June 11, 1923: Fiery Destruction at Broad Street Station

The Conflagration at Broad Street Station, 15th and Market Streets, June 11, 1923.

Legend has it that a hapless Bulletin reporter overslept the Monday morning of June 11, 1923 and telephoned his editor from home. The conversation went something like this:

“Just got into Broad Street Station. The train was late. I’ll be in as soon as I’ve grabbed a cup of coffee.”

“You’re in Broad Street Station, huh,” said The Bulletin’s city editor as he glanced out of the newsroom window at the smoky chaos across Penn Square. “Well, I’ll tell you something – you’re going to have the hottest damn cup of coffee you’ve ever tasted.

The fire at Broad Street Station that started in the wee hours that morning would continue for nearly three days. It would interrupt the flow of more than half a million daily commuters destroy the icon of Philadelphia’s Iron Age.

The Pennsylvania Railroad’s first, relatively modest, 160-foot-wide shed had been surpassed in 1891 by the Reading Railroad’s, 256-foot structure at 12th and Market. Not to be outdone, and to meet the needs of their expanding ridership, the Pennsy hired the same engineers, Wilson Brothers & Co., to provide a new shed as massive as their busy site would allow. This 300-foot-8-inch-wide, 589-foot-2-inch-long, 108-foot-tall, 7,000,000 pound structure (but who’s counting) earned the title of the world’s largest single-span—and held it for decades. Broad Street’s shed rose as a symbol of the most extensive transportation infrastructure known—until, and even beyond, the fire of June 11, 1923.

Temples fall and icons fail, but they can then also thrive in the imagination. “Among the cloudy memories of early childhood it stands solidly, a home of thunders and shouting, of giant engines with the fiery droppings of coals and sudden jets of steam,” wrote Christopher Morley. Broad Street Station “was a place in which a delighted sense of adventure was closely mixed with fear.” Morley found Joseph Pennell’s rendering from 1919 a “perfect record of Broad Street’s lights and tones that linger in the eye—the hurling network of girders, the pattering of passengers, the upward eddies of smoke.” The shed linked regional and national, suburban and urban power for Philadelphians and visitors who felt in it an excitement akin to that of a world’s fair. In fact, the station, a symbol and anchor of the entire consolidated system, resonated with the worship of industry expressed at the Centennial Exhibition in 1876.

Morley was completely serious in his Elegy in A Railroad Station of 1952. “I preserve in pure imagination my memory of Broad Street Station,” he wrote, as the last of the place was knocked down to make way for Penn Center.