When a two-story home was constructed in what is now the far northwestern reaches of Roxborough sometime around 1826 it served the same purpose as so many other country residences built by wealthy Philadelphians on the outskirts of town. Beat the heat, hear the crickets, escape deadly epidemics. But nearly two centuries later, the building, which was quickly subsumed into the railroad industry and ultimately became SEPTA’s defunct Shawmont Station, now has a history like no other.
“Not only is it the oldest passenger railroad station in the country, but it’s the oldest railroad building in the world,” said John Johnstone, past president of the Roxborough Manayunk Wissahickon Historical Society. Johnstone worked with William Breard on a successful nomination of station to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 2008.
Now, after falling into disrepair for the better part of half a century, Shawmont Station is getting a new lease on life. A full exterior renovation of the building that began earlier this year, with a price tag of $1.25 million, should be complete by the end of September, according to SEPTA spokesperson Kelly Greene. In addition to a thorough and historically-minded restoration of the building’s facade, the project will also ensure its structural integrity and ability to withstand the elements.
It is not a complete project. Those close to the renovation say significant interior work will remain undone for now, but it opens the door for any number of new tenants, hopefully sooner than later. No matter what, it keeps Shawmont Station’s fascinating history–as a waypoint in so many industries from Philadelphia’s past–alive well into the future.
Summer Home on the Schuylkill River
The first chapter of Shawmont Station’s story was only discovered recently. Johnstone said that in the lead-up to the 2008 historic nomination for the building, available records suggested that it was first built for use by the railroads sometime in the 1830s. But later, SEPTA turned over to Johnstone a new set of records that held a surprise: the building actually dated to the 1820s and was originally a summer home.
The most complete history of the building is now housed online by the Roxborough Manayunk Wissahickon Historical Society. According to its timeline, land records show that a Center City lawyer named Nathan Nathans purchased a plot of land adjacent to the Schuylkill River where the property now sits in 1825. It was a secluded and wooded area, with the closest human enterprise being the Schuylkill Navigation Company’s canal towpath, running along the river’s eastern bank, and a “Pebble Road” running from Roxborough to Montgomery County. By 1827, records show, Nathans built a country home along the banks of the Schuylkill River, constructed with Wissahickon schist in a Greek Revival style. It was one of just a few houses in the area. “I call it river architecture myself. They all kind of had that look about them, ” Johnstone said. “It’s just like today. People like to have some kind of solitude in a vacation home by the water.”
But it would not remain an idyllic setting for long. Also in 1825, prominent Philadelphia architect William Strickland traveled to England to study the country’s canals, railways, and roads as part of an effort to improve transportation infrastructure in the United States. By the 1830s Strickland was applying what he’d learned, including working with engineer Henry Campbell to design the Norristown branch of the Philadelphia, Germantown and Norristown Railroad, chartered in 1931, and laying tracks near the summer home. Nathans had sold the building to a local miller named John Wise, but remained executor of Wise’s estate. Nathans then sued the railroad unsuccessfully before selling the property in 1835 to Henry Croskey, a local lumber merchant and railway enthusiast, according to the society’s historical timeline.
From then on the property became surrounded by industry. Pebble Road was upgraded and renamed the Schuylkill Turnpike. Croskey created a runoff stream to support his lumbering operations called Green Tree Run, a tributary of the Schuylkill River that still exists today. He also created a new lane by the same name to connect the Ridge Turnpike in Upper Roxborough with the Schuylkill Turnpike.
Croskey also embraced the railroads, renaming the Nathans-Wise house Green Tree Station and facilitating passenger and freight service along the new tracks, while working with the Schuylkill Navigation Company and lodging their workers in the station overnight. But it was the passenger service, which started as early as 1835, that is most significant for the building’s historical distinction. According to Johnstone, it makes it the oldest extant passenger railway station in the United States, as well as the oldest building owned by a railroad company anywhere in the world.
The building would see much more history over the next 150 years. While early trains on the line were primarily horse-drawn, by 1836 they had been fully replaced by the steam engine. Traffic and commerce picked up. In addition to carrying Croskey’s lumber, freight lines were extended to the lime kilns of Plymouth Meeting and a quarry in King of Prussia.
In 1850, a Schuylkill River flood washed out the nearby Flat Rock Bridge, and a ferry service between Green Tree Station and Gladwyne on the river’s west bank was opened to replace it. In 1857, Croskey sold the station to the Philadelphia, Germantown, and Norristown Railroad and his nearby estate to inventor Thomas Shaw. Around the same time, the University of Pennsylvania began holding boat races on the Schuylkill River, with passengers from Philadelphia’s core disembarking at Green Tree Station to watch, a tradition that would carry on into the 20th century. “The station and the ferry had heavy use as spectators would all be on the Roxborough side of the river,” Johnstone explained.
In the second half of the 19th century, Shawmont Station continued to be swept up with the changes of time. The Philadelphia & Reading Railroad permanently leased the line and began competing with the nearby Pennsylvania Railroad. Given the latter also had a station named Green Tree in Chester County, the Roxborough station’s name was changed in 1873 to Shawmont Station after Thomas Shaw.
In 1916, the last freight barge traveled down the Schuylkill River, passing Shawmont Station on its way. Five years later, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad moved all freight services to tracks on the western side of the river and used the line to Norristown passing by Shawmont on the eastern banks to carry passengers from Philadelphia to destinations as far as Gettysburg, Pottsville, and Williamsport. The ferry service also closed that year.
The railroad became simply the Reading Railroad, then passed to Conrail in 1976, and SEPTA in 1979, when it was named the R6 line. Paralleling these changes was the evolution of the automobile and highway system, relegating the railroads to second tier status. Passenger service was first cut from Williamsport to Shamokin, then Shamokin to Pottsville, then Pottsville to Norristown.
By 1991, Shawmont Station had become just a whistle stop: trains only stopped there when a passenger called for it. In 1995, service stopped completely, but the building was still occupied by the Brendel family, which had moved into the station in 1909 as permanent tenants and station masters. By 2013, the last of the Brendels departed, too, and the building was vacant for the first time in 187 years.
A New Day Dawning
Shawmont Station entered its most perilous point in history. In 2013, SEPTA decided to have the station restored and submitted records to Johnstone, facilitating his discovery of the building’s earliest use, according to the historical society. But, the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia included Shawmont Station on its endangered property list, and a subsequent Hidden City article reported that “SEPTA officials have [said] the authority has no plans to restore the building,” as the agency prioritized “maintenance of crucial infrastructure such as bridges.” As Johnstone explained, SEPTA officials told him they intended to restore the building, but lacked funding to do little more than install a new oil heating unit and fix up some stairs. In a 2015 followup from Hidden City, the building was reported to have fallen into deep disrepair. And while SEPTA “expressed interest in saving the structure with community-backed renovations,” the article stated, “no definite plans are forthcoming.”
But Shawmont Station’s fortunes changed in 2018 when the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission awarded $1 million for its restoration. According to Johnstone, restoration prospects were boosted by the addition of Shawmont Station to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 2008, after which entities such as the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission began to take an interest and preservationists began writing letters to various agencies.
SEPTA put the restoration to bid in 2021 and awarded $1.25 million to L.B.I. Construction, LLC of Bucks County. Restoration began earlier this year and progressed quickly. Johnstone said the exterior work is nearly complete, and Greene at SEPTA stated that the entire project should be finished by the end of September. “The building, I think, looks beautiful. It has a ‘wow’ factor now,” said Johnstone.
The building’s exterior is restored to how it would have appeared in 1870 after it underwent several alterations to convert from its early days as a residence to a full-fledged train stop. Originally, there was a central entrance and central stairway, with windows on each side of the first floor frontage. Reading Railroad converted the windows to doorways and the original central doorway was changed into a window, behind which worked a telegraph operator.
What comes next for the building remains up in the air. Various proposals floated in the past have been for a recreational center, eatery, museum, or some combination of uses. More work will be needed to fully renovate the interior, which is currently without heat or running water. Greene, responding to a question about how much more money will be needed to fully rehabilitate the building, suggested that would be up to the prospective new tenant. “Once our work is completed, it is possible that a tenant could occupy the site and perform the interior renovations,” said Greene.
For his part, Johnstone would love to see a museum showcasing to visitors all of the rich history of the station and its place in the story of Philadelphia and its railroads. “There is a Reading Railroad Museum out in Hamburg, Pennsylvania, but nothing to represent the city,” Johnstone said. “It would make a wonderful museum, and I am sure it would generate a lot interest. There are a lot of people who could contribute railroad treasures to the exhibit.”