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Putting the Market Street Elevated Underground
Part of

John L. Puckett

Between 1947 and 1955, the Philadelphia Transit Company completed a subway tunnel for the Market Street Elevated west of the Schuylkill and took down the El between 32nd and 45th streets.

Attributing deteriorating housing and other harmful environmental impacts to the Market Street Elevated, city officials authorized construction of a subway tunnel that reached 32nd Street in the 1920s. Halted during the Great Depression and World War II, construction resumed between 1947 and 1955, when the quasi-public Philadelphia Transit Company extended the tunnel to 45th Street. Here the trains rose from a portal to rejoin the El, which remained intact above Market Street between 46th Street and the line’s terminus at 69th Street. Demolition of the El above the subway tunnel to 45th Street was completed in 1956.

From the outset the Market Street El was problematic for the people who lived in the Market Street corridor. “Once completed,” writes Margaret Mash, “this unsightly structure overshadowed its surroundings and became the dominant feature of the environment.”[1] “Deterioration was built into the very construction of elevated rapid transit,” noted other commentators.[2] In the shadow of the El, developers built “cheap and profitable two-story, two-family rentals,” marking the corridor as “aesthetically unappealing.”[3]

Hailed as “an epochal engineering feat” in 1907, the El would prove to be “a major traffic hindrance and an eyesore.” In the 1920s city planners decided to dismantle the El and put the railway system underground. Two parts of the plan were completed by 1933: 1) construction of a tunnel that followed the line of Market Street under the Schuylkill River between 23rd and 32nd streets, and 2) replacement of the old Market Street Bridge with a new bridge for automobiles. At this point the city’s Depression-era financial woes brought the project to a halt. Also postponed indefinitely was a plan to demolish the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company’s Schuylkill River Bridge. Throughout the Depression era and World War II, this steel railway bridge would continue to carry El trains and subway-surface cars to the 23rd Street subway portal.[4] The unfinished tunnel under the river was dubbed “the subway that goes nowhere.”[5]

In the summer of 1947, after a 15-year hiatus in tunnel construction, city agencies renewed the project to extend the Market Street “tube” from 32nd to 45th streets, where the trains would rise from a portal to form the El. The plan called for the demolition of the existing El between the Schuylkill and 45th Street; the Market Street Line was to remain elevated from 46th Street to the 69th Street terminal in Upper Darby. The quasi-public Pennsylvania Transportation Company, a descendant of the PRT, held the lease to manage the project.[6]

The new tunnel plan included building a subway-surface line that would branch off the main tunnel at 32nd Street and carry subway-surface cars underground to Ludlow at 36th Street. Westbound cars would exit the tunnel through a portal at this intersection; southbound cars would continue underground along 36th Street through the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) campus, curve right under Woodland Avenue, and rise to street level through a portal near the intersection of Woodland and 40th Street. The plan called for putting the above-ground trolleys that plied Woodland Avenue at Penn into the subway tunnel.[7]

Construction of the rapid-transit tunnel under Market Street from 32nd to 45th streets took eight years to complete, with heavy infusions of debris, noise, and dust afflicting residents in the corridor. The new Market Street subway-elevated system, including the Penn campus extension, opened for service in West Philadelphia in 1955. Demolition of the El to 45th Street proceeded apace once the new system was operational and was concluded in 1956.[8]

1940s, 1950s
[1] Margaret S. Marsh, “The Impact of the Market Street ‘El’ on Northern West Philadelphia: Environmental Change and Social Transformation, 1900–1930,” in The Divided Metropolis: Social and Spatial Dimensions of Philadelphia, 1800–1975, eds. William W. Cutler, III, and Howard Gillette, Jr. (Westport, CN: Greenwood Press, 1980), 174.
[2] John L. Puckett and Mark Frazier Lloyd, Becoming Penn: The Pragmatic American University, 1950–2000 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 34–35.
[3] Marsh, “Impact of Market Street ‘El’,” 180–81; Harold E. Cox, The Road from Upper Darby: The Story of the Market Street Elevated (Forty Fort, PA: Author, 1967),  28–32.
[4] “Bids Due July 28 for Razing Market St. El to 46th Street,” Philadelphia Evening Bulletin (hereafter PEB) 20 July 1955, Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries.
[5] “New Subway Tracks Joined in West Phila.,” PEB, 16 October 1955; “Unique Combination of Tunnel and Bridge Planned for Schuylkill River at Market Street,” PEB, 8 November 1930.
[6] “Contract is Let for Market St. Tube Extension,” PEB, 14 July 1947; Cox, Road from Upper Darby, 32–33.
[7] Untitled chronology of subway and subway-surface construction and street closings in the University of Pennsylvania area, 1920s – 1960s, University Archives and Records Center, UPP1 box 5, folder “Campus Expansion”; “Subway Tube Urged to 39th and Woodland ave.,” PEB, 11 January 1948; “Council Weighs Trolley Changes,” PEB, 12 January 1948; “Trolley Subway to 40th St. Ok’ed, PEB, 25 January 1951.
[8] “19 Homes Will Be Razed Soon to Extend Market Street Tube,” PEB, 16 March 1947; “Bids Due July 28”; “Demolition Starts Tomorrow on Old Market Street Elevated,” PEB, 9 December 1955; Cox, Road from Upper Darby, 32–33.

Continue reading The Market Street Elevated ("The El")

Between 1947 and 1955, the Philadelphia Transit Company completed a subway tunnel for the Market Street Elevated west of the Schuylkill and took down the El between 32nd and 45th streets.

Philadelphia Evening Ledger page illustrating the Market Elevated's impact on West Philadelphia's growth in 1914.

From before its opening in 1907, the Market Street Elevated spurred tremendous construction and population growth in West Philadelphia.

Children pose next to construction equipment near the first constructed section of the Market Elevated.

The Market Street Subway and Elevated opened in West Philadelphia in 1907, carrying commuters from three stations along the elevated line to 23rd Street, and from there underground to City Hall.

Market Street Bridge and the Schuylkill River, 1900

At the turn of the last century, the privately formed Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company contracted with the city to build and operate the electrified Market Street Elevated (“The El”), with a component designated for West Philadelphia.

A subway-tube extension, constructed between 1952 and 1955, replaced the Woodland Avenue surface-trolley lines between 32nd and 39th streets.