And Then There Was One

Photo: Jeff Weisberg

Behind a rundown strip mall in Southwest Philadelphia, on an overgrown patch of land hard by the railroad tracks, lies the concrete skeleton of a building. This anonymous, gutted shell is all that remains of the sprawling J.G. Brill Company trolley and rail car plant at 62nd and Woodland Avenue. The building is now the site of illegal trash dumping–scarcely a fitting memorial for what was once the world’s leading rail transit manufacturer, with an unsurpassed reputation for exceptional craftsmanship.

The company got its start in 1868 when German immigrant Johann Georg Brill and his son Martin started building horse cars in a small shop at 31st and Chestnut Streets. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, street railways – at first using horses as motive power – were being constructed in cities the world over.  Brill cars soon earned a reputation for innovative design and robust quality.

As the transition from horse to electric power began to take hold, the J. G Brill Company had out-grown the confines of their original location and searched for what would today be called a green-field site on which to built a modern plant.  Land in Bridesburg was purchased with this in mind, but negotiations regarding shipping rates with the one railroad that served that site proved unsuccessful.  An alternate location near 62nd Street & Woodland Avenue in Southwest Philadelphia was then considered, located at a junction of the Pennsylvania and the B&O railroads.  With those railroads willing to compete to provide the lowest shipping rates, it was decided to construct the new plant there.

JG Brill plant birds-eye-view circa 1895

JG Brill plant birds-eye-view circa 1895

Production was moved to the 62nd & Woodland site during summer of 1890.  Because the network of electric trolley lines hadn’t yet been constructed in Philadelphia, workers would walk or ride the train to this more-distant factory.  Those employees with means would ride horses or bicycles; a stable and a bicycle shed were integrated into the plant’s layout.

As large orders continued to be won by Brill, new facilities including steel forges and cavernous erecting shops continued to be added.  One particularly large order received in 1911, was for fifteen hundred streetcars for the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company.  It took two years to build those trolleys, with delivery rates at times exceeding a hundred cars a month.

JG Brill-built Atlantic City 6911 in Ventnor 1940 Collection of Jeff Marinoff

JG Brill-built Atlantic City 6911 in Ventnor 1940 Collection of Jeff Marinoff

The high point for Brill may have been in 1930, when a fleet of ninety-mile-an-hour aluminum Bullet cars were constructed.   (Those cars served an amazing sixty years, until 1990, on SEPTA’s Norristown high-speed line).  All told, more than thirty thousand rail vehicles were produced at the Brill plant.  In its best years, a workforce of three thousand Philadelphians was employed by Brill; many of those were skilled laborers and craftsmen.

The last rail cars built by J.G. Brill were 25 streamliners for Atlantic City in 1939, and a final 10 trolleys for Red Arrow Lines two years later.  Production shifted to rubber-tired vehicles, with more than eight thousand gasoline and electric powered buses (trackless trolleys) built in the 1940s.  But by the early 1950s even the bus orders had dried up. In March 1954, the plant was sold to the Penn Fruit Company and a strip mall was built on the eastern end of the site.


View Larger Map
references:

History of the J.G. Brill Company, Debra Brill, Indiana University Press, 2001

PCC The Car That Fought Back, Stephen P. Carlson and Fred W. Schneider III, Interurban Press, 1980

Hexamer General Surveys, Volume 30. Map of J.G. Brill plant, 1896:

http://www.philageohistory.org/rdic-images/view-image.cfm/HGSv30.2942-2943

Bing Maps 2010 aerial photograph: http://binged.it/z0mrPa

Jeff Weisberg contributed to this post.

About the author

Mike Szilagyi was born in the Logan neighborhood of Philadelphia, and raised in both Logan and what was the far edge of suburbia near Valley Forge. He found himself deeply intrigued by both the built landscape and by the natural “lay of the land.” Where things really get interesting is the fluid, intricate, multi-layered interface between the two.

Send a message!



Leave a Reply

Comment moderation is enabled, no need to resubmit any comments posted.

 

Recent Posts
Capturing The Ghosts Of Demolition

Capturing The Ghosts Of Demolition

January 13, 2017  |  Last Light

The demolition composites of photographer Andrew Evans beguile the eye with ghostly images of a city passing through time. Evans presents his newest additions to the series and explains his process with this photo essay > more

Pencoyd Bridge Reopens In Manayunk, As Redevelopment Of Foundry Site Begins

Pencoyd Bridge Reopens In Manayunk, As Redevelopment Of Foundry Site Begins

January 11, 2017  |  Vantage

The deserted industrial site of Pencoyd Iron Works is next on a growing list of riverside redevelopment along the Schuylkill. Contributor Mick Ricereto takes us deep inside the history of the family-owned foundry and farmland that dates back to the city's founding > more

Urban Fantasy: The Carousel Maker Of Broad & Erie

Urban Fantasy: The Carousel Maker Of Broad & Erie

January 10, 2017  |  The Shadow Knows

Traditional carousel design may have roots in Europe, but "Philadelphia Style" took the amusement ride to a whole new level. The Shadow takes a stroll down Germantown Avenue where the G.A. Dentzel Carousel Company became the gold standard in animal kingdom merry-go-rounds > more

Lost Buildings Of 2016

Lost Buildings Of 2016

December 30, 2016  |  Vantage

That cheery, time-honored tradition: the year-end list. Here on the Daily, that means a roundup of the year's demolitions in our World Heritage City. Brad Maule finds 2016's list warrants more than just a top ten > more

Unlisted Philadelphia: John Decker & Son

Unlisted Philadelphia: John Decker & Son

December 28, 2016  |  Vantage

Ben Leech spotlights unique and significant buildings not listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places with his architectural illustration series, Unlisted Philadelphia. With this installment, a kingly cornice in Brewerytown > more

Happy Holidays From Hidden City

Happy Holidays From Hidden City

December 23, 2016  |  Last Light

Season's greetings from Hidden City, top HC Daily photos of 2016, and an important message about our fall fundraising campaign > more