Making the Grade

The Pennsylvania Railroad reworked its rail lines in the early 20th century to save lives

View from Chelten Ave. station platform toward Center City (circa 1915). The house at the right is in the process of being demolished. The bridge carrying School House Lane over the tracks can be seen in the background. Photo courtesy of Germantown Historical Society/Historic Germantown.

In the early 20th century, roads throughout Germantown became increasingly congested as lots were developed with new businesses as well as houses for employees who worked in them. The arrival of the car made the congestion much worse. Conflicts between cars and trains were not uncommon, with the cars and their drivers usually on the losing end of a collision.

To remove this conflict, the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) embarked on a project to eliminate railroad crossings along its line to Chestnut Hill, now SEPTA’s Chestnut Hill West line. Furthermore, the PRR also had plans to electrify its line to Chestnut Hill with overhead power. However, doing so would cause conflicts between the railroad’s proposed power system and those electrical systems of the City of Philadelphia mounted on poles along area streets.

As a result, the PRR removed a series of railroad crossings along its line to Chestnut Hill, including one at Chelten Avenue, by raising Chelten Avenue while simultaneously lowering the railroad bed of today’s Chestnut Hill West line. This excavation required the demolition of some houses adjacent to the railroad tracks. After interruptions caused by the arrival of World War I, the PRR installed the overhead wires in 1918 – they remained until 1989-1990, when they were finally replaced by SEPTA.

The perspective of the 1915 photograph above is facing southeast towards Center City, from the edge of the platform at Chelten Avenue station, with a house at the right (in the process of being demolished). The bridge carrying School House Lane over the tracks can be seen in the background. Note that the tracks are shown at two levels, one higher than the other. These different elevations of the tracks presumably show the railroad grades as they were before and after the railroad cut was excavated deeper.

About Alex Bartlett 7 Articles
Librarian and archivist Alex Bartlett combines his hobbies with his career. Working for the Germantown historical society, Bartlett manages the libraries’ collection and archives, while also helping to provide visitors with requested research documents. Alex is a self-described “history nerd,” with interests in archeology and old bottles and glassware. He said that growing up in Germantown is what initially stimulated his enthusiasm toward historical documents and objects, and his job manages to integrate all of his interests into one field.

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