VIADUCTgreene » Philadelphia & Reading Railroad

To understand the Philadelphia & Reading Railway of the 1890s and the construction of its grand terminal and offices is to understand the place and time.

Lewis Mumford coined the post Civil War years the ‘Brown Decades,’ a time when “society was adapting its colorization to the visible smut of early industrialism.” According to Mumford, “in the new coal towns, the national banner itself, after a few days’ exposure to the air, changed its red, white and blue to brown, gray, and black. But even more the Brown Decades were created by the brown spectacles that every sensitive mind wore, the sign of renounced ambitions, defeated hopes. The inner world coloured the outer world. The mood was sometimes less than tragic: but at bottom, it was not happy.”

A uniquely American identity, an ‘American mind,’ was forming. Expressions in art, architecture and literature were no longer an outgrowth of European events, fashions, and schools of thought, but rather the product of the young country’s Puritan roots, unique brand of capitalism, the Civil War, changes in technology, and rapid growth.

In the decades between 1870 and 1890, the population of Philadelphia grew from 674,000 to over one million, and the city limits expanded to over 130 square miles—all of it carefully and regularly connected via the bourgeois corridors of the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad and its provincial nemesis, the Philadelphia & Reading Railway.

1890.26.December After a masterful presentation by Philadelphia & Reading Railroad (P&R) president Archibald Angus McLeod, an ordinance is approved by the mayor, giving the Philadelphia & Reading Terminal Railroad Company the right to construct the Terminal Station at 12th and Market Streets. Construction begins in early 1891. For one million dollars, the P&R purchases the circa 1653 open-air market with assurances to relocate it.

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 design engineering for the 13-track trainshed, the world’s largest single-span trainshed constructed to date. The space beneath the trainshed accommodates the public market.

1893.February Bankruptcy of the P&R sparks the Panic of 1893 and marks the end of Mark Twain’s ‘Gilded Age.’ The nation falls into economic depression, caused by railroad overbuilding and overly speculative financing.

1893.May At the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Wild West showman Buffalo Bill Cody and eminent historian Frederick Jackson Turner, each with different stories to tell, make the same point—the frontier is closed. The population is urbanized.

Throughout 1893, the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) works on the radical and fantastic expansion of Broad Street Station, according to Frank Furness’ (Furness & Evans) 1892 plans; the Wilson Bros. design an even larger trainshed. The first track goes into service in August; the rest by year’s end. The PRR’s general offices relocate to Broad Street Station in July of 1894.

Creating and firing the engines of this (industrial) revolution and contributing to the “brown” that defined these decades is anthracite coal. TheP&R IS anthracite coal. Owing to its colorful, larger-than-life, ebullient, empire-building, megalomaniacal and tragic director, president and periodic receiver, Franklin Benjamin Gowen.

(1836-1889) the P&R is said to be the largest corporation the world in 1871, valued at $170,000,000. By the age of 33, in 1869, Gowen, whose early career history demonstrated little interest in the day-to-day operations of railroading, is president of the P&R.

Reared at the Gowen’s family residence in Mt. Airy, the young Franklin Gowen started as an iron mine clerk in Shamokin and later failed as a coal mine operator. While living in Pottsville, he was apprentice to an attorney. Admitted to the bar in 1860, he shortly thereafter established his own practice and served as Schuylkill County’s elected district attorney. He wrote legislation enacted in February 1865 called the Railroad Police Act, which authorized the governor to appoint railroad police officers with statewide power. The result was the Reading Coal & Iron Police, an organization which figured prominently in strike-breaking and anti-union activity.

Gowen later returned to private practice, with the P&R as a client. In 1867, after assorted cases including a state Supreme Court victory over the PRR, he moved to Philadelphia to assume the position of chief counsel for the P&R. On September 1, 1869, he’s president.

Gowen moves quickly to create the Anthracite Board of Trade, an association of mine operators, to control both the price of coal and the wages paid. He doubles the rates for shipping, and works illegally to acquire coal lands through a dummy corporation, the Laurel Run Improvement Co. (renamed the P&R Coal & Iron Co. in 1871). In the midst of the Panic of 1873, the operators settle on a fixed price of $5 a ton for coal and agree to divide the market among only six companies—the P&R is given the largest share, 28%.

Late 1873.Labor conflict is on the rise, violence erupting in the streets and on the tracks. In hopes of creating a more attractive investment atmosphere for the P&R’s long-time London financiers, the McCalmont Bros., Gowen allegedly pays detective Allen Pinkerton $100,000 “to bring in dozens of labor spies.” According to Pinkerton, Gowen sought protection for workers: “We want the laboring men, of whatever creeds or nationalities, protected in their right to work to secure sustenance for their wives and little ones, unawed by outside influences. We want the miner to go forth cheerfully to the slope, or the shaft, for labor in the breast or in the gangway, wherever it may seem to him for the best, void of the fear in their hearts when he parts from his wife at the cottage-gate in the morning, that it may be their last farewell on earth.”

1873.October. James McParland, using the alias James McKenna, arrives in Port Clinton to begin surveillance and infiltration of a secret Irish organization, the Molly Maguires. In May of 1876, McParland testifies. Franklin Gowen, clad in formal attire, is the special prosecutor at the first trial.

1877.22.June. On what became known as “Black Thursday,” ten alleged Irish-Catholic miners are hung in two Schuylkill County locations, Pottsville and Mauch Chunk; by 1879, a total of 19 miners have been hung. What took place, according to historian Harold Aurand, was “one of the most astounding surrenders of sovereignty in American history. A private corporation initiated the investigation through a private detective agency; a private police force arrested the alleged offenders; the coal company attorneys prosecuted them. The state only provided the courtroom and hangman.”

1880. Possibly bored with his reputation as ‘Attila of the Anthracite,’ Gowen begins talking real expansion—making the P&R into a trunkline and a true competitor to its giant Philadelphia neighbor and nemesis, the PRR. Together with his cronies, William H. Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and (later) J.P. Morgan, Gowen embarks on one of the most infamous construction projects ever, the South Pennsylvania Railroad.

Eventually, this over-the-top, seemingly insane expansionistic behavior leads his downfall as a robber baron. Super-banker, robber baron and railroad monopolizer, J.P. Morgan forces his (final) exit in September 1886. In 1879 however, things are rosy, and the expansionist Gowen sets out to bring style to the railroad infrastructure.

During this bold expansionist period, distinctive branding is the order. In the 1870s, the P&R’s chief engineer, German émigré and graduate of the Polytechnic College at Hannover William Lorenz, brings the rounded arches and crenellated eves of German Rundbogenstil to the provincial, Pennsylvania Dutch Reading Lines buildings—and somehow, it worked.

1879.November. Frank Furness otherwise known as ‘dogface,’ becomes official architect of the P&R for $250 a month. By the time he is let go in 1884, he’s designed over 100 projects: “a ride on the Reading would likely have been taken in a passenger car of his design, perhaps from and most certainly past stations built, altered or expanded under his direction, and would travel along a right-of-way dotted with freight houses, tool sheds, signal towers and watchman’s boxes designed by Furness, and painted in color schemes selected by him.” In the 1887, Furness makes plans for a consolidated terminal at the 9th and Green Street Station; the plan is scrapped in favor of a downtown terminal to best the mighty PRR.

Regardless of the indications of corporate taste and intimidating power reflected by the quirky and muscular Furness stylings, the P&R is weakened by Gowen’s expansionism. In 1882, the clearly annoyed PRR starts construction of the Schuylkill Branch, a territorial invasion to the P&R. J.P. Morgan takes over the P&R in 1883 and ousts Gowen from railroading forever in September 1886. New York interests now control the P&R, which explains why New York architect, Francis H. Kimball, is retained to design its new terminal and offices. Though Austin Corbin, Gowen’s successor, maintains his own offices in New York, it’s easy enough to imagine the new Reading Terminal playing host to Corbin’s ‘Manhattan,’ one of the finest private railroad cars ever produced, by Wilmington’s Jackson & Sharp in 1885.

1890. Austin Corbin resigns and Archibald Angus McLeod, a career operations oriented railroader (with one truly stupendous handlebar mustache), is promoted from General Manager to president at age 41. Following closely in Gowen’s footsteps, McLeod, in a form, makes the P&R into a major east-west trunk line. He sets up a special train to make the Philadelphia-Jersey City run, specifically to set a record-90 mph. McLeod also presses forward with construction of the Reading Terminal and its market. In the process he commissions “the Ineffable Alexanders,” widely considered notable archetypes and supreme examples of the car-builders’ expertise. Outshopped by Pullman in 1890 and 1892, the two Alexanders are paid for by McLeod out of pocket; in no way are either railroad property or business cars. In fact, Alexander II bore the word “Private” boldly embossed on the name boards of the car and on all its exterior doors—and it was just that.

1893.January Reading Terminal opens at the seeming height of the P&R’s power and might. Trains steam from the massive trainshed, blanketing the P&R’s complex network of suburban lines, speeding to Jersey City and upstate into the coal regions. Scrapple is served in the dining cars. Classy ‘Royal Blue Route’ trains of the Baltimore & Ohio find their way into the station, directly competing with the mighty Pennsy on the other side of City Hall. In August, the first unit of the company, the Auditor of Merchandise Traffic, moves into the pink granite head-house building. McLeod never does move into the fourth floor corner offices he personally designed for himself. In February, McLeod’s Gowenesque empire collapses, and he is fired. Alexander II is delivered to the Southern Pacific.

On Friday, December 13, Franklin Gowen supposedly shoots himself in the head in a Washington, D.C. hotel room at the age of 53. No notice has been made of his having a private car.  A lot of questions remain about his death.

In 1893 Archibald Angus McLeod disappears from railroading. He dies quietly in 1902, wealthy and virtually unnoticed, in his New York City home at the age of 54.

1984.6.November After a century of service, the final revenue train left the still impressive trainshed at 7:40 p.m. and made its way over the elevated 9th Street Branch toward Spring Garden Street, then on to West Trenton. Ten minutes later, sponsored by the National Railway Historical Society, a nine-car “Farewell to Reading Terminal” special left the terminal for Landsdale. By November 10th, the rails of the P&R and PRR, operated by Septa, were linked and combined with the Center City Commuter Connection (the commuter tunnel). In 1990, the Terminal was acquired by the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority, and the trainshed became the center’s Grand Hall and Ballroom. The headhouse was cleaned of generations of dirt, and interior renovation work included extensive demolition to create an open multilevel public atrium.

Today. Today, the Reading Terminal Market continues to thrive as it was originally intended. Outside the convention center, the former right-of-way is occupied by a service ramp into the convention center. North of Vine Street, the four-track wide railway landscape infrastructure remains, intact, to north of Fairmount Avenue. Redolent of history, a nearly invisible ruderal garden holding lessons of intersecting culture & wildness; lessons to be revisited, retold & reinvented.