Philadelphians routinely lament the lack of subway and trolley service to certain neighborhoods. Supporters and naysayers often argue ad nauseam online over extending the Broad Street Line past Pattison Avenue to the Philadelphia Navy Yard. While the city’s existing network of subways became the envy of many other American cities large or small, the system could have been so much better had the City followed through with its original proposal. But the blame for why Philadelphia’s public transit system did not develop to its full potential can be spread around pretty wide.
The first commissioner of the newly-created Department of City Transit was A. Merritt Taylor. He was appointed in 1912 to peruse mass transit expansion in the city and released his recommendations the following year. Although Taylor was a competent planner, it could be said that he was a dreamer and perhaps a tad subway-happy.
Among others in just about all sections of the Quaker City, the “Taylor Plan” suggested subways along Chestnut, Walnut and Arch Streets–a subway loop to distribute riders on the Broad Street Line around Center City, a line along Benjamin Franklin Parkway to points north, and a subway branch into Northeast Philly via Roosevelt Boulevard. But the majority of Taylor’s planned routes were never built.
Taylor was succeeded in 1916 by a more pragmatic transit commissioner, William S. Twining, who took exception to many of Taylor’s ideas. Whereas Taylor saw transit as a stimulant of urban development, Twinning sanctioned building lines only where there was already demand.
World War I severely affected the development of Philadelphia’s transit system as labor became scarce, construction costs skyrocketed, and materials were in short supply. Then, the city spent inordinate sums of money on several projects leading up to and into the 1920s, including acquiring land for and building the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, extending Roosevelt Boulevard northward, erecting the Delaware River (Benjamin Franklin) Bridge, constructing the Philadelphia Museum of Art, constructing the Parkway Central Branch of Free Library of Philadelphia, and hosting the Sesqui-Centennial Exposition of 1926
There was persistent wrangling among city government as to which subway lines should receive priority. Endless studies of the lines, their expected profitability, and the incessant rearranging of routes slowed transit expansion to a crawl.
Legal complications with the awarding of contracts made matters worse. Much of that trouble arose from the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company (PRT), which was at constant odds with the City. PRT’s president, Thomas Mitten, thwarted much of the proposed subway system that Commissioner Taylor championed, expressing a disinterest in building any subway line that was potentially unprofitable or that would compete against PRT’s trolley routes. The transit company was so heavily invested in trolley lines that it did not want any competition from municipal subways. This issue came to bear even when the city offered to build subway lines at the taxpayer’s expense, with PRT merely operating them. The City also never mandated additional subway routes as part of PRT’s franchise.
These delays gave Philadelphia a late start in building the subway lines that were eventually agreed upon. By the time decisions were made in the 1920s, the age of the private motor car had overtaken the age of the subway and the trolley.
The Great Depression killed many latent subway lines since the city was barely solvent during the 1930s. Unlike New York City, Philadelphia did not pursue subway expansion as a way to alleviate unemployment. World War II further delayed any work due to wartime requirements for steel. When prosperity returned to Philadelphia after World War II, public transit projects took a back seat to highway construction and urban renewal efforts.
The Abandoned Arch Street Line
It is a shame that most of Commissioner Taylor’s proposed subway lines did not come to fruition. The Market-Frankford El (c.1908) and the Broad Street Subway (1920s) were to have been the commencement of a citywide transit system that would confound modern day Philadelphians.
A subway delivery loop in Center City was the most intriguing and implicitly useful of Taylor’s transit proposals. This loop was to have been part of the Broad Street Subway and would have run from Broad Street and Fairmount Avenue down Ridge Avenue to 8th Street, then south to either Walnut or Locust Streets, where it would continue west to 19th Street, then turn north to Arch Street and east again to reconnect with the Broad Street Line. The subway loop would have collected riders from North Philadelphia and distributed them around Center City’s shopping and business districts. At least five downtown stations were planned.
The proposed route was later shortened into a compact ring around Center City by relying on Arch Street rather than Ridge Avenue. Sections of tunnel were excavated under both Arch and Locust Streets in 1915 before work was halted for lack of funds. The Locust Street Tunnel was eventually completed, but the tunnel under Arch Street was not, as World War I ended up condemning the loop project. Just two short underground segments were excavated under Arch Street before the war: one between 12th and 13th Streets that is 263 feet long and the other between 10th and 11th Streets that is 126 feet long. These large areas were likely proposed stations for the line. Two metal grates in the Arch Street sidewalk are the only entrances into these discarded tunnel sections.
Lore has it that the Trocadero Theatre aka “The Troc” at 1003 Arch Street had an emergency exit into one segment during its seedier days. Having opened in 1870, what may be one of the only intact Victorian theater in the United States predated the Arch Street excavations by decades. In addition, the renowned Chinese Friendship Gate straddling 10th Street was not assembled precisely at the intersection of 10th and Arch because the tunnel under Arch Street could not support the forty-foot-tall structure’s weight.
There have been proposals to use the Arch Street tunnels as vehicular parking space or as an underground approach to the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, but these ideas failed to generate any attention. The two passages are still under Arch Street, minus any tracks or trains. As the photographs in this story show, there is no graffiti in these closed off sections, so no one but SEPTA has been inside them in a long while.
In the 1970s, the Delaware River Port Authority proposed constructing a Center City subway loop from 8th and Arch, up Arch Street using the abandoned tunnel sections to 19th Street, then connecting by way of 19th to the PATCO Hi-Speedline under Locust Street. This loop plan was comparable to the scheme set forth by A. Merritt Taylor 60 years earlier, albeit larger. Former Mayor Frank Rizzo bluntly rebuffed the $120 million plan because it would allegedly filch riders from SEPTA.
And so it goes. Philadelphia missed out not once but twice in getting a subway that looped around Center City. Traffic woes in Center City today are partly the legacy of such short-sighted and ineffective city planning.
Underground Philadelphia, a new book by Harry Kyriakodis and Joel Spivak that explores Philadelphia’s subterranean history, will be released in October 2018.