What might have been. Rapid Transit in Philadelphia.

Category: History

Free Transfers A Dream We All Dream of

Abolishing paid transfers has become a rallying cry of progressive transit advocates in Philadelphia, #freetransfers is the rallying cry. “The transfer is regressive” spout transportation pundits. They point out that the transfer hurts poorer people most because the cost hits the pocket harder and low income sections of the city require more transfers to reach job centers, 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?

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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.

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

broad street station chinese wall

One 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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