In Northeast Philadelphia, A Rich History Of Train Tracks And Acquisitions

 

Editor’s note: A version of this article appeared in the Winter 2018 edition of The High Line magazine, a publication of the Philadelphia Chapter of  the the Pennsylvania Railroad Technical & Historical Society.

Railroads have crossed through Northeast Philadelphia since the industry’s earliest days in America. While some of the old railroad lines no longer remain, they should be remembered for the role that they played in the development of the neighborhoods they once served. Some to these lines do still exist and carry on their functions as they did in the 19th century.

1838: The Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad built the Newkirk Viaduct, the first permanent bridge at Gray’s Ferry. | Image courtesy of Bradley Peniston

Railroading got its start in Northeast Philadelphia with a charter granted by the Pennsylvania General Assembly to the Philadelphia and Trenton Railroad (P&T) in 1831. Its backers’ original intention was to connect the most populated center of Philadelphia, in the vicinity of 3rd and Walnut Streets at the time, with Trenton, New Jersey, the southwestern terminus of a combination of canals and railroad lines owned by a monopoly known as the United Railroads of New Jersey that reached Newark and Raritan Bay. The connection would be made by way of a bridge to be built across the Delaware River just above the Falls of the Delaware near Morrisville, Pennsylvania. The P&T’s backers even envisioned its line possibly extending all the way to Raritan Bay, competing with United Railroads of New Jersey. The P&T’s management hired Samuel H. Kneass to survey the line’s route. Only 26-years-old, he had already completed the survey of the location of the canal linking the Delaware and Chesapeake Bays and would go on to have an illustrious career in Philadelphia’s nascent railroad industry, building the first railroad bridge, the Newkirk Viaduct, across the Schuylkill River for the Philadelphia, Wilmington, & Baltimore Railroad (PW&B). Located in Grays Ferry, it was also the first bridge to South Philadelphia and, for many years the only bridge to cross the Schyulkill River, carrying both rail and road traffic. His name appears on the recently restored 1839 Newkirk Viaduct Monument, which has been relocated along the Schuylkill River Trail near Bartram’s Garden. His gravesite is in Woodlands Cemetery which overlooks the old PW&B line. 

The P&T’s supporters did not factor in the opposition of Philadelphians living in its proposed path, particularly strong in the more built-up areas of Northern Liberties and Penn Township just north of the city’s boundary of Vine Street as it then existed before the 1854 city-county consolidation. That opposition proved decisive as the railroad’s construction approached the city of Philadelphia, in that the city in the pre-consolidation era was defined as occupying only a 2.277 square mile area between the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers and between Vine and South Streets. The track crew would lay its rails in the beds of Kensington streets by day, and the neighbors would dig them up and throw the rails into the Delaware River at night. Choosing discretion rather than valor, the railroad’s tracks terminated at Front Street and Montgomery Avenue when completed in 1834, a situation erroneously thought to be only temporary. That site is now occupied by Kensington High School for Creative Arts. The P&T’s right-of-way to this site occupied Trenton Avenue at grade.

Initially, the P&T relied on horses, but soon purchased a $6,000 locomotive from Mathias Baldwin, the company’s fifth locomotive, which was named “The Trenton.” On its October 1834 trial run the train traveled the 25 miles from Kensington to Morrisville in 55 minutes and the return trip in 46 minutes. The P&T then offered two round-trip trains per day, one powered by the Baldwin locomotive, the other by horses, for the one-way fare of $1.50. 

As Kensington developed, conflicts between trains and highway vehicles necessitated the elevating of the line in 1911, and it became known as the Trenton Avenue Elevated. The trestle portions of this line were removed in the 1980s, but other segments remain where it had been built on fill. 

Circa 1900 photo of the Kensington Freight Station which was the southern terminus of the Philadelphia and Trenton Railroad. | Image courtesy of The High Line via Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania

Trenton owes its location to the fact that it is the farthest place northward in New Jersey that is navigable on the Delaware River. In the 1830s, steamboats regularly plied the Delaware River between Philadelphia and Trenton and competed with the new railroads, which, because of the opposition, did not go all the way to the center of Philadelphia, but to its out-of-the-way Kensington terminal. Steamboats remained a popular alternative for several decades, a vehicle on which to enjoy a good, leisurely meal of planked shad quaffed down with fish house punch during a pleasant excursion. In 1858, steamboat captain Benjamin McMakin advertised his boat, the Edwin Forrest, sailing between Philadelphia and Trenton, charging .25 cents for passage and the same amount for meals. In 1847, the P&T compensated for its inability to reach central Philadelphia by building its own steamboat pier in what was then Oxford Township on the Delaware River in the vicinity of today’s Disston Street in the northeast neighborhood of Tacony. At Tacony Junction, the railroad was connected to the dock with a spur near hotels along the river. The Edwin Forrest added Tacony to its schedule. Its dock would later become part of the extensive Disston Saw Works site.

During the Civil War, Union troop trains from points north would discharge their passengers at this Tacony dock. Steamboats would then ferry them southward to the Philadelphia Navy Yard located between the foot of Federal Street and the foot of Washington Avenue. A telegraph message from Tacony Junction alerted the Navy base to the departure of the steamer and a ceremonial cannon would be fired alerting the volunteers living near the base to begin preparing meals for the arriving troops. Soldiers also arrived at the base from Camden aboard steamers of United Railroads’ Camden & Amboy Railroad. Having been refreshed there, the troops would march along Washington Avenue (or Prime Street as it was once called) to the PW&B station at Broad Street to continue their trip southward to the Virginia battlefields. The ceremonial cannon is now among the prized possessions of Philadelphia’s historic Fort Mifflin. 

Initially, the P&T’s management had greater ambitions than just running a line to Trenton, but the United Railroads of New Jersey, owning the competing route, invited them to merge. Again, choosing discretion over valor, they did and became a member of the monopoly. 

In 1870, businesses and farming interests in Holmesburg and Bustleton undertook development of a railroad that would connect to the P&T line just a short distance north of Tacony Junction’s spur to the steamboat dock in order to provide their growing communities with better transportation access. The P&T agreed to provide service on their line from its connection, a point called Holmesburg Junction. The line extended 4.1 miles and a portion of the distance was built along Pennypack Creek with passenger and freight station along the way, including Holmesburg (in addition to the Holmesburg Junction station), Ashton, and Blue Grass. The line terminated at Bustleton Station on Bustleton Avenue between Welsh Road and Grant Avenue where the station was located in a Revolutionary War-era barn. Originally known as the Holmesburg and Bustleton Railroad, its name was eventually shortened to the Bustleton Branch.

Tacony Boathouse Warf in 1901. | Image courtesy of The High Line via Louis Latarola

The P&T’s route from Morrrisville south to at least as far as Frankford is now a segment of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. The United Railroads of New Jersey, by then also including the P&T, was leased by the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) in 1871. On its merger with the New York Central in 1968, the owner became the Penn Central. In 1976, the former P&T line of the Northeast Corridor was acquired by Amtrak and the Bustleton Branch became part of Conrail. 

The Bustleton Branch has undergone a number of significant changes over the years with the development of Roosevelt Boulevard, initially a four lane road in the vicinity of Welsh Road and Grant Avenue. The boulevard was constructed in a cut with the branch located on an overpass, but the widening of the street in the early 1960s prompted the decision to terminate the branch east of the boulevard. Prior to this abandonment, the PRR had entered into a contract with the Philadelphia Electric Company allowing the utility to construct power transmission lines and their supporting towers the air rights over various rail lines. Today one can trace the original branch by observing these overhead lines, whether or not the track remains. 

Northeast Philadelphia grew rapidly after World War II, and business interest developed in extending the branch northward along the east side of Roosevelt Boulevard beginning in the 1950s with the supermarket chain Penn Fruit Company, which built an extensive, rail-served refrigerated and dry warehousing and bakery complex south of Grant Avenue along Blue Grass Road. 

In 1958, the City of Philadelphia and the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce created the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC) to provide modern development sites for companies no longer desiring to continue occupying inefficient, multi-story factory buildings. The city provided land at the four corners of the Northeast Philadelphia Airport, a facility created from the Northeast’s abundant farmland during WWII. The PIDC proceeded to build its own Bustel Branch extension east of Roosevelt Boulevard and north of Grant Avenue from a connection extended to that point by the PRR. Whitman’s Chocolates, relocating from the pathway of the Independence Mall project, was the first rail-served tenant. The company was located on a site along the boulevard north of Grant Avenue, soon followed by Kiddie City, a Penn Fruit subsidiary, and a bakery for Acme Markets. The PIDC track extended along the borders of the airport almost to Comly Road, a distance of 4.5 miles when completed in 1971.

The Pennsylvania Railroad’s Bustleton passenger and freight station in 1910. | Image courtesy of The High Line via The Library Company of Philadelphia

The branch remains in active freight service, but its passenger service is long gone. Shortly after WWI, the PRR recognized the desirability of operating self-propelled gasoline engine passenger “busses” on light density branch lines of which traffic did not justify either electrification or continued steam engines. The PRR acquired a number of these cars in 1921 and added onto its holdings until 1926 when it gave up on the idea. The PRR filed to abandon passenger service on the Bustleton Branch on November 20, 1925.

There are some who can remember the happy times that they enjoyed at the Children’s Country Weekend camp that was located at Blue Grass Station. City kids would be brought out from dense urban neighborhoods to experience the countryside and life on a farm. Some of these children arrived on the train. 

When the PRR acquired the P&T in 1871, it had already created a route through Philadelphia that would link the P&T and its northern connections to the PW&B and its southern markets. This route would extend first as a joint project from the PW&B at Grays Ferry along the Schuylkill River’s west bank northward to the PRR station near 30th Street, developed in 1864, and then northward from there to a connection to the Reading Railroad near the Philadelphia Zoo. This joint railroad line was then extended in 1863 in a tangent across sparsely-populated North Philadelphia from the zoo to a connection with the P&T at a point to be called Frankford Junction, completed in 1867. The PRR had abandoned hope at the time of reaching the most densely populated Delaware waterfront areas of Philadelphia and instead expected that their West Philadelphia station would draw travelers to it. This undertaking from the Philadelphia Zoo to Frankford Junction would be called the Connecting Railway. Today, this connector is an integral segment of Amtrak’s line through Philadelphia.

With the 1867 inauguration of an all-rail route from Baltimore through Philadelphia to New York, the steamboat transfer at Tacony was terminated, but the pier remained in operation for riverboats until WWI. It was occasionally pressed back into rail service in periods of high-volume traffic, such as during the 1876 Centennial celebration when the steamer Creedmore Cutter transported passengers from Tacony to the PRR dock at Walnut Street. By the 1930s, Disston Saw Works had eliminated the pier and replaced it with a marginal bulkhead where barges docked along Disston’s waterfront.

Bustleton freight station of the Reading Railroad on the New York Shoreline at Grant Avenue circa 1940. | Image courtesy of The High Line via Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania

Completion of the Connecting Railway did not mean that the PRR had lost interest in the P&T track that extended southward below Frankford Junction to its old Front Street and Montgomery Avenue terminal. The PRR now revisited the Tacony pier site along the Delaware River where steamboats had docked. In 1892, it proceeded to extend a five-mile branch line known as the Kensington & Tacony (K&T)  southward along the river shoreline to Tioga Street, allowing it access to the industries concentrated along the Delaware River such as Disston, various swollen and cordage mills, and the Frankford Arsenal. It also tied back to the K&T at Frankford Junction via the line in the bed of Tioga Street. In 1925, the K&T attracted a new customer, Philadelphia Electric Company’s coal-fired Richmond Station on Lewis Street. In 1935, this station was expanded to provide all power to the PRR’s electrified service between Philadelphia and New York, transmitted on towers over the K&T’s right-of-way to the Northeast Corridor. While Richmond Station no longer produces power, it sources electricity via interconnections with other stations and continues to use the K&T’s overhead transmission lines. The K&T remained quite active into the early 1980s, having its own Tacony rail yard north of Disston’s factory to accommodate car switching on the branch. Conrail eventually abandoned the K&T when its bridge over Frankford Creek caught fire. The line’s customer base did not justify the considerable cost of replacing it. The action stranded several rail shippers which were then forced to switch to trucks. Portions of the K&T live on today as a rail-to-trail bike path. 

The K&T was paralleled a short distance away by the track of the Philadelphia Belt Line Railroad, an entity created in 1889 that favored the Reading Railroad. Today this line is heavily used by Kinder Morgan’s liquid bulk distribution facility and connects to the Conrail Port Richmond Branch that accesses Tioga Marine Terminal. Clearance improvements to the Port Richmond Branch have been approved for funding so that traffic can reach Tioga Marine Terminal. The branch itself has been the subject of considerable notoriety as a gathering spot for drug addicts. The long a rich history of the Reading Railroad’s Port Richmond Terminal is beyond the scope of this article. 

In the 1850s and ’60s three railroads dominated Philadelphia–the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad (known later as simply “Reading”), and the North Pennsylvania Railroad, a line built in the 1850s extending from a terminal near Front and Noble Streets northward to Jenkintown, Fort Washington, Ambler, and to Bethlehem where it served the Lehigh Valley and the anthracite mines of Carbon County. It also developed a line extending from Jenkintown to Trenton, its Delaware River Branch. This third railroad was acquired by Reading in 1879. 

The American railroad industry of the 1870s was characterized by cutthroat, unregulated, no holds barred competition as companies sought to grow their franchises, increasingly at their competitors’ expense. With the PRR now having established a route from Baltimore through Philadelphia to Raritan Bay, it had put the Reading at a distinct disadvantage. The Reading’s president, Franklin B. Gowen, now sought to even the score by coupling together his own set of lines that would get his railroad to Newark. This effort would greatly impact Northeast Philadelphia.

Frankford Station of the Reading Railroad circa 1900 on the west side of Frankford Avenue at Unity Street. | Image courtesy of The High Line via Hagley Museum and Library

Gowen, already famous as the prosecutor of the Molly Maguires in Carbon County, had negotiated a series of acquisitions and mergers that got him part of the way to his goal, but he needed more. His acquisition of the North Penn Railroad extended the Reading to Trenton, but this route was circuitous by way of Jenkintown, and Gowen wanted a direct connection. He got it through control over the Philadelphia and Newtown Railroad in 1879. This line, established in 1860, had completed track from Reading’s Wayne Junction to Cheltenham, Bryn Athyn, Fox Chase, and Newtown by 1878, a distance of 27 miles. Coming under Gowen’s control, it was extended in a northeastward tangent from Cheltenham nine miles to connect with the meandering Delaware River Branch at Neshaminy Falls. This extension was given the name “New York Shortline.” This railroad took on the ambition name of the Philadelphia, Newtown, and New York Railroad (PN&NY). Gowen’s assemblage of the Reading, North Penn, and PN&NY got him to Trenton from connections with the Bound Brook Railroad. The Central Railroad of New Jersey got him to Newark. The PRR watched its rival’s track assemblage with concern.

The PRR’s response was to create a line that, on paper, took it parallel to this assemblage as far north as Bustleton. Its intentions seem to have been to thwart the Reading from developing industry sites along its line, as the PRR’s real estate arm Manor Realty bought up farmland between its proposed line and the Reading’s. If industries moved onto the land, the PRR would be assured that their only rail access would belong to the railroad company. An example is Manor Realty’s sale of a site to Keystone Brick Company, which quarried clay on the site for much of Philadelphia’s housing construction in the 1920s and ’30s and used the PRR to ship out finished bricks. Their 134-acre site was acquired by the federal government during WWII and used as a naval supply depot, now known as the Naval Support Activity.

The first, and really only, phase of PRR construction in the Northeast was their Oxford Road Branch, a single three and a half mile industrial track extending northward mostly in cut from the Connecting Railway at C Street Yard near Erie Avenue in 1896. The PRR initially called it the Philadelphia and Bustleton Railroad. It was constructed as far north as a few hundred yards beyond Oxford Road (now Avenue) and terminated between coal and lumber yards. It crossed another railroad initially at grade, the 2.6 mile Philadelphia and Frankford Railroad constructed by local businesses and farming interests in 1892. The P&F line joined the Philadelphia and Newtown Railroad at the confusingly named Frankford Junction and it too eventually came under the control of the Reading. The area’s industry served by both railroads was then largely dairy farms. The P&F provided passenger as well as freight service, with stations at Cedar Grove near the Whitaker cotton mill on Tacony Creek and at the line’s terminal in the bustling mill town of Frankford. Passenger service was abandoned after the city’s Market-Frankford Elevated Line was completed in the 1920s.

Map of Philadelphia railroads, Philadelphia City Planning Commission, 1971 | Image courtesy of The High Line

Beyond Oxford Road, the PRR right-of-way remained in its control until the City of Philadelphia announced plans to construct the Northeast Freeway. Only a small portion of Northeast Boulevard was ever constructed, and the name “Pennway” was given to a street in part of the right-of-way, the same name that was given the project by the PRR. As with the Bustleton Branch, the PRR leased air rights to the electric company, and that is how one can trace the location of the original right-of-way. While both of these lines may have initially disappointed their investors, that changed in 1919 when Sears, Roebuck and Company executive Lessing Rosenwald decided to place the company’s eastern regional catalog headquarters where Oxford Road and the P&F line intersected. This gave Sears the clout to pit the two railroads against each other to negotiate rates and service. With the advent of trailer-train intermodal shipping in the 1960s, direct boxcar service to the facility declined dramatically. Both lines were identified for abandonment during the 1973-76 regional rail reorganization. 

These two branch lines may be history, but the PN&NY lives up to its ambitious name. Under Reading ownership, its New York Shortline was the preferred route for freight to the New York market and also carried the B&O Railroad’s Royal Blue Line passenger service from Washington and Baltimore to Newark. Its freight station on Grant Avenue in Bustleton competed with its PRR counterpart four blocks away. Its segment for Wayne Junction to Cheltenham Junction carried the Reading’s commuter service to Fox Chase, a function now performed by SEPTA. With the sale of Conrail to CSX and Norfolk Southern, the New York Shortline came under CSX control and it has improved its height clearances to permit double-stacked intermodal container movements. Part of CSX’s high clearance route extends from Jacksonville, Florida to Montreal. No doubt Franklin Gowen would be pleased. CSX and SEPTA traffic must share a portion of this route from Olney to Cheltenham, giving nervous fits to schedulers of both railroads. 

Amtrak has on its drawing boards ambitious plans to upgrade and relocate portions of its Northeast Corridor. For example, one alternative addresses the feasibility of rerouting the corridor between Frankford Junction and 30th Street Station, the old Connecting Railway, to eliminate the curve near Frankford which has been the cause of a recent fatal derailment. If one thing is certain, the story of Northeast Philadelphia’s railroad industry continues to evolve.

About the author

Edward W. Duffy is the author of "Philadelphia: A Railroad History" (Camino Books, 2013) and "Philadelphia Celebrates: Three Great Anniversaries - 1876-1926-1976" (Camino Books, 2017).



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