Greater PRT

What might have been. Rapid Transit in Philadelphia.

Category: History

Walking Under Market Street Has Been a Thing for More Than a Century

Billy Penn’s Michaela Winberg successfully navigated the path from the just opened Fashion District all the way to the glistening Comcast Technology Center. There were some missteps along the way but in the end she made it.

It’s a trek I’ve made numerous times in my youth and wanted to do myself since the Gallery reopened (lets face it, it’ll always be the Gallery). So I’m a bit jealous Winberg beat me to it. But if I cannot be first to document the journey, I’m happy to share some history of the path.

The underground passageways date back to the opening of the Market Street Subway in 1903. Back in those early days (and even much later), Market Street stores utilized the concourses with display windows and entrances to their shops. Into the 1960s, Gimbels promoted Tuesday sales in its “Gimbels Subway Store.”

As a hoarder of Philadelphia transit maps and photographs I have some items to share from a 1908 book on the Market Frankford Line. Unfortunately, I haven’t always been great about documenting where I found these images. So if anyone knows where the source material was, I’d appreciate the insight.

This 1908 photograph shows live plants, patriotic bunting and window displays in the subway concourse.

Further along the concourse, John Wanamaker’s approach to concourse was just as welcoming.

The view to the concourse from inside the basement of John Wanamaker’s

Winberg also mentions the three metal tunnels with the low headroom at 11th Street. I’ve always wondered about that configuration. Unfortunately, this photo from 1908 doesn’t really explain the peculiar configuration.

Triple staircase before it was wrapped in stainless steel

Though the term bargain basement began at the base of department stores, postcards of the time prove it wasn’t solely a place for bargain shoppers.

1910 postcard of window display for department store in Philadelphia

The concourses may feel like an undocumented space but maps do exist. The most recent versions designed by the Center City District but others date back to at least 1936.

As the above maps show, at one time you could make your way north, all the way to Race Street, but those passageways, once accessible via Suburban Station have been closed off.

I’ll be on the lookout for a comprehensive map that illustrates just how one could walk from 8th and Chestnut to the Four Seasons atop the Comcast Technology Center without crossing a single intersection. From underground to above the clouds. Sounds like a good walk.

Free Transfers A Dream We All Dream of

Abolishing paid transfers has become a rallying cry of progressive transit advocates in Philadelphia. “The transfer is regressive” spout transportation pundits. Adding that the transfer hurts poorer people most as the cost hits the pocket harder and because poorer sections of the city require more transfers to reach job centers, thereby taxing the poor even more.

What would you say if I told you there was a city employee who was devoted to eliminating transfer penalties and ensuring “the advantages of rapid transit will be extended as equally as practicable to every front door in Philadelphia. ” And what would you say if I told you that proposal dated back to November of 1914?

A. Merrit Taylor, Philadelphia’s first Director of Transit (and patron saint of this site) proposed doing away with the transfer way before the SEPTA key even began its roll out. Back in 1913, Taylor’s plans for rapid transit in Philadelphia proposed a flat five-cent fare, doing away with Philadelphia Rapid Transit’s three-cent transfer. The cost-free transfer would apply to his proposed subways and elevated railways as well as to surface trolleys run by PRT, the trolley monopoly of Philadelphia. It was lauded by the Evening Ledger as a Philadelphian’s dream of being able to go via high speed subway and elevated from Darby all the way to Frankford for just five cents.

The Evening Ledger praised the removal of the transfer cost, stating:

The transit program provides for the operation of all high-speed lines In conjunction with the surface system, which will serve as the agent for the gathering and distributing of passengers using the high-speed lines without extra charge.’ Thus the advantages of rapid transit will be extended as equally as practicable to every front door In Philadelphia.

In 1914, extending equitable transportation to all of Philadelphia was a goal worth fighting for. Of course, now more than 100 years later, we know that everyman’s utopia didn’t happen. But why not?

The PRT had a monopoly on surface trolleys in Philadelphia in 1914 and weren’t keen on losing it or even its transfer fares. Taylor proposed building and running the els and subways separately from the PRT’s Market Street subway, so the city could use the new lines as leverage against the trolley monopoly. But in February of 1915, the city councils’ finance committee “knifed” the plans, committing to build only the Frankford Elevated and connecting it to the Market Street subway, thereby washing away any leverage the city might get over the PRT. In the February 19th, 1915 edition, the Ledger sensationally reported a “mighty wave of protest against transit trickery is sweeping through city.” “Merchant princes” of the city with names like Gimbel and Lit were among the angered as the councils scuttled the robust plans of Taylor that would have brought Philadelphians from everywhere in the city to their shopping meccas for just a nickel.

In 1916, The PRT addressed citizens wishes by proposing waiving the three-cent transfer everywhere but in the delivery district (an area defined as river to river between Arch and Walnut). Of course that’s where most of the transfers would happen. Even the Ledger seemed weary of the battle by then, just reporting the facts in a flat-tone, a far cry from the bombastic reporting of a couple years prior. Of course war was also on the horizon, and with it, shrinking resources for mass transit and the last meaningful talk of abolishing transfers for the better part of a century.

But here we are in 2019, talking about removing transfers in order to provide more equitable transit to practically every front door in Philadelphia. Who says good things don’t come to those who wait?

Why Can’t Roosevelt Boulevard Ave Look Like This?

A post to the UrbanPHL Facebook Group lamented why Roosevelt Boulevard couldn’t have a green grassed median with modern light rail running down the middle.

That reminded me of a 1914 illustration I came across awhile back.

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Why Isn’t There a Stop Between 15th and 30th Street on the Market Frankford Line?

broad street station chinese wallOne of the more puzzling things about the Market Frankford Line is the lack of a station between 15th and 30th Street stations. Especially when you consider that today, all of the city’s tallest office buildings are clustered between 17th and 20th Streets, along Market. After all there are 5 stops east of 15th along Market. Then none west of 15th until the the subway crosses under the Schuylkill River to 30th Street.

To understand how this happened, you have to understand the topography of Philadelphia when the El was constructed. The might Pennsylvania Railroad’s Broad Street Station brought passengers from across the region to Philadelphia via a viaduct that ran adjacent to Market Street. The two-story tall viaduct was known as the “Chinese Wall” to locals and with its noisy, smoking trains and dark underpasses, left the area west of Broad as an undesirable address.

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The 1901 Rapid Transit Charters of Philadelphia

In 1901, the Pennsylvania state legislature passed laws legalizing the formation of companies in Philadelphia for the construction and operation of elevated and underground railroads. The charters provided six subway and elevated lines in the city of Philadelphia. In total, 112 miles of elevated and subway track were approved. At the time the franchises and construction was approved, it was imagined that rapid transit would be a purely private endeavor.
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