Ghosts Of The Abandoned Arch Street Subway Line

 

One of two abandoned subway tunnel segments built for the unrealized Arch Street Line. | Image: anonymous submission

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. 

Best-laid Plans

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

An unfulfilled 1914 plan of the underground downtown subway loop, showing the projected tunnels under Arch Street, 8th Street, Locust Street and connecting to the yet-to-be Broad Street Subway. Also shown is the never-built subway under Chestnut Street and a spur leading to the never-built subway under the Benjamin Franklin Parkway that would have gone to Roxborough. The diagram also shows that as far back as 1914, the Market Street Subway was planned to cross directly under City Hall rather than go around the building. That alteration happened in the 1930s. | Image: Annual Report of the Department of City Transit of the City of Philadelphia for the Year Ending December 31, 1914 (1915).

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

This isometric view of underground structures at 13th and Arch Streets shows how congested a typical Center City intersection can be, with water, gas and sewer pipes, telephone, electrical, and other utility conduits all vying for space. The diagram was prepared for the construction of the proposed Arch Street Line. | Image: Annual Report of the Department of City Transit of the City of Philadelphia for the Year Ending December 31, 1914 (1915).

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.

Abandoned subway tunnel segment beneath Arch Street. | Image: anonymous submission

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. 

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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16 Comments


  1. One nitpick: of all the plans I found, the concept of a Ridge Avenue subway did not appear to exist until Twining’s 1916 revision as part of the “through-running” concept. Taylor always seemed intent on using Arch St instead since 1910, and Twining’s plan was resisted to the point where they started construction of the Arch subway instead. The plan for Ridge was formalized and accepted from 1923 onward.
    Great article though!

  2. I somehow learned about the Arch Street subway years ago when I first began trying to learn about Philadelphia’s transit system. I hadn’t realized that there were two, rather than just one, orphan segments. I’ve wondered for a long time how the city went from the proposed loop to what appears to be a thwarted attempt to implement William S. Twining’s through-routing scheme. It’s a shame that none of the plans were properly realized. World War 1 ruined more than a few big public works projects; Cincinnati’s unfinished subway-surface rapid transit line was abandoned for similar reasons.

    As I looked more closely at the map of the planned loop, the detail that caught my eye was there being something like six tracks running under North Broad Street, with the rapid transit tracks running beside tracks coming from the north side of Broad Street Station.. If I recall correctly, the Pennsylvania Railroad was at the time considering building a subway of its own to connect Broad Street Station more directly to its tracks in North Philadelphia, which the city’s plans were designed to accommodate. It looks, from the map, as thought part of this accommodation might have been making Race-Vine station bilevel, with southbound and northbound island platforms stacked atop one-another, given that only one platform is shown there and the way that the tracks are diagrammed.

    And my goodness was the planned Walnut-Chestnut Station close to City Hall Station. The distance looks as though it might even be a little less than that between 11th Street and 13th Street on the Market Street Subway.

  3. We still could do something with existing infrastructure, using that part of the City Branch which is below grade, rather than creating a ridiculous underground “park” as has been proposed by the Viaduct Park people (the above grade park is a great idea). Repurposing that line for light rail connecting to the BSL, widening the Market Street tunnel to 4 tracks for its length and connecting this line and the existing Subway Surface Lines to the Delaware waterfront, where a line could be constructed in the median of Delaware Ave could make far larger areas of the city accessible to rapid transit (as opposed to buses which are slow and clog traffic on our narrow streets)and spur development. Now if we could only find funding for this and an extension of the Locust Street line to the hospital complex (where traffic is now horrendous), we might have at least the outline of what was proposed 100 years ago.

    • I agree, and have said this to others–garnering looks of astonishment (bewilderment? horror?). I read the sunken freight line (viaduct) also aligns closely to a rail line to the Zoo. I think it’s owned by CSX. Could probably be connected to lines by UofP/Schuylkill to hospital complex. Lack of imagination. Imagine the huge crowds on the parkway having access to rapid transit out of the area instead of sitting there congesting.

  4. My father was a civil engineer, starting as a road surveyor in Montana in 1920 then moving on to the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. Unfortunately I do not know his history between 1924 and 1937 other than he worked on the building of one of the New York city subway lines. He once mentioned that he also worked prior to that on a subway project in Philadelphia.
    I was wondering what this might be, circa 24-30?

  5. Yes, it’s a perpetual shame this system was not expanded. Rather than investing in more tunneling, however, except connecting the two segments on Arch Street would seem efficient, a bus loop would have the same benefits. I don’t know if Septa has that in their plans for new routes. As northern Center City develops, more access is needed and more connecting to the rest of Center City. Had the subways been built, however, it is likely that most of Center City would have been demolished and replaced by large buildings, which might have been tragic. My one question is, how far west does the Patco tunnel actually extend?

    • Not very far under Rittenhouse Square. Here is some text from my upcoming book:
      There were proposals in the 1920s and ’30s for carrying the Locust Street Subway across the Schuylkill River to 49th Street in West Philadelphia, but the idea died due to lack of funds. In the 1970s, a $90 million plan to continue the PATCO Line from 16th and Locust west to the old Philadelphia Civic Center (demolished 2004-07) was bandied about. The Delaware River Port Authority recommended this project as a way to strengthen its service into Philadelphia.
      The planned extension would have gone under Rittenhouse Square and the Schuylkill River, and would have included stations along Locust Street at 19th or 24th. It would have connected to a new SEPTA high speed line from Suburban Station to Philadelphia International Airport. (SEPTA subsequently completed a distinct Airport Line as a constituent of the Regional Rail System.)
      A station for the extended line at Rittenhouse Square was on the drawing board, but it was rejected by Philadelphia’s City Planning Commission after spirited community opposition. The thought of disturbing fashionable Rittenhouse Square with a noisy construction project was too much for the square’s inhabitants. Still, the Locust Street Tunnel and tracks do reach a bit beneath Rittenhouse Square and this stretch is utilized as a “turnback” for PATCO trains.
      The same opposition probably put an end to notions of extending the PATCO Hi-Speedline at all. Moreover, the cost was judged to be too high, even though the federal government was to cover eighty percent of construction expenses. Then again, federal allocations for projects like this had evaporated by the 1980s. The Commuter Rail Tunnel was the last major federally-funded infrastructure project completed in Philadelphia.
      Another threat had befallen Rittenhouse Square back in 1950 when a gigantic below-ground parking garage was seriously deliberated for the site. The 1,400-car garage was proffered by Underground Garages, Inc., a company formed to meet the demands of motorists in the automobile-crazy post-World War II era. Underground Garages would have leased Rittenhouse Square for fifty years, paying the city a nominal ground rent each year before relinquishing the garage to the city.
      The four million dollar plan was universally denounced as “sheer vandalism” and “desecration of a shrine.” Opponents pointed out that vehicular congestion around Rittenhouse Square would increase dramatically. Plus, since the historic square’s layout—devised by Paul Crét—would have to be obliterated, the park’s lovely plantings and trees would not and could not be restored in a natural way. This opposition helped galvanize the nascent Center City Residents Association.

      • Your explanation leads to additional questions! Is there any record of how the extended PATCO line would have “connected” to a new line to the airport, and by “line” do you mean more of a subway vs the train line that SEPTA ended up putting together? Also, any idea how the PATCO line would have gotten to 49th ST?

        • Harry Kyriakodis

          Alas, I cannot really respond any further, as I have suffered a mild stroke! So I will let you guys have at it while I recover….

      • Another proposal in the DVRPC’s 1970s-era plans was to extend the NHSL eastward from Upper Darby via the former PRR Cardington branch. The line would have met the west terminus of the proposed PATCO extension, offering cross-regional service from the western suburbs to South Jersey as well as increasing east/west rail capacity within Philadelphia complementary to the Market Street line.

        Ostensibly operating parameters for the NHSL (P&W) and PATCO are sufficiently close that some form of through service could have been possible, although different loading gauges, curves, and platform lengths might have been an obstacle to full compatibility.

        But since then, even if the requisite money and political will could somehow magically be conjured, too much of the needed ROW east of Upper Darby has been lost for a connection to ever be a viable idea.

  6. Another version of the Center City map showed the Pennsylvania RR tracks running North under 13th St.
    When construction 1st started under Locust St. about 1917, the subway was built to go East of 8th St. 1 version of the map showed it connecting via 5th St.. to the Delaware River (Ben Franklin) Bridge, and the 8th St. Subway turning into the Walnut St. Subway.

  7. Randall Robinson

    I have always thought a loop around CC would be useful.

  8. This is a very interesting article and the pictures of the abandoned Arch Street line are a first for this website. Before Harry’s article, hints were passed about this short line but no confirmation or pictures shared in an effort to prevent spelunkers from accessing the line and doing graphic vandalism.

    I like A. Merritt Taylor for his optimism in spreading the subway links throughout various parts of the city. Were him to come up from the dead, he would be the one to replace Knueppell who is well known for his harebrained scheme to check tickets of all Regional Rail riders at four locations in Philadelphia and treating them like thieves scheming to steal a free ride on the Regional Rail until they showed the interns a paid ticket to be punched.

    I wish we expanded subways to all points of the city and that WWI, the great Depression and WWII plus the Korean War never happened at all. I know plans were made for expansion of the BSS to Northeast Philly even though the BSS had not been completed yet in the early 1920s but in all fairness, much of Northeast Philly was farmland with very few housed built to date and a road network already paved. Only after WWII and the Korean War did housing spread fast into Northeast Philly. Yet in 1964, many voters in Northeast Philly helped defeat the proposed expansion of the BSS for a cost of 70 million (today’s cost is 5B!) due to racism and the fear of blacks migrating to the Northeast once they discovered he ease of subway commuting on the new subway expanded from BSS. Plans were considered for expansion of the MFL onward in elevated form deep in the far Northeast for the same reason although those plans were never announced as to taking place. I-95 and the Regional rail took care of transportation needs plus regular buses for those who had the patience to wait for one and take it to Frankford Transportation Center to take the EL downtown.

    It would have been interesting to see the Manayunk subway go underneath the Art Museum and onward to Manayunk plus Chestnut Hill via another way. Yet this did not happen as competing railways had two lines (East and West) up to Chestnut Hill. Politics had a way to kill the subway proposal.

    Still we expanded BSS further southward in the 1930s and then built a short line to the Stadium District in 1973 for much less than we would have to pay to do it today. Hopefully subway will be expanded to the Naval Business District.

  9. Oh I can guarantee more people besides just septa has been down there recently. Even before you 😉

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