Tracing Amtrak’s NEC

Today’s American railroads are the products of hundreds of mergers and combinations of earlier lines, so it’s a good bet that there’s a good story behind any particular stretch of track. Here’s the tangled tale of the route followed by Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor trains as they head south from Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station.

(And if you’re intrigued by that 15-foot marble obelisk, click through for the whole fascinating story of the 1839 Newkirk Monument.)

Philly skyline, with and without ‘PNB’

(Photos by Bradley Maule/Hidden City Philadelphia)

For more than 60 years, the giant neon letters PNB have advertised Philadelphia National Bank atop the skyscraper at 1 South Broad Street. Over the past few months (and long after the bank itself became part of Wells Fargo), those letters have been removed. Brad Maule, an editor at Hidden City Philadelphia, has this post-mortem about the letters and their legacy.

His essay includes before-and-after-PNB shots of the skyline, which I’ve taken the liberty of displaying with a slider above.

(By the way, Hidden City is in the last hours of a year-end fundraising drive. They’re a great organization that seeks to reveal and hold up for public appreciation and debate the complex built environment of Philadelphia. They’ve also published a few of my writings. If you feel like supporting them, their Indigogo campaign is here.)

Monument Men

Crossposted at Hidden City Philadelphia.

Just north of Kingsessing’s 49th Street bridge, amid the brush and litter of the Amtrak right-of-way, an old railroad monument offers an express ticket back to the Age of Jackson.

Newkirk Monument in Kingsessing (Bradley Peniston)

Newkirk Monument, looking northeast toward the Philly skyline (Bradley Peniston)

In 1838, the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad completed the first rail line between its namesake cities, a landmark feat that also helped link Boston and New York to the nation’s capital. The following year, the railroad’s board commemorated the effort with a 15-foot marble obelisk at the western foot of its Schuylkill River bridge. Inscribed on this Newkirk Monument were the names of the four railroads that merged to form the PW&B — and 51 of their executives, engineers, and contractors. Continue reading →

What’s in a name: Clark Park

Crossposted to Hidden City Philadelphia.

Entrance to Clark Park, 42nd & Baltimore (Simon/Flickr)

Entrance to Clark Park, 42nd & Baltimore (Simon/Flickr)

If West Philly has a recreational hub, it’s Clark Park: 9.1 acres of grass and trees and paths and playgrounds and a hunk of stone from the Gettysburg battlefield and half of the world’s known statues of Charles Dickens.

Like Philadelphia itself, the 119-year-old park has seen its ups and downs. After a spate of improvements in the 1960s, it deteriorated for decades until neighbors, non-profits and the city’s recreation department teamed up to whip things back in shape. Today, Clark Park hosts summer festivals, a farmers’ market, and a bunch of kids who run around on Saturdays with foam swords.

It’s a safe bet that few of the basketballers and chess players and dog walkers know why their park, which marks its birthday on Jan. 18, is named Clark. Yet its namesake played so many prominent roles in Philly and beyond that it is a bit astounding that this well-loved triangle of land is almost the only thing that still bears his name. Continue reading →

Who Moved the Monument?

Crossposted to Hidden City Philadelphia.

Newkirk Viaduct Monument in

The Newkirk Viaduct Monument in 2010 (Bruce Anderson/Wikimedia Commons)

A 15-foot marble obelisk is made to be seen, which makes the current location of the Newkirk Viaduct Monument unfortunate.

One of the oldest public artworks in a city famous for them, the spike of white marble stands in the trash-strewn shadow of the 49th Street Bridge, a four-lane roadway in the Southwest Philadelphia neighborhood of Kingsessing. To find it, hike along the bridge’s weedy sidewalk and lean over the concrete railing. Or catch a glimpse from a passing train: the obelisk sits along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor right-of-way, by tracks that also serve SEPTA’s Airport Line.

Neither view gives the 18381839 monument its due. Designed by one of America’s foremost architects, the obelisk carries detailed inscriptions on all four sides: the names of four railroad companies and dozens of their executives and engineers. Now worn by time and obscured by graffiti, the chiseled letters still bear witness to an achievement of vast importance: the completion of a rail link from the young nation’s largest metropolis to the burgeoning cities to the south.

Once upon a time the Newkirk Viaduct Monument stood proudly near the foot of its eponymous bridge near the western bank of the Schuylkill River. Now it sits in obscurity about a quarter-mile inland. What happened?

And what might we do about it?

Continue reading →

A Short History of a Short Street

Update: Crossposted to Hidden City Philadelphia.

In West Philly, Saint Bernard Street is less a street name than a collective noun.

It is the designation given to six discrete segments of pavement, all between 49th and 50th Street yet strewn across more than two miles of urban grid. Perhaps because of its fragmented nature, St. Bernard has made relatively little imprint upon the records of a city suffused with history and with people and organizations who labor to document it.

S. St. Bernard Street, 800 to 1000 blocks (View larger map)

But let us consider just its longest segment — the three blocks of South St. Bernard Street bounded by Florence and Chester Avenues, in the neighborhood of Cedar Park — and inquire: what can the Web tell us about it?

Continue reading →