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Fairmount Park Trolley Trail (history and maps)

Nestled within West Fairmount Park–at times mere feet away from the Schuykill Expressway–there exist the remains of a sprawling and once-vital transportation system of the 20th century.

The Fairmount Park Transit Company had incorporated as a New Jersey corporation in 1894 as the Fairmount Park Transportation Company (the name change to come a couple decades later).

This notice ran December 15, 1894 in the Philadelphia Times, owned by Adolph Ochs and later merged into the Public Ledger (which was later merged into the Inquirer).

The project was an early and contentious example of a public-private partnership, as seen here from a July 1895 Philadelphia Inquirer page seven headline:

First paragraph: The determination of City Solicitor Kinsey to appeal from the decision of Judge Thayer delivered laster week upholding the power of the Park Commission to grant a franchise for a railway in the Park meets with the approval of Lawyer Charles S. Keyser, who has taken a great deal of interest in the struggle to keep private corporations of out of the people’s pleasure ground.

By November 1896, the system was in testing and it would launch to the public the following year. Here are some pictures to give you a sense of the system. Shoutout to The Trolley Dodger for being a terrific resource on this subject.

The Car Barn still stands today and is used for used for the Automotive Shops of Fairmount Park.
At the Boyertown Auto Museum. Pic via Swifty’s Garage.

The construction of the system cost millions of dollars and the system, ultimately, turned out to be a financial failure.

Hidden City Philadelphia has written about some of the construction, shouting out “The Prettiest Old Bridge to Nowhere”. Author Bradley Maule offers some context:

Filed in the Streets Department’s Bridges Division simply as Bridge #704, its 32’6″ span employs 15 skewed arches of bricks in a pattern seen also on the circa-1856 Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Bridge, just below the Route 1 twin bridges in East Falls. Fairmount Park trolley riders referred to the trolley’s arch as the Chamounix Tunnel. Its exact date of construction is unclear, but its brick construction suggests the late 1800s, i.e. specifically for the trolley route.

A bridge near the Chamounix area of Fairmount Park (a portion of the park home to one of the oddest hostels you’ll ever come across). Bradley Maule/Hidden City

Some of the bridge spans go 100′ or more, and although they don’t remain intact, the pedestals are clearly visible and appear as seemingly ancient ruins in the reclaimed land.

Maule at Hidden City also notes the history of Upper and Lower Chamounix Lakes, totally forgotten today as they were destroyed for the Schuykill Expressway (along with the falls from which East Falls got its name).

This bridge used to span Simpson’s Creek, once used as a water source for industrial operations and later used for Upper and Lower Chamounix recreational lakes. Bradley Maule/Hidden City
Stephen Stofka/Hidden City

The Strawberry Mansion Bridge was constructed in 1904 to expand the service of the trolley.

The trolley also made use of a right of way that had a much older role in America’s transportation infrastructure, the Belmont Inclined Plane, a major feature of the Main Line of Public Works (yes the same Main Line that would later be used by the railways and come to define the whole area). The plane connecting the Schuykill with the rail line above helped Philly compete with New York and Baltimore, port cities that were developing new transportation links to the rapidly growing American Midwest. The plane was abandoned in 1850 when a new line was built.

View of the inclined plane, 11838
View of the Inclined Plane, 1838. 
Detail of the inclined plane (dotted line) to the trolley route (single solid line). Via Friends of Philadelphia Trolleys Streamliner publication & Harry Donahue.

In total, the trolley made 14 of 16 stops in West Fairmount Park. Another major attraction was Woodside Park, located close to the present Target Monument Road. The Park was opened by the trolley company and operated until 1955, lasting slightly longer than the trolley itself.

Via the Broad Street Review’s Bruce Klauber:

Those still around who recall Woodside say it was more “honky-tonk” than its competitor Willow Grove. Though the park offered live entertainment from time to time, Woodside focused on rides, while Willow Grove hyped concerts featuring star bandleaders such as John Philip Sousa.

Woodside’s main features were attractions like the Dentzel Carousel, which sits in beautifully refurbished and restored form within the Please Touch Museum, and a bunch of roller coasters, some built as early as the mid-1920s, including the Hummer, Thompson’s Thriller and Scenic Railway, the Tornado, and Velvet Coaster.

Today the only visible remains of the park are some concrete platforms that belonged to the trolley station.

The trolley shut down in 1946 and its assets were auctioned off.

Decades after the trolley had been dismantled, following much organic use and evolution, the Fairmount Park Conservancy Park staff began in 2007 mapping these newer user-created trails and working with the Belmont Plateau Trails Alliance (BPTA) to reduce the environmental impact of the trails. Since then, the effort has become a multi-organization campaign to define and protect this trail system for bikers, hikers, and all kinds of pleasure seekers.

Maps

Update November 2018: The Inquirer covered the trolley trail in an article titled, A hidden trolley network in Fairmount Park is set for revival. Samantha Melamed reports that the park needs $250,000 more to finish the bike, equestrian, and hiking trail.

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