Say you’re one of those ubiquitous Australian travelers you always see at hostels. You’ve just arrived at the Greyhound station in Chinatown and your Hostelling International card gives you two options in Philadelphia: Old City’s Apple Hostel just off of Chestnut Street, in the middle of the madness, and Fairmount Park’s Chamounix Mansion, in the middle of nowhere. Exhausted from the past several days in New York, you opt for the latter; since you’re staying in hostels, you’re traveling on the cheap, so to reach Chamounix, you have to take SEPTA’s 38 bus—to Ford & Cranston Roads, from which you’ll walk another full mile, with your big travel pack, along Ford Road and Chamounix Drive. Those are the directions the hostel’s web site suggest—simply because it’s easier to have Google Maps-ready directions than to explain a convoluted shorter walk in the woods across a mostly hidden brick arch bridge.
Chamounix Mansion (which Stephen Stofka profiled last year for Hidden City) is situated at the farthest reach of Chamounix Drive, a two-mile, dead-end, straight road built at the turn of the 20th Century as the “Speedway”—where horse drivers were permitted to exceed 7 mph, to dare go beyond a trot. (Incidentally, the Chamounix Equestrian Center houses the Work to Ride program on the drive now.) As cars came into vogue, they replaced the horses with early forms of drag racing, leading to the creation of a return drive adjacent the Speedway.
Prior to the Speedway, Chamounix Drive wound its way to the mansion—and continued winding to Falls Road. This section, a carriage road from the mansion to Falls Road, was known as Old Chamounix Drive, and has not been used since at least the 1950s when the Schuylkill Expressway cropped close the eastern end of the Chamounix grounds. One can hear its traffic from the mansion.
The unpaved Old Chamounix Drive has become a de facto trail, mostly for mountain bikers and the occasional hostel traveler in the know. From the shoulder of Falls Road, where there’s a lonely Hostelling International sign with an arrow daring you to walk through the woods, the trail’s quarter-mile or so crosses two relics of a Philadelphia long gone.
The first, a small stone arch bridge, crosses a creek that once fed two dammed lakes that provided the water and power for William Simpson’s Print House. Simpson’s property was seized by Fairmount Park around 1875 and the two lakes—Upper and Lower Chamounix Lakes—plus a nearby waterfall became park attractions. (The lakes were drained and the waterfall was decimated by the construction of the Schuylkill Expressway.) The idyllic setting, a short woodland stroll from Chamounix Mansion, made for a sensible stop for the Fairmount Park trolley.
The Fairmount Park Transit Company (FPTC) incorporated in 1897 and lasted until only 1946. During its 49 years of operation, it circled the West Park with 16 stops from Memorial Hall and 52nd Street to the Belmont Plateau and Chamounix, with a spur across the Strawberry Mansion Bridge, built for the trolley, and a stop on the East Park at 33rd & Dauphin.
When the FPTC disbanded in 1946, an auction sold off nearly all of its equipment, down to the railroad ties. The 85 bus replaced the trolley’s service but ran a distinctly different route; SEPTA’s modern 38 and 40 buses cover a lot of the same route.
Much of the trolley’s infrastructure remains scattered throughout Fairmount Park: the stone arch bridge over Ford Road near Chamounix, a rusting footbridge over the trolley’s trench in the woods near Belmont, the “Car Barn” at the low end of the Plateau. But they all pale compared to Old Chamounix Drive’s stately skew arch bridge over the trolley route.
Filed in the Streets Department’s Bridges Division simply as Bridge #704, its 32’6″ span employs 15 skewed arches of bricks in a pattern seen also on the circa-1856 Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Bridge, just below the Route 1 twin bridges in East Falls. Fairmount Park trolley riders referred to the trolley’s arch as the Chamounix Tunnel. Its exact date of construction is unclear, but its brick construction suggests the late 1800s, i.e. specifically for the trolley route.
It’s out of the way, it’s not easy to get to, and it serves maybe a dozen people a day. But Bridge #704 is a looker, and it was built to last.
* * *
The author would like to thank Christopher Dougherty at Parks & Recreation, Adam Levine at the City Plans Unit, and Darin Gatti at the Streets Department’s Bridges Division for their assistance in this story.
To view a full map of the Fairmount Park trolley system, view the 1910 topographical map by J.L. Smith HERE.