The History of Reading Viaduct Project
Philadelphia Story: The Railroads
Philadelphia Story: The Railroads
Schuylkill in Fairmount Park
“By 1838, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad started construction on a line that would run from Broad and Callowhill Streets in Philadelphia,
The Railroads Story
The first railroad to have passenger service from Philadelphia was the Philadelphia, Germantown and Norristown Railroad, which in 1832, started service between 9th and Green Streets in Philadelphia and Germantown. The first wood-burning steam engine manufactured in the US by Baldwin Locomotive Works called “Old Ironsides” was used on that line. The first steel rails were 30 pounds per yard, imported from England and mounted onto stones. When the stones proved too brittle, railroad ties eventually replaced them. On the West Side of the Schuylkill, the Belmont Inclined Plane Railroad was built and eventually taken over and rerouted by the Pennsylvania Railroad.
The Philadelphia, Germantown and Norristown Railroad by the fall of 1834 had branched into Manayunk. Horses pulled the first trains into Manayunk, from the lack of the Railroad having additional steam engines.
The first passenger coaches were like stagecoaches on train wheels with the luggage compartment on the roof. There were usually five strung together to make the train. The fare to Manayunk was 25 cents, but preferred over traditional stagecoach since it followed a direct, unobstructed route. The railroad by the following Spring of 1835 had made its way to Norristown, cut from the banks of the Schuylkill River. More steam engines were put into service. The train rode at street level in Manayunk, but continued along the banks of the Schuylkill as it does today, to Norristown (the current station in use at Cresson Street, Manayunk, was elevated in 1928).
The oldest passenger railroad station in the United States is Shawmont Station in the Shawmont section of Roxborough and is along SEPTA’s R6 line to Norristown. With little parking and a short platform, the station was closed in 1991; however, the train still goes by as it did in 1834, and stops at nearby adjacent stations (Ivy Ridge and Miquon). Just imagine-about 2.000,000 trains have passed by Shawmont station.
The stagecoach-style passenger coach eventually became an enclosed coach with a wood-burning stove. The wood burning engine became a coal-burning engine and the 30-lb. rails were enlarged to 50 pound to accommodate larger, heavier and faster engines. The average rails used today are 140 pound. New passenger railroads were popping up with some having junctions to the Norristown line. The Plymouth Railroad ran from Conshohocken to Oreland through Plymouth and Flourtown (mostly removed in the 1980’s). The Stony Creek Railroad ran from Norristown to Lansdale (still used for freight).
By 1838, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad started construction on a line that would run from Broad and Callowhill Streets in Philadelphia, cross the Schuylkill in Fairmount Park, and run on the West side of the Schuylkill through West Manayunk. In 1839, Flat Rock Tunnel was completed and by 1842, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad had freight and passenger service from Philadelphia to Pottsville. The train went through; West Manayunk, Gladwyne, West Conshohocken, Bridgeport, Valley Forge, Phoenixville, Royersford, Pottstown, Reading and on to Pottsville (94 miles). Their first engine, imported from England in 1838, the “Rocket,” (now on display in the Franklin Institute) was the first used on the railroad. The next engine in service to pull the trains the full length of the line was the Gowan & Marx, built in Philadelphia by Eastwick and Harrison. It was the most powerful locomotive in the US (see Photo above). It averaged 25 miles per hour, but could pull 40 times its own weight. The railroad turned immediate profits with the transfer of coal from the anthracite region. The railroad opened a branch that would run from the Pencoyd section of the line to Port Richmond Philadelphia, primarily for coal transport via ship. The Philadelphia and Reading bought-out many small railroads in the region and service was extended to; Williamsport, Harrisburg, Gettysburg, Allentown, Wilmington and New York.
By 1850, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad teamed-up with the Philadelphia, Germantown and Norristown Railroad, connecting the two passenger services via a bridge over the Schuylkill in Norristown. The Philadelphia and Reading had connections with other railroads in the anthracite region and greatly monopolized the anthracite transportation industry. It had connecting service to other large railroads such as the New Jersey Central, Lehigh Valley, Baltimore & Ohio and New York Central. One could board a train in Manayunk and get most anywhere. By the 1870’s, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad was the largest corporation in the world, with a capital of $170,000,000.
The profitable Pennsylvania Railroad, which had the leading service to the Midwest, tried to cash-in on the Anthracite industry by building a “Schuylkill” branch in 1884 that paralleled the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad into the coal regions. It ran through Bala Cynwyd, then crossed the Schuylkill into Manayunk over the “S” bridge. It went to Reading and Pottsville (like the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad) and then continued north to Hazelton and Wilkes Barre. It also had a connecting branch from Phoenixville to West Chester. By 1917, the “S” bridge through Manayunk became weak and was replaced by a Spanish-arched concrete bridge (currently partially restored as Manayunk’s biggest landmark). The Schuylkill branch did not do as well as anticipated. The passenger stations were in odd places and the anthracite industry already had strong ties to the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad. By the 1960’s, passenger service via the Pennsylvania Railroad was limited to Manayunk with limited freight service to Pottsville. By 1980, freight service had stopped and by 1981, the Pennsylvania Railroad roadbed beyond Manayunk to Valley Forge became a bike trail. By 1989, the Spanish-arched Bridge in Manayunk was closed and passenger service was limited to Cynwyd. In recent years, The Spanish-arched Bridge has been partially restored and passenger service may return to Manayunk at Dupont Street (therefore having two stations in Manayunk again; the current one in use at Cresson Street and the one currently closed on Dupont Street).
By the time the Reading Terminal in Philadelphia was built in 1893, the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad and the Philadelphia, Germantown & Norristown Railroad was combined. The entire system comprised about 40 small railroads that became the Reading Railroad. At that time, they had the fastest trains to New York (combined with the Central Railroad of New Jersey). At some stretches they would travel in excess of 95 mph. They also had the “Boardwalk Flyer” to Atlantic City, which broke worldwide speed records.
Regional and express passenger service was exceptional from the Reading Terminal. One could board the “Black Diamond” to Allentown, Buffalo, Toronto, Detroit and Chicago, the “Royal Blue” to Washington and the “Crusader” or “Wall Street” to New York. Even when Amtrak took over independent railroads throughout the nation in 1970, the Reading Railroad’s passenger service remained independent, until taken over by Conrail in the late 70’s and then by SEPTA in the 1980’s. The last express trains operated before the Reading Terminal closed in 1985, went to: Allentown via Lansdale and Quakertown, New York via West Trenton and Plainfield and to Pottsville via Norristown, Pottstown and Reading (passing through Manayunk). The line created between 1839 and 1842 is still heavily used for freight between the coal regions and Philadelphia by Norfolk Southern (current owner). The Reading Terminal has been remodeled as part of the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
The Schuylkill Valley Metro Project is trying to bring service back to the rail lines from Philadelphia to Reading, since automobile congestion has become a problem on the stretches of roads between the two cities. The exact route is yet to be determined.