When the Pennsylvania Railroad completed construction of its 30th Street Station in April, 1952 allowing the last train to depart Broad Street Station it solved a puzzle that had perplexed the company for a century–how to provide adequate passenger service in a manner that was politically acceptable to its hometown and economically and operationally sensible for the railroad.
Chartered in 1846, the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) was a late entry into Philadelphia’s railroad scene, behind such companies as, among others, the Northern Liberties and Penn Township Railroad (1829), the Southwark Railroad (1835) and the City of Philadelphia’s own horse drawn railroad (1837) operating on Broad Street and on High (now Market) Street and interchanging cars in its rail yard on Centre Square. The Northern Liberties and Southwark railroads operated just outside the boundaries of what then defined as Philadelphia–Vine to South Streets, Delaware to Schuylkill Rivers–and so were authorized to use steam locomotives that were prohibited within city limits.
The PRR was created specifically to replace a slow, cumbersome Commonwealth creation, the Main Line of Public Works, a mixed rail and canal route from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh charged with competing with New York’s Erie Canal from Buffalo to Albany thence to Manhattan via the Hudson River. The PRR’s tracks in Philadelphia terminated at 30th and Market Streets where it interchanged cars with the city railroad. These were not the only railroad interchangings, as the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad swapped cars with the City-owned railroad and the Northern Liberties railroad at Broad and Vine Streets and another railroad, the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore (PW&B), interchanged at Broad Street and Washington Avenue with both the City railroad and the Southwark Railroad eastward on Washington Avenue. The Reading had its own passenger terminal at Vine Street and the PW&B at first used a hotel at 11th and Market Streets. When the PW&B built its own passenger station at Broad Street and Washington Avenue, the PRR assumed its lease at 11th and Market Streets.
The 1854 consolidation of Philadelphia city and governments soon revealed that City Hall’s added responsibilities were too much for the structure at 6th and Chestnut Streets, one of the State House buildings, and would have to be replaced. A public buildings committee recommended in July, 1860, Centre Square for the new location, but this meant the end of the municipal railroad, and the PRR would have to find new quarters for its passenger and freight customers elsewhere.
The PRR had already seen the handwriting on the wall and had studied its options. The railroad company used Market Street not only to access its passenger terminal, but also to reach freight stations along the way and the Dock Street pier that it had leased from the City. High Street had become Philadelphia’s Market Street in the 1850s where almost everyone shopped, and it was now a nightmare for horse-drawn railroad traffic. Making matters even worse, its arch competitor, the Reading, had leased the Northern Liberties railroad in the bed of Willow Street in 1857, improved its tracks and constructed a modern port facility at the foot of Vine Street, Piers 24, 25, and 27. In 1853, the PW&B had leased the Southwark Railroad giving it access to the Delaware River at Washington Avenue. The PRR found itself stuck between them with the inefficient Dock Street pier and the congested route to it.
The PRR was not the only railroad on the west bank of the Schuylkill River. Another railroad, the West Chester and Philadelphia (WC&P, 1853), approached from the southwest, skirted around Woodlands Cemetery, and then proceeded north to a station at 31st and Chestnut Streets. The WC&P is now SEPTA’s Media-Elwyn line. The PRR negotiated rights to run south on this line from the PRR’s terminus at Market Street to a point opposite the federal Schuylkill Arsenal in 1859, bridged the Schuylkill River there in January 1862 and proceeded east by way of trackage rights on the PW&B to the Delaware River where it constructed a large grain elevator in 1863. The PW&B had crossed the Schuylkill River further south at Grays Ferry.
Now on good terms with the WC&P and the PW&B, the PRR proposed extending its line further south from the Arsenal Bridge to the PW&B at Grays Ferry, thus allowing a train originating in Harrisburg to transit all the way to Wilmington, a very attractive idea indeed. It also proposed to the Reading, which crossed the Schuylkill River further north on the Columbia Bridge at Peters Island, that it, too, join in this improvement, extending a track south from Peters Island to Market Street. The PRR called this three mile line the Junction Railroad. To sweeten the offer, the PRR proposed a passenger station that all three railroads could use at 30th and Market Streets, completed in 1864.
The site of this station has a strange, convoluted history. In the earliest days of Penn’s “Greene Countrie Town,” the site was used as a cemetery by the Centre Square Friends Meeting. The Schuylkill River was then crossed by three ferries–the Middle Ferry at High Street, replaced by a bridge in 1805, the Upper Ferry at Callowhill Street, and the Lower or Grays Ferry. The Friends created the Upper Burial Ground on the west bank of the Schuylkill River just below the Upper Ferry. Adjoining it was their Lower Burial Ground extending as far south as the Middle Ferry and west to the road leading to the Upper Ferry. The Centre Square Meeting was abandoned by the Friends, but the Society continued to use the burying grounds without other title than its original assignment to the Meeting as a place of interment.
Considerable dispute arose regarding the actual ownership until 1819 when the Society formally relinquished its title to the Philadelphia Board of Health on condition that the title should be without prejudice to the right of individuals to the use of the property “as a burying ground and place of interment of the dead forever.” Within 30 years this was vacated, the ground falling into the ownership of a powerful state senator, John Hare Powel, who owned an adjoining estate, Powelton.
During the 120 years that the Friends had used the ground there were thousands of interments made of the earliest residents of Philadelphia. The grounds were laid out with walks and drives and had a central pavilion or rotunda–a place of quiet charm and beauty valued so highly in the 19th century, as can still be seen in Laurel Hill and Woodlands Cemeteries.
Railroad interest in these grounds precedes the PRR. When the Main Line of Public Works was determining where its line would be, Senator Hare argued that it should be through his property along with a bridge into the city and he planned to create docks along the track. The city’s Watering Committee objected to any bridge south of Belmont, and the issue was ultimately resolved with a bridge at Peters Island leading to Broad and Vine Streets in 1831. When the PRR appeared on the scene in 1846, Powell sold his waterfront lands, 95 acres encompassing the burial grounds, between 1851 and 1860. During excavation for 30th Street Station foundations in August 1930 coffins were encountered and had to be relocated.
With an agreement in hand with the Reading and the PW&B, the PRR proceeded to construct the Junction Railroad and a passenger station at 30th and Market Street in 1864. The passenger station was created in an existing building, but the train shed was constructed with building materials salvaged from Philadelphia’s 1864 Great Sanitary Fair held on Logan Square.
The PRR’s decision to relocate its passenger terminal to 30th Street provoked widespread criticism. Philadelphians and their politicians wanted to know why they did not relocate it closer to the center of the city’s population, at that time around 8th and Market Streets. The PRR had moved its freight terminal to 18th and Market Streets. Why not its passenger terminal also?
A station at 30th Street appeared far more distant from downtown in 1864 than it does today, so this criticism is not as far fetched as it appears. Philadelphia in the 1850s was concentrated along the Delaware River to such an extent that Broad Street was considered a frontier. In the 1840s, Philadelphia railroads provided Sunday excursion trains called “pleasure cars” to take the working class out into the countryside, often to the banks of the Schuylkill River, to the Wigwam Baths resort on the Schuylkill River’s east bank opposite the Upper Burial Ground, and to Grays Ferry’s Grays Garden, the first public park in Philadelphia, which was planned after the public gardens in London. These excursions were discontinued by the 1850s when increasing Know Nothing nativist conservatism banished Sabbath-day public recreation.
The banks of the Lower Schuylkill retained its bucolic charm well into the 19th century. Senator George Wharton Pepper, in his autobiography Philadelphia Lawyer recounted that as a boy growing up at 346 South 16th Street there was nothing west of his church, Saint Mark’s at 16th and Locust Streets, but great, open spaces. Maritime attorney John Frederick Lewis, in his book The Redemption of the Lower Schuylkill, described its evolution from a place of natural beauty to an open industrial sewer by 1924.
The end of the Civil War brought only a brief drop in PRR traffic and soon passenger volumes rebounded. As Philadelphia and the nation prepared to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 1876, the PRR decided to replace its 30th Street Station with a new one, Centennial Station, the most elaborate that the PRR had yet built. It was located at the northwest corner of 32nd and Market Streets with a loop track connecting it to the PRR’s satellite Fairgrounds Station at the Centennial Exhibition at Belmont and Parkside Avenues.
The Centennial was celebrated in West Fairmount Park, a site unfortunately within olfactory range of the PRR’s main cattle receiving yard at 52nd Street and Merion Avenue, where the PRR had acquired the Heston Estate for this purpose. Receiving yard drovers acquired auctioned animals and they and their dogs were a common sight leading their inventory to butcher shops throughout the city. Asked to relocate the receiving yard so as not to disturb the celebration’s visitors’ senses, the PRR obligingly moved it to the site of the Upper and Lower Burial Grounds. This coincided with a movement underway to concentrate, professionalize, and sanitize what had been a mom-and-pop butchering industry, and so the PRR built large abattoirs there for cattle, swine, and sheep, with the effluent from these operations being discharged into the Schuylkill River. Mercifully for Center City residents downwind, these abattoirs were again relocated when 30th Street Station was built a half century later.
While the PRR’s involvement in the celebration was a great success, passenger traffic soon outstripped the new station’s capacity as the PRR acquisitions increased traffic. Notably, the PRR acquired a route running from Kensington to Raritan Bay and New York Harbor in 1872, and the PW&B in 1881. It then constructed a rail line connecting the Kensington Railroad at Frankford (Frankford Junction) with the Junction Railroad at the Philadelphia Zoo (Zoo Junction) and extended its PW&B acquisition south to Washington, D.C., creating an all-rail route from Washington to Jersey City. These improvements had an immediate impact of Philadelphia passenger traffic.
These expansions occurred during the presidency of J. Edgar Thompson, regarded as the PRR’s finest. After his death in office, he was succeeded by has assistant, Colonel Tom Scott, in 1874. Facing traffic growth outstripping Centennial Station and continued criticism of the PRR’s remote Philadelphia station, he succumbed to pressure and authorized construction of a large downtown stub-end terminal, Broad Street Station, completed in 1881 and then undergoing several expansions, including adding its elaborate head house designed by famed local architect Frank Furness. This decision would haunt the PRR for half a century.
The problem with Broad Street Station was that a train bound from Jersey City to Washington would have to detour from the main north-south line across the Schuylkill River to the station and then proceed back across it to resume its way south. This ‘Y’ maneuver cost the PRR a minimum of 15 minutes schedule time. Meanwhile, its arch-rivals, the B&O and the Reading, assembled a joint route on the Schuylkill River’s east bank that did not require such maneuvering. In competing for the best schedule, this put the PRR at a disadvantage. It also cost the PRR in fuel, payroll, and maintenance.
The PRR found itself needing additional Philadelphia stations. First, a new West Philadelphia Station at 32nd and Market Streets, completed in 1903, which became Philadelphia’s primary intercity station for north-south traffic, and second North Philadelphia, constructed on the Connecting Railroad at Germantown Junction in 1904, to handle traffic to and from Harrisburg and points west bound north for Jersey City and south for Washington. With this station available, such traffic would no longer have to back in and out of Broad Street Station from Zoo Junction. In an era before the advent of commercial air travel, North Philadelphia Station was one of the busiest stations in America. It became the sole Philadelphia stop for the Broadway Limited, the “Aristocrat of the Rails,” and The American, which claimed in advertising that it was “‘Worthy of the Name it Bears.” The station was designed by Theophilus Parsons Chandler, Jr., founder of the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Architecture and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
By 1920, it had become apparent that the PRR was out of options for expanding Broad Street Station, its only option in the direction of the new Benjamin Franklin Parkway where it would face certain opposition. When a fire destroyed that station’s train shed in 1923 the PPR began to earnestly consider alternatives that before had been just concept plans. Of particular interest to them, they had by then become comfortable with railroad electrification, which offered the alternative of constructing stations underground.
This possibility was on full display in Philadelphia in 1884 during its International Electrical Exhibition held partially in the PRR’s vacant Centennial Station. The railroad company eagerly embraced this technology, experimenting until it felt confident enough to construct Penn Station in Manhattan, reached by electrified trains running in tubes beneath the Hudson River. The PRR now had a technology to separate its intercity and commuter rail passenger station needs by planning an underground electrified suburban commuter station east of the Schuylkill River, and an electrified station for the route west of the river. The intercity station would be in West Philadelphia on the site of its 1864 station at 30th Street.