The abandoned former Reading Railroad outbound passenger station at 9th and Spring Garden Streets is an important landmark of Philadelphia’s railroad history. The railroad line that it serviced until 1984 had once been the right of way for Philadelphia’s first operating railroad, the Philadelphia, Germantown and Norristown (PG&N), which ran in the bed of 9th Street. The PG&N, affectionately known to its riders as the “Pidgeon,” had its downtown stop at 9th and Green Streets, one block away. Below Spring Garden Street its line extended down the bed of 9th Street to connect with Philadelphia’s first chartered railroad, the Northern Liberties and Penn Township Railroad, incorporated in April 1829, portions of which remain in the bed of Willow Street. This now-derelict station is at the epicenter of the rail line’s history and could be part of the neighborhood’s bright future.
Riding the Rails with Old Ironsides
Philadelphians in the 1820s were fascinated by news of the development of the world’s first railroad, Great Britain’s Stockton & Darlington, which used an iron locomotive propelled by steam in 1825, the same year that America’s Erie and Schuylkill Canals were completed. In 1827, the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company constructed a railroad to haul coal by gravity from its mines down to the Lehigh Canal at Mauch Chunk, today’s Jim Thorp. Among the many visitors to observe this railroad was Edward Bonsall of Germantown, who decided to organize a railroad linking Germantown with what was then the city of Philadelphia before its 1854 consolidation with Philadelphia County. He was issued a charter in April, 1831 and acquired permission from property owners along 9th Street to construct his track there.
One track was completed as far north as Germantown’s Church Lane, its rails mounted on stone sills with a gap between them wide enough so that a horse could walk in it. Its opening was formally celebrated on June 6, 1832 with a nine-car train, each car drawn by one horse, that proceeded up to a Germantown banquet. Regular service began the next day with six Philadelphia and six Germantown departures.
In April, 1831, Matthias Baldwin constructed a miniature locomotive for Franklin Peale’s museum that was capable of pulling two small passenger cars around the museum’s perimeter. Crowds flocked to experience this sensation. In November 1831, the Pigeon contracted with Baldwin to build a steam locomotive, “Old Ironsides,” delivered a year later, Baldwin’s first commercial locomotive.
The Pigeon would operate Old Ironsides only in fair weather, with horses used when foul weather dictated. Each morning’s first train would be horse-drawn from Philadelphia and each first train from Germantown would be powered by gravity until it rolled to a stop at Girard Avenue when horses would be attached to draw it to the Philadelphia depot. As there was no crew aboard this gravity-powered train, a passenger would volunteer to collect the fares and present them to the conductor at Girard Avenue. Freight cars would be delivered to Nicetown Station for their owners’ pickup by horsepower to continue on to Germantown, but they could return the empties to Nicetown by gravity.
Old Ironsides worked well for the Pidgeon, and it was eventually traded in on a new Baldwin model in 1846. Baldwin refurbished Old Ironsides and sold it to a New England railroad where it served its remaining days. Anticipating the 1876 Centennial, Baldwin attempted to reacquire Old Ironsides, but could find only a few parts and its name plate, so Baldwin created an exact replica in wood for the exhibition.
The Rise and Fall of an Ambitious Railman
The Pigeon was extended to Manayunk in 1834 and further to Norristown and south to Willow Street in 1835. The rail company constructed its Germantown Depot on Main Street–today’s Germantown Avenue–and in 1854 extended its line northward seven miles to its terminus in Chestnut Hill, having leased the Chestnut Hill Railroad Company in 1852. The opening of the 9th and Green station coincided with the completion of the Chestnut Hill railroad. The Pigeon saw heavy service during the Civil War as hospitals were constructed in the open lands along its route for the thousands of casualties streaming into Philadelphia. These included the 400-bed McClellan General Hospital near Nicetown, the 550-bed Cuyler General Hospital near Germantown’s Main Street Station and the 27-acre 4,000-bed Mower U.S. General Hospital in Chestnut Hill at Wyndmoor Station.
The Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company, known then and now as the Reading, leased the Pigeon on December 1, 1870. This was during the presidency of Franklin B. Gowen when the Reading expanded, or attempted to, in all directions and into new lines of business. These efforts ultimately lead to the Reading’s bankruptcy and Gowen’s suicide.
Franklin Gowen was a native of Mount Airy. His mansion, Magnolia Villa, is now known as Hagan Hall and is on the grounds of the United Lutheran Seminary on Gowen Avenue. He first came to the Reading’s attention as district attorney of Schuylkill County, where he established his reputation for prosecuting Irish immigrant Mollie Maguires in Mauch Chunk, the county seat. Gowen was hired to run its law department and within six years he had become the Reading’s president. His arrival at the Reading’s offices in Philadelphia coincided with the expansion of its principal rival, the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR). Until his appointment, the Reading had remained laser-focused on its core business hauling anthracite coal from Schuylkill County to Philadelphia, even leasing out its passenger business to another carrier, but that would soon change.
The PRR initially had focused on developing its east-west Philadelphia-Pittsburgh business, but in 1869, acquired the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne and Chicago Railroad, vastly extending its Midwestern reach, and then followed up with two more: the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore entering the city at Grays Ferry and the United Railroads of New Jersey coming as far south as Kensington from Newark. The PRR connected them with a railway line that is now a part of the Amtrak Northeast Corridor from the Philadelphia Zoo to Frankford. These latter two acquisitions provided the PRR with a route from Baltimore to the New York waterfront. Gowen perceived this as an existential threat and vowed to challenge it.
Gowen expanded the Reading’s activities to include coal mining, which was his undoing as his entry into this business with borrowed British funds occurred just as an oversupply of anthracite sent its price plummeting and forced the Reading into bankruptcy. But he also extended its trackage through strategic acquisitions. Having leased the Pigeon, he now acquired the parallel North Penn Railroad (in the bed of Philadelphia’s American Street), which ran up to Bethlehem with a branch leading from Jenkintown to Trenton and then to Philadelphia, Newtown, and New York, which provided a connection between the Pigeon and the North Penn between Nicetown and Cheltenham. This got the Reading to Jenkintown and east to Trenton, where Gowen negotiated rights to two New Jersey railroads, Delaware and Bound Brook and Jersey Central, which got him to Jersey City. The Reading looked well-positioned to take on the PRR, but then the bankruptcy occurred.
Making Connections With Reading Railroad
Financier extraordinaire J. P. Morgan assumed control of the Reading and installed his own management team, Austin Corbin and Archibald MacCloud, in 1886 and forced Gowen out. On surveying the bankruptcy’s detritus Morgan noted that its new connections were greatly increasing its passenger traffic. Its non-coal general freight traffic was also increasing on the lines that Gowen had leased cris-crossing industrial Philadelphia, by now the “Workshop of the World.” Even its bituminous (soft coal) business was growing rapidly. Corbin and MacCloud decided to pursue investments in these growing passenger and freight markets.
The Reading now owned three important Philadelphia passenger stations as a result of its acquisitions. In addition to its own at Broad and Callowhill Streets connecting it to Pottstown and Reading, it had acquired the Pigeon’s 9th and Green station and the North Penn station at 3rd and Berks Streets in Kensington. Surveying its properties, the Reading first decided to explore expanding the 9th and Green line. It hired Philadelphia’s favorite railroad station architect Frank Furness to prepare plans for its expansion, but the net result did not provide the capacity that was forecast to be needed and it continued rail access via the congested bed of 9th Street and so these plans were filed away. Instead, it would embark on a bold idea to rival its competitor, create a strikingly attractive large station right in the center of the city on Market Street–the Reading Terminal.
The PRR built its Broad Street Station at City Hall in 1881 with its approach tracks from the Schuylkill River elevated over City-owned streets on a separate grade so as not to interfere with traffic. The City imposed a similar requirement on the Reading in order to acquire the permits necessary for its terminal. This would be a much larger, lengthier, and more difficult grade separation project than the PRR had faced. However, this was something that the City very much wanted to happen because North Philadelphia was then rapidly developing. Having freight and passenger trains in the bed of 9th Street was becoming nightmarish. The City agreed to participate with the Reading in funding its construction. This was a truly monumental project, as not only the track right-of-way had to be elevated, but also its passenger stations would have to be rebuilt. All the while, passenger trains would need to run daily into the new Reading Terminal in the bed of 9th Street.
Reading built its new terminal at the final grade elevation agreed upon with the City, but its 9th Street approach tracks were still down at street level when Reading Terminal opened in February 1893. It constructed a temporary connection about a half mile long from the new station at 12th and Market Streets curving northeastward back to its at-grade line in 9th Street, connecting with it in vicinity of Brown Street. It would no longer need the Pigeon’s 9th and Green station, although it continued to use it as a freight station until demolishing it in 1909, but it needed temporary inbound and outbound stations nearby to service 9th and Green’s local passenger traffic until the track grade was finally readjusted. It chose to build these temporary stations at Spring Garden Street.
It took the Reading almost two decades to elevate its tracks, known as the “9th Street El” or the “Reading Viaduct,” as far north as Nicetown where the natural grade of the topography rising toward the northwest and less intense development allowed it to proceed further north at street grade. This was only just a pause in their grade separation activities, as these resumed when the Reading electrified its tracks to Germantown and Chestnut Hill with service beginning under the wire in February 1933.
With the increase in business that the Reading was experiencing, it became necessary for them to build more office space than they had created in Reading Terminal’s headhouse. In 1909, the Reading built an office annex building on the west side of its track at Spring Garden Street on the site of its temporary inbound station there, incorporating this station into the office building’s east elevation. In 1912, having completed its work north of Brown Street, the Reading returned to its connection between its terminal and Poplar, replacing its temporary girder bridge across Spring Garden Street with a wider masonry bridge at a higher elevation and building a new outbound passenger station on the northwest corner of 9th and Spring Garden Streets. The station still exists, but it is in near ruins.
Reversing Decades of Decline
These inbound and outbound stations remained actively used until completion of the 1.3 mile long Center City Commuter Connection Tunnel in 1985, serving commuters traveling to the various pharmaceutical companies that had gravitated to the area within walking distance of the stations–firms such as Sharp & Dohme, H.K. Mulford, Powers-Weightman-Rosengarten Company, and Smith Kline & French. It also served the staff of nearby schools and the national mint. The Reading’s office building there became artist studios in 1981. After a fire in 2015 more than 100 artists studios were evicted by the Department of Licenses and Inspections. It is now owned by Arts & Crafts Holdings and marketed as a creative workspace called 915 SpringGarden.
The Northern Liberties neighborhood surrounding Spring Garden Street Station went into decline after World War II as industries fled the city, but it has experienced a remarkable resurgence since 2000. Philadelphia’s own Rail Park has come to life on the complex of former Reading lines emanating out of Reading Terminal, its first phase proceeding eastward from near Broad and Callowhill Streets. There is also a private development project underway near the northern end of the abandoned 9th Street Elevated at the ten-story former Strawbridge and Clothier warehouse which is being converted into residential use by Post Brothers. This project is four blocks above Spring Garden Street and a block below Girard Avenue. When completed, it will form a northern anchor for the Rail Park, as above it the track remains in use as the active lead to the Center City Commuter Connection Tunnel. While the Rail Park’s development is currently focused on extending it further beyond what it has already completed, it is possible, indeed to be expected, that when the Strawbridge & Clothier warehouse project is finished its occupants will want their location on the 9th Street El to become part of the Rail Park.
This writer was disuaded from climbing onto the 9th Street El by the “No Trespassing” and “High Voltage” warning signs, but found an armchair way to tour it via YouTube videos of which there are many. Two recommended ones are Terry Robinson’s “Reading Viaduct,” a 1:25 minute aerial tour which appears to have been filmed from a drone and User ej6385’s video, “The Reading Viaduct,” a 1:55 minute tour. When viewing both get your bearings from the five-story 915SpringGarden building and look for the triangular shape of the northbound station and its platform across the tracks from it. Imagine this station and platform as a cafe for visitors like the one on the High Line above Chelsea Market in Manhattan. Can you taste the espresso?