Workshop of the World

stories of industry in & around Philadelphia

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Unique, charming, rustic bridges carried the trolleys across the many creeks and ravines (2007).

Fairmount Park Transportation Company Power Station, 1896
Montgomery Drive, north side between West River Drive & Schuylkill Expressway, Philadelphia PA

Jane Mork Gibson, Workshop of the World (Oliver Evans Press, 1990).

In 1896 the Fairmount Park Transportation Company began the operation of a street railway line in Fairmount Park and constructed the Power Station to generate the necessary electricity. 1 This took place more than twenty-five years after Fairmount Park had been established, and in planning the details of the trolley project, care was taken to preserve the restful ambiance of the park which had been created and preserve the natural setting as far as possible. All structures were designed to blend with their surroundings. The Power Station is one of three major structures of the system that remain; the other two are the Strawberry Mansion Bridge and the Car Barn.
 
The Power Station consisted of an Engine House with a Boiler House attached, both located below the level of the road where Montgomery Drive begins its ascent from the river, and the surrounding trees and other vegetation practically hid the buildings from sight. The larger building contained the steam engines and the smaller attached building on the west, the boilers. The Victorian appreciation of detail and design is evident in the yellow brick exterior of the Engine House with twelve arched windows and classical motifs, and the corresponding details of the Boiler House. The stack is the same height as the roof of the larger building, so it is not as visible as on most power houses. The Power Station was designed by Axel H. Engstrom, chief engineer of the company, and Edward B. Ives.
 
A description of the facility is contained in the Street Railway Journal of August, 1897:
 
The engine room is 156 ft. x 55 ft. in size, and the boiler room of the same length and 36 ft. wide. A spur from the adjacent railroad [Reading Railroad] is carried close to the south wall of the boiler room and passes over coal vaults, the coal being dumped into the vaults by means of chutes. The station has sufficient storage capacity for one month's supply of coal.
 
At present there are installed three tandem compound condensing Corliss engines, furnished by Robert Wetherill & Company. There is room in the station for two more engines. The engine foundations are of brick and of unusually large proportions. Each foundation rests upon one of the two concrete beds shown by dotted lines in the plan. This bed of concrete is 24 ins. in thickness. The engines have cylinders 20 ins. and 36 ins. x 48 ins. in size, and each makes 90 r. p. m. The flywheel is 20 ft. in diameter and weighs 40 tons. It is made in sections, an arm being cast with each rim section. The rim segments are tied together by heavy wrought iron links. Each engine is directly connected to a 500 k. w. generator, furnished by the General Electric Company.
 
The boiler room at the present time contains six Berry boilers, built by Wetherill & Company, and space has been provided for the installation of two more. Each boiler is of the vertical type, occupies a floor space of 11 ft. x 11 ft. in size, and is rated at 250 h. p. The gases from the boilers pass to an overhead smoke flue leading to two sets of economizers, from which the waste gases are exhausted by a pair of exhaust fans discharging into a short steel stack 7 ft. in diameter. The economizers are so connected to the flues that one set receives the waste gases from the boilers at one end of the boiler room, while the other receives the waste gases from the other boilers. All of the waste gases, however, may be passed through either economizer. A single fan, 10 ft. in diameter and 4 ft. wide, driven by a direct connected engine, exhausts each economizer, and both fans discharge into a common stack. The fans and economizers were furnished by the American Economizer Company. The economizers have 256 pipes each. The sections are eight pipes wide and each pipe is 4-1/4 ins. in diameter and 9 ft. 4 ins. long.
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A short distance above the Power Station is the Car Barn which is a red brick building 110 ft. by 425 ft., located in a ravine so that it was not readily visible to park visitors. The Car Barn was open at the front and rear, with an office building on the north side. The approach to the Car Barn is at a steep pitch, so a large bank of earth was constructed at the end of the building that looked out on the river as a safeguard against a runaway trolley. This also further shielded the activities at the Car Barn from the view of park visitors on the scenic drives below.
 
The trolley was routed through the park in a one-way system, and the section from Belmont Mansion to the Car Barn was laid out on the bed of the 1834 Inclined Plane built for the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad from the Columbia Bridge to the Belmont Plateau. To protect the ambiance of the park, the overhead wires were as unobtrusive as possible, and grass was sown between the tracks so that only the two iron rails indicated where the line ran. Safety and beauty were both considerations in the construction of twenty stone arches, viaducts and iron bridges to avoid grade crossings. The route was a loop that carried passengers through remote portions of the park which had not been built up for the Centennial, such as the Chamonix Lakes that had provided water for the Washington Print Works of William Simpson before being taken over by the park.
3 The trolleys also stopped at Woodside Park, an amusement park built and operated by the Philadelphia Transportation Company. To travel in one of the open trolleys throughout Fairmount Park was a summer recreation long savored by Philadelphians, but this ended in 1946 when operations ceased. All the equipment was sold at auction on November 5 and 6, 1946, and everything except permanent structures were removed by the purchasers.  Bus Route 85, which took over to provide service from one terminal to the other, was not routed through the park.
 
Today the Power Station houses the Fairmount Park Building Maintenance Department and contains carpentry, painting, plumbing, etc. shops. The entrance has been changed from the south side to the east, where two windows have been replaced by large entrances. The main remnant of the original use of the buildings is in the Boiler House where the openings for the coal chutes remain and have been utilized for the delivery of highway salt for the use of highway trucks, and the archways beneath that led to the coal storage bins. In the Engine House are large exhaust fans at each end of the building.
 
The Car Barn today is used for the Automotive Shops of Fairmount Park. The ends have been closed in, and construction of the Schuylkill Expressway in the 1950s caused the removal of a portion of the eastern end of the building as well as the earth berm; the eastern end of the Car Barn is clearly visible from the Schuylkill Expressway going east, just before the exit to Montgomery Drive.
 
In recent years a small motor bus has taken over as the Fairmount Park Trolley to drive visitors to sites within the park. With the knowledge of what once was there, the visitor riding on roadways where there is a stone archway or a wrought iron bridge, can recall the days when the real Fairmount Park Trolley was in operation, and when the Power Station was at work, providing electricity for the trolleys to carry passengers throughout the park.

1  See Workshop of the World "Strawberry Mansion Bridge" for more information on the history of the company.
2  "The Electric Transportation System of Fairmount Park, Philadelphia," Street Railway Journal, Vol. XIII, No. 8, (1897), p. 16.
3  See Workshop of the World "Washington Print Works."


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Update May 2007 (by Jane Mork Gibson & Torben Jenk):
The building continues to be used as the Fairmount Park Building Maintenance Department. Yet, more than the Power Station and Car Barn remain. Walkers and off-road cyclists follow sections of the old trolley route. From below Belmont Mansion to the Strawberry Mansion Bridge are the stone bridge abutments and piers for the monumental bridges which spanned the numerous small valleys. Smaller gentle arched brick bridges carry the route over the numerous tributaries. With trees growing from the mortar joints, these stand like ancient ruins in the forest. Just northwest of Chamounix Mansion, in the middle of the forest, stands a spectacular segmental arch bridge, stone facings encasing stunning brick arches, revealing their edges because the paths top and bottom cross not perpendicularly but acutely. Take a leisurely stroll along these old routes under the canopy of the Sassafras, Sycamore, Cherry and Tulip Poplar trees. Look on the forest floor for Jack in the Pulpit, Mayapples and morels. You will certainly see deer, and sometimes fox.
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