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).
(Shameless plug: If you want to see the trail for yourself, the next guided walking tour led by former Fairmount Park Conservancy Project Manager, Chris Dougherty, is August 19, 2018. Book here.
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:
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 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:
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).
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.
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.
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.