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.
2014. Current disposition of the property:
The 9th Street Branch hosted rail traffic from 1832-1984. With the 1893 opening of the Reading Terminal it was extended from 9th & Green Street to 12th & Market.
Reading International dictates use of the site east of 13th Street as owner of the elevated .7 mile 9th Street Branch right-of-way (ROW) and heritor of the easement to it over a SEPTA owned parcel.
SEPTA owns the City Branch ROW from North side of Callowhill Street to the west side of 13th Street. SEPTA owns and dictates use of the City Branch from east side of 16th Street to 30th Street. The two SEPTA owned parcels total 1.57 miles. Between 30th Street and Girard Avenue, ownership of the ROW is undetermined. Read more about the Northern end of the City Branch here. Air Rights present interesting discussion. Written in 2006, the point is as valid today…“The sale and trading of air rights is common in New York, where high-rise towers are a dime a dozen. But it wasn’t an issue in Philadelphia until the real estate boom of the last six years had high-rises springing up like mushrooms. ‘Philadelphia has been such an un-high-rise city up until now,’…”
The City Branch hosted rail traffic from 1834-1992. The ROW between Broad and 15th Street was sold by the Philadelphia & Reading Co. to James Elverson, in 1923 and a strip north of the Elverson parcel to Triangle Publications in 1969. That strip sold in 1969 is 440 N. Broad St., current home of the School District of Philadelphia, originally built in 1948 as an addition to 400 N. Broad (the Inquirer Building, formally the Elverson Building) by then-owner Walter H. Annenberg. The newspapers sold 440 North Broad to Archon Group in 2000; Archon to the School District of Philadelphia in 2003.
The parcel sold to James Elverson in 1923 is 401 North Broad Street and became known as The Inquirer Building.. It was sold in 2005 by Knight Ridder Inc. (Knight Newspapers Inc. had bought the newspapers and the property from Annenberg’s Triangle Publications Inc. in 1969. Knight merged with Ridder Publications in 1974, and Knight Ridder Inc. published The Inquirer and the Daily News for the next 32 years until Philadelphia Media Holdings Inc.[PMH], declared bankruptcy in February 2009). PMH became Philadelphia Media Network, who in July 2011, announced the sale of 400 N. Broad Street and related properties to Tower Investments. Today, Tower Investments is in the running for a gaming license; the decision expected in springtime 2014.
Convoluted as the history is, over all the sales through to the 1995 sale of the City Branch property by then owner Conrail to SEPTA under the provisions of the National Trails Act, the integrity of the 3-mile ROW was maintained for active and expected use. Accordingly, Philadelphia Planning Department’s affirmation in 2013 is encouraging. From Green2015: An Action Plan for the First 500 Per p.92 “…additional research must be conducted into titles and easement agreements, some of which were verbal and not available in written form.”
☞ VIADUCTgreene creates a garden of intersecting culture and wildness along the soaring and submersive landscape infrastructures that are the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad 9th Street+City Branches.
☞ VIADUCTgreene, a Pennsylvania non-profit corporation founded in 2010, cultivates a bottom-up interest in the site and all its extraordinary 3-miles of potential. VIADUCTgreene works toward sponsoring a International Ideas Competition that considers the site in its 3-mile entirety, carefully considered phasing of the project, also in its 3-mile entirety, respect and for and celebration of, Philadelphia’s extraordinary and virtually unrecognized proud industrial heritage; its stories told by, and sensed so palpably throughout, the entire place.