Historic Sites Urban Planning

Broad Street Station

While intercity travel today primarily involves the automobile or airplane, a century ago the passenger train represented the principal mode of long distance travel. The increasing volume of rail passengers in the late 1800’s required railroads to find efficient ways of delivering passengers to their destinations. In Philadelphia, the problem for the Pennsylvania Railroad was the lack of a station that would deliver passengers directly into Center City Philadelphia. In 1879, the railroad devised a plan to construct a large passenger station at Broad and Market Streets, directly opposite City Hall. The station would be connected by multiple tracks to the Pennsylvania Railroad station located in West Philadelphia, across the Schuylkill River1. The extension would have required numerous street crossings, starting at 23rd St. and going eastward towards Broad Street. To avoid both the safety hazard of street crossings and the potential bottleneck they would create for the numerous passenger trains, it was decided to construct the tracks on an elevated embankment. Large granite blocks were used to enclose the embankment and over time the structure was often referred to as the “Chinese Wall” because of its resemblance to the Great Wall of China2. In later years this structure would become the bane of city planners because it was viewed as an impediment to development of the area north of Market Street3.

Broad Street Station was officially opened on December 5, 18814. The brick station was of Gothic design with a rather ornate Victorian appearance. Behind the station were four train sheds to protect passengers from the elements. The station was an immediate success, boasting 160 daily trains5. The volume of passenger traffic steadily increased, so that by 1886, the number of passengers using the station averaged a million per month6. As a consequence, in 1892, a mere eleven years after its opening, plans were submitted for the enlargement of the station. An office building that would serve as the Pennsylvania Railroad’s headquarters was designed by noted architect Frank Furness and added to the existing station7. The smaller train sheds were replaced by one massive train shed 306 feet wide and 591 feet long. The roof, made of wood and glass, was at its highest point 100 feet above the tracks8.

Already by 1910, the 16 tracks of the station saw 578 arrivals and departures daily9. At the same time, the success of Broad Street Station brought with it a number of problems. While it served well as a final stop for commuter traffic into Center City, it was inconvenient and time consuming for through trains because they were required to retrace their steps to West Philadelphia Station before continuing on their journey. The stub-ended design of Broad Street required arriving locomotives to back up and be turned on a turntable before they could depart, creating additional congestion. A partial solution was provided by the railroad’s electrification, allowing the use of multiple-unit commuter trains which could operate in either direction.

On June 11, 1923, a fire broke out below the station platforms and quickly spread to the train shed, engulfing the entire structure in flames. Within hours of the fire, the Pennsylvania Railroad marshaled a work force of some 3500 men to begin repairing the station. Within five days, all tracks and platforms were restored. The weakened train shed was dismantled and replaced with umbrella shelters10. However, the handwriting was on the wall for Broad Street Station.

Within two years, the Pennsylvania Railroad started drawing up an ambitious plan, referred to as the “Philadelphia Improvements,” that called for the construction of 30th Street Station as the railroad’s main passenger station in Philadelphia, replacing the West Philadelphia station11. The plan also called for the elimination of Broad Street Station, replacing it with an underground station for commuter trains, known as Broad Street Suburban Station (but usually referred to simply as Suburban Station). By 1929, the excavation for the trackwork leading to Suburban Station had begun, parallel to the north side of the Chinese Wall. A year later, the construction of 30th Street Station across the Schuylkill River began, and Broad Street Station’s days were numbered. Surprisingly, the station was used for two more decades before finally closing on April 27, 1952. Aboard the last train from the station rode the Philadelphia Orchestra, led by Eugene Ormandy conducting a rendition of “Auld Lange Syne”12. Within a year, the station was demolished, making way for Penn Plaza and a series of high rise office buildings.

[1] Pennypacker, Bert (December 1983). “The Grandest Railway Terminal in America”. Trains (Kalmbach Publishing Co.): 40-57. ISSN 0041-0934.

[2] Albrecht, Harry P. [1972] (1976). Broad Street Station. Clifton Heights, Pennsylvania: Harry P. Albrecht. p. 3.

[3] Underkofler, Allen P (1987). “The Philadelphia Improvements, Part I”. The High Line (Philadelphia Chapter, Pennsylvania Railroad Technical and Historical Society) 2 (2 & 3). p. 5.

[4] Albrecht, p. 3.

[5] Pennypacker, p. 44.

[6] Ibid., p. 45.

[7] Messer, David W. (2000). Triumph III: Philadelphia Terminal 1838-2000. Baltimore, Maryland: Barnard, Roberts & Co. ISBN 0-934118-25-6

[8] Pennypacker, pp. 46-47.

[9] Ibid., p. 49.

[10] Ibid., pp. 51-52.

[11] Underkofler, pp. 6-15.

[12] Pennypacker, p. 57.

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