Riding The Rails On Pennsylvania’s Original Turnpike

This image drawn by Frank H. Taylor shows a canal boat packed with passengers upon a horse-drawn railcar that was making its way through Philadelphia to points west. The scene was at Dock Street, by the Merchant’s Exchange Building. | Image courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia

As the opening of Phase One of the Viaduct Rail Park approaches this spring, an important and related predecessor railroad should be remembered. Aside from being one of the earliest railroads in America, the Pennsylvania-owned Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad was the first railroad in the world built by a government, rather than by private enterprise. Extending westwards 82 miles from Philadelphia to a canal basin in Columbia, Pennsylvania, the double-track line was conceived as a way to compete with the Erie Canal and the ascent of Baltimore as a trade rival to Philadelphia. 

Have Train, Will Travel

In the days when the Appalachian Mountains posed a serious obstacle to overcome, the Philadelphia & Columbia operated on a turnpike basis open to all comers, with shippers supplying their own rail cars, horsepower, and drivers. Anyone who had at least one private railcar, toll money, and a contract could use the Philadelphia & Columbia line. Freight and passenger cars could be pulled by horses or mules, as per a municipal prohibition against steam locomotives operating in the city. (Steam locomotives gradually took the place of animal power by 1852.) As late as 1849, private transporters could use the state-owned railroad at will.

East of Broad Street, the tracks connected to the Northern Liberties and Penn Township Railroad (aka the Willow Street Railroad or the Delaware and Schuylkill Railroad) at Broad. This line ran on Willow Street to the Delaware River and had been placed on the street surface by 1834, having been chartered in 1829.

Except for the portion in Philadelphia, the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad became a key part of the “Main Line of Public Works of the State of Pennsylvania” when it was incorporated into the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1857. This is the origin of the term “Philadelphia Main Line,” or simply “Main Line,” referring to Philadelphia’s western suburbs.

A view of the Belmont Inclined Plane, which pulled rail cars from the Schuylkill River’s west bank up to what is known as the Belmont Plateau. The view is looking down, east, towards the river, with the city in the background. The first Columbia Bridge is also shown. | Image courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia

The railroad included a two-track inclined plane that ran 2,805 feet from the Schuylkill River’s western embankment towards present-day Belmont Avenue, rising one foot in 15 for a total climb of 187 feet. The Belmont Inclined Plane used a mechanism for pulling rail cars from the riverbank up to what is known as the Belmont Plateau. A 60-hp steam engine initially pulled cars up the incline by rope, where they would be attached to a locomotive to proceed further west.

One of the most historic events in railroad history occurred along the Belmont Incline. On July 10, 1836, the Philadelphia-based Norris Locomotive Works ran a test of a 14,400-pound 4-2-0 locomotive on the inclined plane. The locomotive, named George Washington, hauled a load of 19,200 pounds—including 24 people riding on tender and one freight car—up the grade at 15 miles per hour. This engine, the first to ascend a hill by its own power, proved that steam locomotives could climb an ascending grade. So remarkable was this accomplishment that reports in engineering journals emphatically doubted its occurrence. A more formal trial with an even greater load proved that this had happened. Baltimore claims to be where railroading began in America, but the true dawn of the age of the train was on Philadelphia’s Belmont Plateau.

The Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad Depot at Broad and Vine, 1854. Notice the horses providing the motive power. | Source: Wikimedia Commons

On a more practical level, locomotives that could pull trains up hills saved the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad money, as the Belmont Inclined Plane was hard to maintain and expensive to operate. And there had been more than one accident where something would break and the cars would roll downhill to crash at the bottom. By 1850, the incline was bypassed with a more efficient route by the West Philadelphia Railroad. The plane was sold to the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, which soon found it inconvenient and abandoned it. Traces of the Belmont Incline can still be seen here and there in West Fairmount Park, near Montgomery Drive.

The incline connected to a bridge over the Schuylkill River at the site of the present-day Columbia Bridge, thus bringing rail traffic into the heart of Philadelphia. The original Columbia Bridge was built in 1834 and was 1018 feet long. This seven-span wooden structure was the first large railroad bridge constructed in America. Along with the Belmont Plane, the bridge was sold to the Reading Railroad in 1850 to become part of its main line, the City Branch. It was replaced by a wrought iron viaduct in 1886. That six-span bridge lasted until 1921, when it was replaced by the current concrete structure.

Charles Ellet, Jr.’s 1843 map of Philadelphia County is possibly the only one that shows the Belmont Inclined Plane during its short time of operation (1834-1850). Also shown is the first Columbia Bridge over the Schuylkill River. The third Columbia Bridge is still used today by CSX freight trains. | Source: Greater Philadelphia History Network


In the city, the terminus of the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad was at Broad and Vine Streets. There, it was poised to serve the string of coal yards, lumberyards, and warehouses along Broad Street. Philadelphia’s developed area did not yet reach Broad Street until around the 1850s. At the terminus, operators of passenger or freight trains on the Philadelphia & Columbia line would pay the collector of tolls a fee based on the number of wheels their train had. Other additional tolls were also paid. This was typically done before the train was paired with a locomotive before leaving for the west. Users were enjoined from operating any cars with inadequate brakes. The system caused bottlenecks of all sorts, but these chronic delays were considered the cost of doing business using the newfangled railroad. 

Birth of the City Branch

From along the Schulkill River, the line ran east-west on the surface of a street that came to be called Pennsylvania Avenue, paralleling Callowhill Street. The street’s name was likely derived from the fact that the Philadelphia & Columbia was colloquially called the Pennsylvania Railroad long before the actual Pennsylvania Railroad came to be. This right-of-way was once part of a proposed canal between the Schulkill and Delaware Rivers and the rail line ran on or near the old canal bed and its towing path.

The line became the Reading Railroad’s City Branch in the second half of the 19th century and remained as such for a hundred years. It is called “The Cut” by Viaduct Rail Park enthusiasts today. The City Branch’s tracks continued northwestward out of the city, crossing several north-south streets to almost the Schuylkill River.

Travel to western Pennsylvania and points beyond in the early 1840s used the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad as part of a complex combination of rail cars and canal boats. The boats were sectional packet boats that were actually loaded onto eight-wheeled railcars and then pulled by horses or mules on tracks through the city. The packet boats would be lowered into a river to serve as, well, a boat. They then continued west by water.

Back in the 1850s when Philadelphia was the lager beer capital of America, the Engel & Wolf Brewery fermented and aged beer in seven underground vaults at Fountain Green, an area along the eastern bank of the Schuylkill River about a mile north of Fairmount Waterworks. This lithograph advertisement shows a passenger train on the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad passing by the brewery. | Image courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia

American canal packet boats could carry up to 60 passengers in the cabin space. Compared to overland travel, the boats cut journey time in half and were much more comfortable. Both freight and passenger traffic was moved by this method.

The normal point of departure for most packet boats in Philadelphia was from the Philadelphia & Columbia’s terminus at Broad and Vine Streets. However, other packet boats often made their way through town on rail cars from Dock Street, taking a route via Market (or High) Street, then to Broad Street, then to Fairmont Avenue and the Columbia Bridge. After crossing over the bridge, they would begin their ascent up the Belmont Incline and then continue along the way to Columbia, Pennsylvania by horse power. There, the packet boats preceded by water via Susquehanna and Juanita Canal to Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania.

The boats, along with their passengers, were again placed on railcars and transported by the famous Allegheny Portage Incline, part of the Allegheny Portage Railroad, the first rail line constructed through the Allegheny Mountains in Central Pennsylvania. This line operated from 1834 to 1854 as the first transportation infrastructure that connected the Midwest to the Eastern Seaboard across the barrier range of the Appalachian Mountains. After this land part of the journey, the boats would again be placed into the water at Johnstown, Pennsylvania and would get to Pittsburgh by way of the Conemaugh and Allegheny Rivers. The trip took four and a half days.

About the author

Harry Kyriakodis, author of Philadelphia's Lost Waterfront (2011), Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward (2012), and The Benjamin Franklin Parkway (2014), regularly gives walking tours and presentations on unique yet unappreciated parts of the city. A founding/certified member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides, he is a graduate of La Salle University and Temple University School of Law, and was once an officer in the U.S. Army Field Artillery. He has collected what is likely the largest private collection of books about the City of Brotherly Love: over 2700 titles new and old.

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  1. A fine piece as ever, Mr Kyriakodis!

  2. Great read, thanks!

  3. “Main line denominations” is another term which derives its name from the Main Line of Public Works, because of the churches typically represented in the communities which developed along the line. When most people hear or see the phrase they think it means “mainstream,” but it’s really a historical reference to the railroad.

  4. Nice summary piece and details.
    Where are traces of the Belmont Incline that can be seen?
    Do you have a bibliography for this article? It would be nice to research some items further.
    One significant point is that some of these transportations systems had short lives. 10-20-30 years only depending on the progress of technology. The Belmont Planes may have had accidents and they could have been rebuilt with better components, but railway locomotives developed and they progressively got more power. A different route could then be used.
    Thank you.

  5. oops–the Susquehanna and Juniata?

  6. Note the the 1868 map of Fairmount Park shows the “old” inclined plane alignment relative to more current streets. It gives a better idea where the plane was.

  7. Excellent article! As a train enthusiast, and avid mountain biker, I always enjoy riding my bike down the old incline at the Belmont Trails! The trail goes up and down each side all the way down and is super fun. Thanks for this great history piece!

  8. Great story. The railroads are such an important component on how modern Philly is shaped. Re: inclined plane and the above poster; the Belmont trail known as “powerline” or “underground railroad” (depending on what direction you go) could be part of the ancient rail bed. Another trail called “420” could trace those tracks as well.

    Re: the canal boat next to Merchant’s Exchange; are we sure this is not some sort of exhibition? The boat is missing its front half.

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