Editor’s Note: Yesterday, the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia released its 2013 Endangered Property List. Among the 36 buildings on the list the Shawmont Station, above Manayunk, stands out for its sheer historical value. Mike Szilagyi reports on the building’s unique significance.
Perhaps cyclists and runners on the Manayunk Towpath trail and riders on SEPTA’s Manayunk/Norristown rail line take little notice of the faded, modest Shawmont Station just above Manayunk. Trains haven’t stopped here since 1996, but the station holds real significance: opened in 1834, Shawmont is no less than the oldest passenger railroad station standing in the United States, and likely the world.
Despite its long history, Shawmont Station, named yesterday as one of Philadelphia’s most endangered historical properties by the Preservation Alliance, is in dire need of the most basic maintenance if it is to survive. Shawmont Civic Association members have begun to float ideas for the building’s reuse. And the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission has expressed willingness to support efforts to save Shawmont Station, which in 2009 was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, legally protecting it from demolition.
The Philadelphia, Germantown & Norristown Railroad Company was chartered by an act of the Pennsylvania Legislature in 1831 to construct a railroad between its namesake cities. When service from Ninth and Green Streets to Germantown was initiated the following year, most trains were hauled by horses. Only one train each day was steam powered, although on rainy days horses provided all service, as the powerful but primitive locomotive’s self-propelled wheels could do little more than spin in place on wet rails.
When railroad engineers realized that PG&N’s projected route from Germantown to Norristown wasn’t feasible due to hilly terrain, they surveyed a new route along the north bank of the Schuylkill River. Branching off the original line near what was to become the intersection of Broad Street and Lehigh Avenue, the line to Norristown was placed in service with great fanfare in August 1834. At the time, what we now called Shawmont Station was named Green Tree, taking its name from Green Tree Run, a small tributary to the Schuylkill that still runs alongside. For the first two years, trains to Norristown were horse drawn, with the one novel and expensive steam-powered locomotive assigned full time to the Germantown line.
Designed in the then-fashionable Greek Revival style (sometimes called National Style), the station looks nothing like our image of a standard 19th century station. In fact, railroad architecture was years in coming. Historian John Johnstone points out that the building looks more like a stagecoach stop, and indeed its shape resembles the old two-story road houses with wide front porches that still line the historic pikes that radiate out from Philadelphia. It is unconfirmed but assumed that William Strickland, then chief architect of the PG&N, designed the structure.
The Philadelphia & Reading Railroad bought control of the PG&N lines in 1870, as well as the Schuylkill Navigation, whose towpath followed the riverbank behind the station. At that time, Victorian alterations were made and a wood-frame addition were added. Three years later the P&R renamed the station Shawmont, to avoid potential confusion with a Green Tree station elsewhere in the sprawling Reading system.
For much of the 20th century, the station was capably managed by several generations of one family. The son of one stationmaster remembers that one of his duties growing up was to row a small boat across the Schuylkill to ferry railroad passengers who lived across the river in Lower Merion.
In its nearly two centuries of service the station has come close to extinction at least once. In April 1976, a three-car commuter train collided with a truck on the grade crossing alongside the station. The resulting fire destroyed one railroad car, but thankfully spared the station (and contemporary accounts make no mention of serious injuries).
In later years Shawmont Station became a flag stop, which meant that unless a passenger informed the train crew that they’d be getting off there, the train would pass through without stopping. Finally in 1996, during one of its periodic funding crises, the SEPTA board voted to cancel train service at half a dozen lightly used stations, including Shawmont.
Following the decommissioning of the structure as a train station, descendants of the stationmaster (who lived above in the apartment) continued to rent the building from SEPTA. In the years after, the transit authority gave the station little or no maintenance, and this neglect had begun to take its toll. SEPTA officials have told Shawmont Civic Association’s Dave Cellini that the authority has no plans to restore the building, the agency’s funding priorities of necessity limited to the maintenance of crucial infrastructure such as bridges. Recently however, SEPTA has taken measures to prevent further deterioration.
At a meeting of Shawmont Civic Association late last month, neighbors agreed that they want the station preserved. Among the ideas floated for Shawmont Station’s future are its restoration and re-use as a historical museum, as a concession, or as an outfitter to rent kayaks. Renovation of the stationmaster’s apartment would allow the building to be occupied as a residence as well.
UPDATE: This post has been updated with one small but important clarification: Shawmont is the oldest passenger railroad station in the country. Ellicott City station, just outside Baltimore, Maryland, was built as a freight depot in 1830-31. —Ed.