Schuylkill River Trail History


At a Glance

Name: Schuylkill River Trail
Length: 82.4 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Inline Skating, Fishing, Wheelchair Accessible, Mountain Biking, Walking, Cross Country Skiing
Counties: Berks, Chester, Montgomery, Philadelphia, Schuylkill
Surfaces: Asphalt, Boardwalk, Concrete, Crushed Stone, Dirt, Gravel
State: Pennsylvania

A Brief History

The Schuylkill River Trail is a series of recreational corridors running between Philadelphia and Pottstown, following its namesake waterway much of the way. The trail occupies a former railroad right-of-way originally owned by the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR). The corridor was completed in the 1880s and offered the PRR a through-route from Philadelphia to Wilkes-Barre. During the feverish railroad construction of the latter 1800s and early 1900s, many lines were built throughout eastern Pennsylvania to serve the rich seams of anthracite coal found there. Through the first half of the 20th century, coal was used extensively for residential and commercial heating along with its various industrial applications. The PRR’s line was one such corridor that handled this lucrative freight, and the southern section was later electrified. However, the northern segment withered over the years, and with the creation of Conrail in 1976, much of it was abandoned.

The PRR’s rail corridor running along the banks of the Schuylkill River was built primarily for competitive reasons. The first railroad to open between Reading and Philadelphia was the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad. According to Mike Schafer’s “Classic American Railroads: Volume III,” the company was first established on April 4, 1833, by the Pennsylvania General Assembly for the purpose of handling anthracite coal from fields located to the west and north of Philadelphia. The P&R struggled to gain its footing early on but eventually acquired the needed financial backing to complete its main line between Reading and Philadelphia in 1842. During the rest of the 19th century, the P&R expanded its empire throughout east-central Pennsylvania and western New Jersey, establishing connections with other important railroads, such as the Baltimore & Ohio and Jersey Central, while remaining focused on increasing its coal volume. It eventually grew to a system of around 1,300 miles. The P&R was reorganized during the 1890s as the Reading Company and remained in business for the next three-quarters of a century until its inclusion into Conrail in 1976.

For its part, the Pennsylvania Railroad grew rapidly into a massive transportation system following its charter in 1846. In just over two decades the PRR had connected Philadelphia with Chicago by 1869 and reached New York shortly thereafter. Much of its growth had been achieved through the acquisition of smaller systems, a tactic it continued to employ throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. It would grow to a size of around 10,000 miles and became one of the most success railroads of all time, dominating service in the eastern United States during the first half of the 20th century. In some cases the PRR used its ever-deepening pockets in an effort to squeeze out the competition. One example of this ruthless business practice was its line along the Schuylkill River. Up until the 1880s the Philadelphia & Reading offered the only connection between its namesake cities, but the PRR hoped to change that and grab a foothold on the anthracite market. Beginning earlier in the decade, the railroad initiated construction from its main line near 52nd Street in West Philadelphia and proceeded northward along the Schuylkill River.

The PRR created various subsidiaries to complete the line, such as the Pennsylvania & Schuylkill Valley, Reading & Pottsville, and Pottsville & Mahanoy railroads. The Reading and PRR routes paralleled each other virtually the entire way from Philadelphia to Pottsville and were often within sight of each other. As the Railway Times (Vol. 48, Pt. 1) from 1885 attests, the Reading was worried about the effect the new PRR line would have on its anthracite coal volume. Nevertheless, the PRR completed its new route, opening much of it in 1884. In 1886, it established a connection with the Lehigh Valley at New Boston Junction (near Mahanoy City). In addition, the PRR secured trackage rights over the LV to reach its Wilkes-Barre line, thus providing through-service to Philadelphia. Altogether, the line extended roughly 135 miles, known as the PRR’s Schuylkill Valley Division that also included two short branches: one extended from Phoenixville to Devault (the Phoenixville Branch), while the other ran from Pottsville to Lytle (the Minersville Branch). The coal business remained brisk, and growing commuter service on the southern segment became electrified as far as Norristown in 1930.

Unfortunately, the Schuylkill Valley Division never quite lived up to the PRR’s expectations since the Reading maintained its coal tonnage foothold in spite of the competition. In 1931, the PRR abandoned its short Phoenixville Branch; that decade also witnessed passenger service discontinued north of Norristown. Demand for anthracite coal waned considerably after World War II as a heating source the line’s fortunes, and the many railroads that depended upon coal as a vital source of revenue also declined. In 1965, the PRR petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to abandon all operations north of Pottsville. A year later it made a similar request to discontinue service over the Minersville Branch.

In 1968, the PRR merged with the New York Central to form the ill-conceived Penn Central Transportation Company (PC). The PC continued operating the remnants of the Schuylkill Valley Division, including commuter service as far as Manayunk (service to Norristown had ended under the PRR), until the Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail) began operations on April 1, 1976, to pick up the pieces of the bankrupt Penn Central and other railroads in the Northeast. The new carrier elected not to continue freight operations and abandoned all trackage north of Manayunk. The surviving remnant was acquired by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority during the early 1980s, and today it provides service as far as Cynwyd.

Railroad attractions across Pennsylvania include the following:

Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site in Gallitz

Bellefonte Historical Railroad in Bellfonte

Electric City Trolley Museum and Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton

Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia

Greenville Railroad Park & Museum in Greenville

Harris Switch Tower Museum in Harrisburg

Railroaders Memorial Museum in Altoona and Horseshoe Curve National Historic Landmark near Altoona

Lake Shore Railway Museum in North East

Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway in Jim Thorpe

Ma & Pa Railroad Heritage Village in York

Middletown & Hummelstown Railroad in Middletown

National Toy Train Museum, Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, & Strasburg Railroad in Strasburg

New Hope & Ivyland Railroad in New Hope

Oil Creek & Titusville Railroad in Titusville

Pennsylvania Trolley Museum in Washington

Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine & Steam Train in Ashland

Portage Station Museum in Portage

Reading Railroad Heritage Museum in Hamburg

Rockhill Trolley Museum in Rockhill Furnace

Tioga Central Railroad in Wellsboro

Tunnel Park & Museum in Gallitzin

Wanamaker, Kempton & Southern Railroad in Kempton

West Chester Railroad in West Chester

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