I grew up along the H/XH route in Germantown. I lived in a mid-19th century Victorian house, and the buses shook the old windows each time they passed. When I was 11-years-old, I was visiting California and staying in a house in the Bay Area. I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of rattling windows. In my half-sleep haze, I dismissed the shaking as a SEPTA bus rolling by. By the time my mind began piecing together the incongruity of a Philadelphia bus driving by a farm an hour outside of San Francisco, I’d already fallen back asleep. We weren’t at the epicenter, but what woke me up was actually a moderate earthquake.
Even with the equivalent of 70 consecutive 5.0 earthquakes shaking my house every day, the X/XH barely penetrated my young consciousness. What did impress me was the 23 trolley a block away.
The trolleys are long gone, but dollar for dollar, the best tour of Philadelphia is the end-to-end ride on the 23. I like to start in Chestnut Hill. At 445 feet, the Chestnut Hill Loop is the literal high point of the city. The next 14 miles cut through a surprisingly comprehensive cross section of town. I’ve lived all over the city and a block from the 23 for most of my life. A huge part of how I’ve viewed, thought about, and learned from the city has been shaped by what can be seen along this route.
Last Friday, I made the questionable decision to spend 4+ hours of my first day off in months on the 23. I rode it from one end to the other, then back again. The bus was in one minor accident at Chelten Avenue. I shared the seat next to me with a dozen people along the way. I talked to a driver in South Philly about photography, paparazzi gigs, and the joys and frustrations of driving a SEPTA bus.
Mostly though, I did what I’ve always done. I put my headphones on and watched how Philadelphia has changed since my first trolley ride in the early 1980s. The short version of that set of observations is this: Germantown has not changed that much. South Philly is nearly unrecognizable.
I took some photos on this farewell ride on the old route. Here’s just a little bit of what I saw. If you have even a passing interest in Philadelphia, its history, its people, and its future, I highly recommend taking this trip before the sun sets on the old 23 this Sunday morning.
Thanks for sharing your memories!
I first encountered the 23, when I came to Philly to meet my then boy friend’s family back in 1972, who lived in the 3300 block of Germantown Avenue. (We’ve now been married since 1973.) The neighborhood was far past its glory days. In fact it was what many would call a slum with its mostly crumbling buildings. What struck me was the fact that my trolley ride from downtown, gave me only a small glimpse of the City, but revealed to me how much Philadelphia was truly a 19th Century city. I also learned and saw how people were connected to neighborhoods, as I rode through various commercial corridors along the route. I decided at that point that I would do the full route, which opened my eyes up to how the City developed over time and connected its various parts. The longer journey also helped me to discover the diversity of the City population and the many challenges the City faced. It was at that point, that I decided to make Philadelphia the place where I would lay down my roots. I could see both the City’s history and promise.
I will miss the 23 line. It was transformational for me.
I see the trolley infrastructure — the overhead wires as well as the tracks — in so many of your photos. Yet the splitting of the route is just one more sign the trolleys are never coming back. Sad.
By the way, it’s the H and XH, not the X and XH. I used to live in G-Town and say it backwards sometimes myself.
Oh man, that was just a dumb typo on my part. The first bus I ever took on my own was the H. I know that line pretty well.
For any transit geeks out there- the 23 was actually lengthened by the PTC in ~’57 or so- this crazy long route was created by combining the 20 and 23 to free up nearby numbered streets for car and truck traffic. Supposedly there would be more trolly cars then available for more frequent service on 11th and 12th. Ironic that it had to make due with more frequent use of turnarounds (short of the full route) to ensure the trolly cars were able to keep some sort of schedule.