railroads to lose some riders, the two major companies embarked on an electrification program of their own and between 1906 and 1933 modernized major portions of their commuter rail network.

Another late-nineteenth-century invention, the internal combustion engine, had the greatest effect on public transportation in the region in the twentieth century. By the 1910s, motorized buses began to operate on the streets of the Philadelphia area. The PRT and other transit companies on both sides of the Delaware River initially used buses to supplement trolley routes but by the 1920s, began use buses to replace streetcars. Buses offered transit companies two advantages. First was more operating flexibility, as a bus could detour around an obstacle that would delay a trolley. The other was lower capital costs as buses operated on public highways while trolleys needed privately maintained rails.

In addition to the buses operated by the established, regulated transit companies, a new form of public transportation came to the region: the jitney. Jitneys were unregulated buses operated by private individuals, usually in competition with existing transit companies. The jitneys usually charged lower fares but often only operated during peak hours and on peak routes when they could be assured of heavy ridership. Although jitneys could be found throughout the metropolis, they were extremely popular in New Jersey, perhaps because that state had a particularly good public highway system.

Despite the advent of the automobile, for the first third of the twentieth century most  residential development still followed the railroad and trolley lines. Even for the Philadelphians who could afford an automobile, the car remained more of a toy for weekend exploration than a family’s primary means of transport until midcentury.

Depression Hurts Public Transit

The Great Depression had many negative effects on the public transportation of the region. Both railroad systems cut back on their commuter services, and their lines in southern New Jersey to the shore – once fiercely competitive – were merged to create the Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines. Many small suburban trolley lines were abandoned, and other larger systems converted the electric streetcars to buses. In Philadelphia, the PRT declared bankruptcy and emerged in 1940 as the Philadelphia Transportation Company (PTC). The city’s ambitious rapid transit construction program slowed and then stopped. 

Although public transportation ridership rose greatly during World War II, this increase was temporary. At the end of the war, automobile ownership increased and middle-class families left the older sections of the city for the car-friendly Great Northeast and suburbs. By the 1950s, the PTC was owned by National City Lines, a bus-friendly company that continued abandoning streetcar lines, and both the Pennsylvania and Reading railroads were cutting commuter service in response to growing losses.

In reaction to these declines in service, local and state governments became increasingly involved in public transportation starting in the late 1950s. In 1960, the City of Philadelphia began subsidizing service and purchasing equipment for use on commuter rail lines in the city to Chestnut Hill and Manayunk. The South Eastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) began to coordinate and fund all public transportation in Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania suburbs in 1965. SEPTA bought new equipment and built the Center City Commuter Connection in 1984 to link the former Pennsylvania and Reading systems. Similar changes happened in New Jersey, where the state initially funded train and bus services and later took over their operation. Perhaps the region’s most significant change at this time was the construction of the Lindenwold High Speed Line in New Jersey by the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA). This line opened in 1969 and featured air-conditioned and computer-operated trains. More recently, New Jersey Transit opened the River Line between Trenton and Camden in 2004 and ridership has been well ahead of estimates. 

Hubs and Spokes

[caption id="attachment_5755" align="alignright" width="300"]photograph showing construction of the Market Frankford Elevated Subway This photograph from 1916 shows construction of the Market Frankford Elevated Subway on 189 Front Street in Philadelphia.  (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

By the first decades of the twenty-first century, public transportation in the Greater Philadelphia region centered on a few hubs (Trenton and Camden in New Jersey; Wilmington in Delaware; Chester, Norristown and Upper Darby in Pennsylvania; and Center City for the region) with spokes extending throughout the city, suburbs, exurban towns, and countryside. Along these spokes rows of working- and middle-class homes attested to public transportation’s role in shaping the region, and retail and commercial districts remained around lesser transit hubs like Frankford and Upper Darby. Because of its extensive public transportation system, Philadelphia had a lower than average car ownership rate for an American city. “Reverse commuting,” boarding a train or bus in the city to a job in the suburbs, also became increasingly common and new transportation hubs, like Plymouth Meeting and King of Prussia, continued to develop.

Public transportation faces a wide range of challenges from uncertain funding to the need to serve jobs in the suburbs with new hubs and routes. The four major public transportation providers in the region -- SEPTA, DRPA, New Jersey Transit and DART First State—will have to adapt to these changes as the region’s transportation needs continue to evolve, as did their predecessors for more than three hundred years.


John Hepp is associate professor of history and co-chair of the Division of Global History and Languages at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and he teaches American urban and cultural history with an emphasis on the period 1800 to 1940.

Subways and Elevated Lines

Philadelphia’s subway and elevated network consists of four lines that connect with other transportation options to serve much of the region. Although the network is relatively simple compared with systems in other cities, its history is complex. It took over eight decades to plan and to build, and its construction required a variety of public-private partnerships. More recently, public agencies have worked to update and to modernize the network.

[caption id="attachment_5884" align="alignright" width="300"]photograph of a PATCO subway car at City Hall station A modern Port Authority Transit Corporation car at the City Hall Station in Camden. (Kristen M. Rigaut)[/caption]

Agitation for a rapid transit system for Philadelphia began shortly after the Centennial Exhibition of 1876, although a contemporary history of the fair proclaimed Philadelphia’s horse-drawn street railways constituted “the best system of street transportation in the Union.”  In the 1880s and 1890s, those who wanted better transit often allied themselves with other boosters who sought a “New Philadelphia,” and both groups agreed that this should include separating home from work for more Philadelphians by developing rapid transit. Philadelphia and the region experimented with a variety of transportation alternatives at this time, including new steam railway stations in Center City approached by elevated tracks, cable and steam-powered streetcars, and eventually electric trolleys.  The extensive electric trolley network provided the city with effective short distance transportation, and the steam railroad commuter trains gave the region expensive but high-speed, longer distance service.

Despite all these changes, Philadelphia still faced a rapid transit crisis in 1900. The city was growing fast and lacked adequate high-speed, inexpensive mass transportation to accommodate the growing demands for commuting, shopping, and enjoying parks and other places of recreation. Looking at other cities, Philadelphians could see two possible solutions. London had pioneered the steam-powered subway in 1862 and opened a more practical electrically powered line in 1890. New York City offered the competing vision: it had used steam-powered elevated trains since 1871. Subways were more expensive to construct but less disruptive on the physical environment after they were built while the cheaper elevated railways were both unsightly and noisy.

Rapid Transit Arrives

After decades of debate, in 1901 Pennsylvania approved a rapid transit ordinance for Philadelphia that allowed for both subway and elevated lines. Franchises were quickly granted, but in the best tradition of machine politics (in this case it was the Matthew Quay machine in Harrisburg), this rapid movement was more about political retribution than urban transit. The William L. Elkins-Peter A. B. Widener syndicate, owners of the near-monopoly trolley company in Philadelphia, had not supported Quay’s candidacy in the previous election. The franchises went to political allies of Quay, who eventually transferred them all (at high cost) to the Elkins-Widener group that then raced to complete the lines within five years, as required by the franchises.

Philadelphia Rapid Transit (the final name of the Elkins-Widener property in the city and commonly known as the PRT) promptly started construction on the Market Street line but had trouble raising money because of its large debt from previous transit projects. Eventually in 1907, the PRT and the city negotiated an agreement that gave the city limited oversight of the PRT in exchange for regulatory and subway route changes (including transferring the franchises for the remaining lines to the city). The PRT first began operating the subway-surface cars between Fifteenth Street and the Schuylkill River in 1905. Regular subway-elevated service began on March 4, 1907, between the Fifteenth Street and Sixty-Ninth Street stations (although not all stations on the elevated portion of the route west of the Schuylkill were open initially). This subway service was extended to Second Street station on August 3, 1908, and a little over a month later the elevated loop that served the ferry termini on Delaware Avenue opened. 

This initial line served four important purposes and was a model for future transit development. It dramatically reduced trolley congestion on the streets of Center City. It also allowed the department stores, theatres, and offices of Center City to reach a larger market. It encouraged the residential development of West Philadelphia beyond about Fortieth Street and connected with crosstown trolley lines throughout West Philadelphia, opening even more land for development. Finally, it helped establish patterns in suburban development by turning Upper Darby (where the Market Street line interchanged with suburban transportation lines) into a key commercial and transit node.

After the completion of the Market Street line, the city took the lead role in rapid transit planning and funding in the region until the 1960s. It established a Bureau of City Transit in 1912 that created a master transportation plan for Philadelphia. Although most of the proposed lines were never built,  this report provided the blueprint for twentieth-century developments.

El Extends to Frankford

The city first built an elevated extension of the Market Street line to Frankford in Northeast Philadelphia and began construction at the same time on the City Hall station of the proposed Broad Street subway and a Center City subway loop. In 1917, although work continued on the Frankford elevated, it halted on the other lines. The city also purchased the cars necessary to operate the extension and leased both the cars and the line to the PRT, which began operation in 1922. The final two stations in Frankford became transportation hubs that allowed for the development of Northeast Philadelphia. The city next started work on the Broad Street subway. The PRT opened this line between Olney and City Hall in 1928 and two years later extended it to South Street. A branch under Ridge Avenue to Eighth and Market streets opened in 1932.

[caption id="attachment_6036" align="alignright" width="300"]photograph of construction of the Locust Street subway Construction of the Locust Street subway in 1917 left sections of the road closed. as workers dug under pre-existing infrastructure.(PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

During the Great Depression subway construction slowed and the only contraction in the system’s history occurred. Although the tunnels for the Broad Street line to Snyder Avenue in South Philadelphia were completed in 1933, the line did not open until 1938 because of funding issues. The tunnels for the Locust Street line, started in 1917, were completed by 1931, but it did not open until after the war. The Delaware River Joint Commission (now the DRPA) opened a line over what is now the Benjamin Franklin Bridge between Eighth and Market streets in Philadelphia and Broadway in Camden in 1936, operated by the PRT. In 1939, the PRT abandoned the elevated structure on Delaware Avenue due to declining ridership on the ferries because of the bridge.

Since World War II, only five modifications to this system were completed.  In 1953, the long-delayed Locust Street subway began operation as part of the Broad Street and Camden systems. The Market Street subway was extended westward under the Schuylkill River to a new portal after the Fortieth Street station, and the corresponding section of the elevated was abandoned in 1955. The next year, the Broad Street line was extended one stop northward to a park and ride facility at Fern Rock. The most significant change to the system occurred in the 1960s when the underutilized Locust Street line was transferred to the DRPA, which combined it with the Camden line and extended it to Lindenwold, New Jersey (on the route of a lightly used railroad commuter line serving Camden). This Port Authority Transit Corporation (PATCO) line opened in 1969 and featured air-conditioned and computer-operated trains. It helped to further economic development in South Jersey and to maintain Eighth and Market Streets (where it connects with the Market-Frankford subway) as a major transportation and shopping hub in the city. Most of its suburban stations were provided with large parking lots and local bus connections. Finally, in 1973, the Broad Street line was extended southward to Pattison Avenue (now AT&T station) to serve the sports complex.


John Hepp is associate professor of history at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where he teaches American urban and cultural history with an emphasis on the period 1800 to 1940.

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