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.
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.
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.
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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:
Bing Maps 2010 aerial photograph: http://binged.it/z0mrPa
Jeff Weisberg contributed to this post.