1833. The P&C. Based on William Hasell Wilson’s survey, the state-owned Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad (P&C), predecessor of the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR), decides to locate its terminus within the limits of the City of Philadelphia, at Broad and Callowhill Streets.
1834. At Belmont, the P&C builds the Columbia Bridge and Belmont Plane and begins operating the ‘Main Line of Public Works.’ The following year, the privately-owned Philadelphia & Reading (P&R), making its way southeast along the west bank of the Schuylkill from Reading, also uses the Columbia Bridge to approach Philadelphia.
East of the bridge, in Fairmount, the P&C and P&R use the city-owned City Railroad (City Branch), to the reach their center city depots. Moving east towards the city, the line loops over toward North 31st Street at Girard Avenue, then along Pennsylvania Avenue. At Hamilton Street, the tracks veer east along Nobel Street. Near Broad, the tracks turn south towards the terminals of the two lines: the P&C’s at the southeast corner of Broad and Callowhill, the P&R’s at Broad and Cherry. The City Railroad continues east along Willow Street as the Northern Liberties & Penn Township Railroad to the Delaware River, serving the growing port.
1850. The Belmont Plane, though considered an engineering feat in 1834 (2,805 feet long on a 7% grade), proved problematic. The P&C, having rerouted away from the Belmont Plane, sells it, along with the Columbia Bridge and the City Branch to the P&R.
1857. The entire Main Line of Public Works is bought by the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR).
For about three decades the City Branch operates as a vital, albeit problematic, railroad serving a hugely industrialized freight corridor and busy passenger terminals. One can hardly imagine what trouble the seventeen grade crossings must have created!
By 1890, some of the Callowhill area industries along the City Branch with rail service include the Knickerbocker Ice Co., the Philadelphia Grain Elevator Co., Bement-Pond, Rush & Muhlenberg, Wm. Sellers, A. Whitney & Sons Car Wheel, and the Baldwin Locomotive Works, which takes up 17 acres alone. The two busiest P&R freight terminals in Philadelphia are along the City Branch, one at Willow and Nobel and the largest at Broad and Callowhill. The P&R also maintains a large coal yard at 11th and Callowhill.
1890.26.December P&R president Archibald Angus McLeod persuades the mayor of Philadelphia to approve the building of the Terminal Station and office building at 12th and Market Streets. For one million dollars, the P&R purchases the circa 1653 open-air market with assurances to relocate it. For the privilege, the P&R works toward a plan to eliminate all grade crossings on the City Branch and along the 9th Street Branch (the former Philadelphia, Germantown & Norristown Railroad). Construction begins early the next year.
1893.January The P&R opens the grandiose Reading Terminal. The Italianate head-house is designed by New York architect Francis H. Kimball, and Wilson Bros. & Company provides design engineering for the 13-track trainshed, the largest single-span trainshed constructed to date. The space beneath the trainshed accommodates the public market. From the Terminal, the tracks of the 9th Street Branch to Green Street are elevated on a system of four-track steel viaducts with plate girder spans and on fill between concrete and stone retaining walls. North of Green Street, the tracks descend to street level at Fairmount Avenue. From this point, along the 4.3 miles to Wayne Junction, there remain 28 grade crossings. The 9th Street elevation project to Wayne Junction is finally completed in 1911.
1894.31.August Plans are approved for the depression of the City Branch—“tracks and yards of the P&R between Broad & 30th Streets, including the north side of Nobel street and Callowhill street and between Eleventh and Broad streets: the alteration of the lines and grades of the tracks of the Philadelphia & Reading Terminal Railroad Co. east of Broad street and between Nobel and Carlton street.”
With the track-depression project completed in 1900, upstate passenger trains once again traversed the busy corridor then up into the Reading Terminal.
By 1911, the vast grade separation projects are complete. all passenger traffic is rerouted over the now grade-crossing-free 9th Street Branch, and the City Branch settles into a freight-oriented role. The busy passenger lines of the 9th Street Branch funnel countless trains and travelers to and from the vast trainshed with safety and dispatch. Traffic is so great that in 1929 construction begins on electrification of the branch and much of the commuter-hauling network.
The extensive work of creating these grade separation projects is extensively covered in the Proceedings of the Engineers’ Club of Philadelphia (volume 16, page 1) in the article titled “Pennsylvania Avenue Subway and Tunnel” based on a paper read by George Webster on October 15, 1898 and in the Journal of the Engineers Society of Pennsylvania (volume 8, page 303) in an article titled “Grade Separation — Two Distinct Methods” based on a paper delivered on November 16, 1916 by Samuel Wagner, Chief Engineer of the P&R.
By 1981, the P&R is gone (bankrupt in 1971 & absorbed into Conrail in 1976). In 1981, the last intercity passenger services end with final runs to Pottsville, Bethlehem and Newark, NJ. In 1984, the Reading Terminal closes and Philadelphia’s Center City Commuter Tunnel opens. The trainshed is incorporated into the PA Convention Center.
All the while, the City Branch operates quietly, almost stealthily, cut 25 feet below the ever de-industrializing landscape. In 1992, the last customer, the Philadelphia Inquirer, moves its printing shop to Conshohocken, and the need for incoming carloads of Canadian newsprint ends. The rails are removed.