At the corner of 41st Street and Haverford Avenue, amidst the rowhouses of West Powelton, stands a cavernous brick building with a pitched roof. Looming over its neighbors, it is one of the few surviving structures of the Widener trolley car empire.
Originally, the Philadelphia Traction Company had three massive trolley sheds in West Philadelphia, each equipped with a blacksmith shop and other repair facilities. Another one survives at 41st and Chestnut Street, which was once able to house up to 300 horses.
During Philadelphia’s Gilded Age, the trolley car was the ubiquitous symbol of the Widener family’s power. With the exception of the very rich, who had private coaches, almost every city dweller gave the Philadelphia Traction Company conductors his or her nickels and dimes while en route to work or running errands. The trolley infrastructure is imprinted on the city’s urban landscape. Many of the rails and overhead wires have not been used in years, the bane of cyclists and drivers alike. A century ago, the trolley shaped Philadelphia on a grand scale: it allowed the city to grow outward (a city of homes), as opposed to upward (a city of tenements and skyscrapers) like its rival New York.
The humble trolley also built one of the largest fortunes in the United States.
Peter Arrell Brown Widener (1836-1915), like the salty-tongued Cornelius Vanderbilt before him, knew the power of cold, hard cash. Widener was a believer in technology and progress, not propriety and tradition. What mattered to him was harnessing a regular cash stream which flowed from the everyday needs of the masses. Born poor and trained as a butcher, Widener made his first small fortune by supplying meat to the Union Army during the Civil War. Like many so-called “war profiteers,” he rose from poverty to what the New York Herald smugly dismissed as the nation’s “Shoddy Aristocracy.” The New York Tribune, for its part, defined shoddy as: ”poor sleezy stuff, woven open enough for seives [sic], and then filled with shearman’s dust. … Soldiers, on the first day’s march or in the earliest storm, found their clothes, overcoats, and blanket, scattering to the wind in rags or dissolving into their primitive elements of dust under the pelting rain.”
Shoddy or not, Widener was shrewd. After Appomattox, Widener took his $50,000 (about $700,000 today) and began investing in his native city’s transportation network. Rather than trying to break into the railroad business — the Pennsylvania Railroad was a state-chartered old boys club — Widener invested in the construction streetcar lines and developing the surrounding real estate. A street-smart young man who loved shirt-sleeve poker and politics, he knew how neighborhoods worked. He also knew how to muscle his way into City Hall by briefly serving as City Treasurer.
In the boom years that followed the Civil War, the city had plenty of room to expand. The 1854 Act of Consolidation expanded the city from a mere 2 square miles to nearly 130. Much of this new territory was undeveloped farmland and woods. Trolley cars, unlike capital-intensive railroads, were relatively cheap to build and operate. They were ideal people movers, as long as the city’s population and manufacturing economy continued to grow. And for a while, they did. The burgeoning factories and mills of late 19th century Philadelphia not only provided thousands of manufacturing jobs, but also plenty of white collar managerial ones. As noted by historians Philip Scranton and Walter Licht: “At its peak in the 1920s, our setting was the third largest metropolis in the United States, an expanse of 128 square miles occupied by two million residents, and a visitor to the city could hardly overlook the industrial base that supported this complex.”
The Philadelphia Traction Company, founded by Widener and his business partner William Lukens Elkins (1832-1903), held an iron-grip on the city’s horse drawn and electric trolleys. As a monopolist, Widener not only sold transportation, but he also sold dreams to the city’s upwardly mobile. Members of this aspiring, confident middle class were eager to purchase the ornate, modern houses developed by Widener in North or West Philadelphia. By capturing the nickels and dimes of Philadelphia’s Victorian commuters, Widener had harnessed a mighty river of cash. This cash flow gave him strong leverage to invest in other business enterprises: U.S. Steel, American Tobacco, International Mercantile Marine. Widener also created other companies connected with real estate development, most notably the United Gas Improvement Company (UGI), which supplied utilities to his new streetcar residential developments.
As the city spread outward along Widener’s trolley lines, even the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad felt threatened. In 1876, the year of the Centennial Exposition, the PRR bought up the trolley rights on Lancaster Avenue from 52nd Street all the way to Paoli. Lancaster Avenue ran parallel to its “Main Line” right-of-way. It was a smart move, as it prevented Widener and his cronies from building more middle-class rowhouse neighborhoods that would compete with the Pennsy’s decidedly upscale, exclusive plans for the Main Line suburbs. With the exception of Overbrook Farms, these communities would be located outside of the city limits, away from Widener’s political power base.
By 1900, Peter Arrell Brown Widener was worth over $100 million, making him the richest man in Philadelphia and putting him in the same class of plutocrats as New York’s Astors and Vanderbilts. His son George Dunton Widener, who had married Eleanor Elkins (daughter of William Lukens Elkins) shifted the family’s real estate focus to the heart of downtown Philadelphia. His three grandest commissions were all the work of architect Horace Trumbauer: the Widener Building at 12th and Chestnut, the Racquet Club at 16th and Locust, and finally the Ritz-Carlton Hotel at Walnut and South Broad Streets.
In the spring of 1912, as the Ritz was in under construction, George, Eleanor, and their book collecting son Harry (a close friend and protege of Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach) left town for a European vacation. They booked their return passage on the RMS Titanic. Only Eleanor returned to Philadelphia. She promptly commissioned the family’s favorite architect Horace Trumbauer to build a new library at Harvard, dedicated to her son’s memory. Peter Widener, who had been an investor in the White Star Line’s parent company, died rich but heartbroken three years later in his cavernous Elkins Park mansion.
The city’s growth proved unsustainable, indeed. In the years that followed Widener’s death, the city’s population contracted and its economy de-industrialized. The trolleys could not compete with buses and automobiles. Many of the comfortable neighborhoods surrounding the old trolley routes succumbed to decay and abandonment, in part because they were ill-suited to the demands of the automobile. Today, much of the former Widener trolley empire has been absorbed by SEPTA. The former Ritz-Carlton Hotel serves as classroom space for the University of the Arts. Further to the west, the one surviving West Philadelphia trolley shed is the studio of artist Jordan Griska, creator of the “Grumman Greenhouse” sculpture on Lenfest Plaza at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
Brian Butko. The Lincoln Highway: Pennsylvania Traveler’s Guide (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2013). pp. 50–51
Andrew Heath, “Consolidation Act of 1854,” The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, http://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/consolidation-act-of-1854, accessed February 21, 2014.
Stephen Salisbury, “Sculptor Turns Bomber into a Greenhouse,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 27, 2011.
Philip Scranton and Walter Licht, Work Sights: Industrial Philadelphia, 1890-1950 (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1986), p.5.
Ron Soodalter, The Union’s Shoddy Aristocracy, The New York Times, May 9, 2011.
Preston Thayer and Jed Porter, “Philadelphia Traction Company Barn & Stable,” Workshop of the World (Oliver Evans Press, 1990). http://www.workshopoftheworld.com/west_phila/phila_traction.html
David Whitmire, “The Wideners: An American Family,” Encyclopedia Titanica, January 11, 2008. http://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/widener-family.html