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The Geography of Railroads in Chester County

September 7, 2016 | Elle Steinman

WC RailroadWest Chester, PA -- More than a century before the invention of the steam locomotive, Philadelphia became the dominant city in the United States thanks to its tranquil harbor on the Delaware River estuary and the prosperity of southeastern Pennsylvania. That dominance was challenged in the early nineteenth century by other cities -- notably New York and Baltimore -- using waterways to capture trade from the country's expanding agricultural hinterland. Philadelphia's merchants became active promoters of transportation projects designed to maintain the city's advantage, and communities in southeastern Pennsylvania became inspired by the Philadelphia effort. In addition to canals lining most of the Delaware River's tributaries, several attempts were made to supplement waterways with horse-drawn and later steam-powered railroads. The most celebrated of these was a state-sponsored project to link Philadelphia to Pittsburgh with a series of canals and railroads that became known as the "Main Line of Public Works." Its eastern end passed through Chester County only a few miles north of West Chester, and it played a major role in motivating the borough's business community to build its first railroad.

Other lines radiated outward from Philadelphia to the west -- one northwest along the Schuylkill River and the other southwest along the Delaware River. Although only the former actually passed through Chester County, both spawned branch lines that served much of the county. Along with the Main Line, and a later line that headed towards Baltimore via Oxford, Chester County was served directly by trunks or branches of four main lines that emanated from Philadelphia. None of the trunk lines passed through West Chester, but local boosters helped organize and finance connections to two of them. As a result, West Chester ended up with two routes to Philadelphia.

West Chester was one of the first towns in the country to get a railroad, so its railroad history spans the entire era of American railroading. This book divides that history into three parts.

Part I covers the period before the Civil War when railroads were still operated by relatively small local companies. Part II examines West Chester's railroads in the period of regional consolidation when the Pennsylvania, Philadelphia & Reading, and the Baltimore & Ohio companies purchased local short lines -- like those that served West Chester -- in order to expand markets and protect monopolies. The Pennsylvania Railroad eventually gained control over both West Chester lines, and its management practices were a major determinant of how people in West Chester experienced railroads for the next eighty years. Part III looks at several aspects of the "Pennsy years" including the identity of the people who worked on the railroad, the passengers and goods that it carried, and the physical impact of the railroad. Taken together, these chapters show how railroads affected life in the borough and ends with the demise of commercial rail service in 1986.

Finally, a brief epilogue describes the resumption of service by a privately-owned tourist railroad and the prospects for the future. Railroads had much the same impact in West Chester that they had elsewhere in the eastern United States. The most unique feature of West Chester's railroad history was its extremely long duration, which was all the more remarkable since the borough was never situated on a major trunk line. This book is an attempt to organize the information available from many surviving sources, to recall the time when traffic jams only occurred around train stations, and to stimulate appreciation for the efforts of the West Chester Railroad Heritage Association to preserve and restore rail service to West Chester.


Railroads of West Chester, 1831 to the present
by Jim Jones
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Railroads of West Chester



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