Constructed in 1913 to house Philadelphia’s new fleet of electric streetcars, Callowhill Depot occupies an entire city block across the street from Shepard Recreation Center in West Philadelphia’s Haddington section. Still used every day for the purpose for which it was built, this autumn the depot turns 100 years old.
Callowhill Depot stretches nearly five hundred feet along 58th, 59th, Callowhill, and Vine Streets, consuming five acres under a single roof. A seemingly endless brick wall stands hard against the north sidewalk of Vine Street, while a succession of low concrete archways frame thirteen bays facing 58th and 59th. Built by Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company to shelter 340 electric trolley cars, conversion of progressively larger portions for use by diesel buses began in the 1950s. Today, Callowhill is the center of operations for twelve SEPTA diesel bus routes and two surviving electric trolley lines.
The Story behind the Building
Public dissatisfaction with Philadelphia’s transit system was already at an all-time high in 1910—even before a violent three-month long transit strike had folks walking to work (and everywhere else for that matter) during the bitter cold months of January, February, and March 1910. At its peak the trolley-men’s strike spread to a general walk-out by sixty thousand of their fellow unionized Philadelphia workers. This general strike would be recognized as one of the largest in U.S. history. The recently-formed Pennsylvania State Police were ordered into the city to quell the violence (including arson and shootings) that had erupted city-wide. The resolution of the transit strike brought back business as usual, which for trolley passengers was better than walking but arguably not by much.
Philadelphia’s transit system at that time was a cobbled-together network formed from lines run by separate private entities such as the Frankford & Southwark Passenger Railroad, the Philadelphia Traction Company, and the Hestonville, Mantua and Fairmount Passenger Railway Company. By 1910 all the streetcar lines had been converted from horse, steam, battery, and cable car systems to electricity. However, in many cases, rather than buying new trolleys, the companies simply retrofitted 19th century relics with electric motors, and the cars often lacked even such basic amenities as a windshield for the motorman to stand behind. This antiquated fleet was scattered among scores of small Victorian-era barns located throughout the city.
1911 Man of the Year: E. T. Stotesbury
In 1911, Edward T. Stotesbury, partner in Philadelphia banking firm Drexel & Co. and its New York affiliate, J. P. Morgan & Co., bought controlling interest in Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company. Soon to construct a lavish mansion just outside Philadelphia known as Whitemarsh Hall, Stotesbury determined to finally address PRT’s many and chronic shortcomings, which a contemporary report deemed no less than “a herculean task.”
With Stotesbury’s backing, in May 1911 the City approved a $10,000,000 PRT bond issue to finance the needed improvements. New management was brought in, a fleet of 1,500 modern electric streetcars was ordered, and new consolidated depots were planned to take the place of the scattered small facilities.
Fully a tenth of that sum, $1,000,000, was expended to construct two large brick and concrete depots to house the new trolley fleet. Carefully sited to best serve both the existing trolley network and its projected extensions, Luzerne Depot in North Philadelphia and Callowhill Depot in West Philadelphia utilized the latest advancements in design and materials. Framed with pre-cast concrete, Callowhill was one of the largest such buildings in the world at the time. All-masonry fireproof construction was specified, which would later prove a wise choice. Construction began first at Luzerne Depot, at 10th & Luzerne Streets just south of Hunting Park. When that facility was completed in 1912, the adjacent fabricating yard continued to be used to cast concrete beams for Callowhill Depot. More than three hundred massive concrete beams were hauled eight miles through city streets to the Haddington construction site, carried by a fleet of specially constructed trolley cars and trailers.
In addition to keeping the trolley cars out of the weather, Luzerne and Callowhill Depots also embodied a new attitude of cooperation between management and labor. Stotesbury had personally enlisted the service of Thomas E. Mitten, who had gained acclaim managing the city transit operations in Buffalo and Chicago. Mitten’s son, Dr. A. A. Mitten, later said that his father’s lifelong work was “the breaking down of barriers that separate capital and labor, and the institution of a real industrial democracy.” To that end, the design of Callowhill Depot included a handsome two story “Motorman’s and Conductor’s Office Building” that still stands across 59th Street. In addition to yearly pay raises, one tenth of each employee’s paycheck was automatically deducted and invested in PRT bonds so that each worker felt he had a personal stake in the company’s success—a progressive idea in its day.
Three times in its history, the fireproof construction of Callowhill Depot has been tested. Separate fires destroyed streetcars in 1949 and 1950; in both cases the damage was limited because the flames did not penetrate the masonry block walls that divide one bay from another.
In 1992, Callowhill Depot became an all-diesel bus garage when SEPTA removed streetcars from Route 15 Girard Avenue, and moved the Route 10 Lancaster Avenue trolleys from Callowhill to Elmwood Depot in Southwest Philadelphia. Three years later five diesel buses were destroyed in a fire that ultimately resulted in the demolition of the northern-most bay of the depot. As with the previous two fires, the building’s design kept a potentially catastrophic blaze confined.
Twenty-first Century Streetcars
A major upgrade would come to Callowhill with the turn of the new century. Beginning in 2001, the first three bays of the depot were reconstructed to once again house streetcars. A fleet of eighteen rebuilt 1947 streamliners would serve Route 15 Girard Avenue, and twenty more modern LRV (light rail vehicle) trolleys serving Route 10 Lancaster Avenue would return from Elmwood Depot to Callowhill. A total of $82 million was spent to upgrade the car-barn, renew track and infrastructure on Route 15, and fund the rehab of the streamliners.
Locating a transit maintenance facility in a dense residential row house neighborhood has never been a perfect fit, and matters came to a head in 2004 when the fleet of restored Route 15 trolleys was ready for service. Trolley cars use rails on two blocks 59th Street when leaving the depot. With the trolleys absent after 1992, residents on those blocks began parking on the west side of the street, something that couldn’t be done when trolleys used the tracks. When neighbors realized that the return of streetcars meant that their (unauthorized) parking spaces would be taken away, they complained to their elected officials, who promptly sided with them against SEPTA. The late 34th Ward leader Carol Campbell and then-District Councilman Michael Nutter successfully delayed the return of trolley service for over a year. Campbell had this to say to the Daily News:
“SEPTA being here has been nothing but a hardship. We only see them [SEPTA] when they want something, and now they’re trying to sell us a bill of goods. And you know what? It’s not going to fly. We’re all against it.
“They [SEPTA] never came to us with a summer program, or a way to give kids two or three hours of work,” said Campbell, who lives just a block south of the depot. “They’ve never said ‘Let’s have a partnership,’ or a scholarship for Overbrook [High School]. They could have invested some money in the community, but they never reached out to the community.
“To hell with them. I’m not going to kiss their ass.”
Asked about his unwillingness to introduce legislation in Council that would have resolved the situation, Nutter told the Daily News, “sometimes things just are what they are. There are screw-ups between and among organizations. This isn’t the first dispute between SEPTA and its neighbors, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.”
After this impasse made headlines, SEPTA’s funding sources in Harrisburg took note and pointedly asked why an $82 million investment was being held up over a handful of parking spaces. Finally, after a thirteen year absence, electric trolley service from Callowhill Depot resumed in September 2005.
Parking snafus aside, the seeds of goodwill planted a century ago between Thomas E. Mitten and the trolley workers still bear fruit today. Callowhill trolley driver Gary Mason has for several years now been decorating the trolley he drives with festive lights and seasonal greetings, entirely at his own expense. His Holiday Trolley and Valentine’s Trolley are well received by passengers and generate positive public relations for SEPTA. For Mason it’s a labor of love—he always refers to his Valentine’s ride as the Love Trolley.
The recent trolley renovation aside, deferred maintenance has started to take its toll on Callowhill Depot, in part because of SEPTA’s reluctance to invest in it because of on-again off-again plans to replace it with an entirely new facility. Rather than construct the new depot on the existing site, tentative plans call for an new facility to be built behind the PennDOT maintenance yard near 48th Street and Parkside Avenue. Ongoing funding shortfalls have relegated this idea to back-burner status, at best. In fact, Callowhill’s replacement isn’t even in SEPTA’s draft 2014-2025 Capital Program Proposal.
Which would make Callowhill Depot’s run an impressive one hundred years—and counting.