Workshop of the World

stories of industry in & around Philadelphia

Chestnut Hill Railroad Station, 1884
9 West Evergreen Avenue, Philadelphia PA 19118

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

The coming of the Pennsylvania Railroad's Philadelphia, Germantown and Chestnut Hill Line to Chestnut Hill in 1884 stimulated the development of the land west of Germantown Avenue, which had been mostly agricultural. There are three stations in Chestnut Hill: St. Martin's (originally called Wissahickon Heights), Highland, and Chestnut Hill West (the terminus at Germantown Avenue and Bethlehem Pike). The approach to Chestnut Hill required significant engineering skill, and at the Cresheim Valley a wrought iron viaduct carried the trains from Allen's Lane to the Wissahickon Heights area. 1 The original plans for the line in 1879 included extending the line to Norristown and Phoenixville, possibly by crossing the Wissahickon Valley at Roxborough, but this idea was abandoned in 1882 because of the high construction cost; the plan was reconsidered in 1892, but the estimated cost again caused it to be rejected.
The Chestnut Hill Branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad was built largely through the efforts of Henry Howard Houston and Henry D. Welsh, who owned much of the land along the route in Germantown and Chestnut Hill.
2 Houston began his association with the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1851 as General Freight Agent, and in the succeeding years contributed greatly to the growth of the railroad, becoming a Director in 1881. His early years were spent in Wrightsville, Pennsylvania where familiar sights were the trains and the canal boats of the early Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad and where he clerked in a local general store. As a young man he went to western Pennsylvania and was a clerk at the Lucinda Furnace in Clarion County, and later became a partner and co-manager of the Horse Creek Furnace in Venango County. This background fitted him well for his work with the railroad and his association with industry.
Houston is especially remembered for the manner in which he built what amounted to a planned community in Chestnut Hill by constructing spacious Victorian homes for sale and for rent to persons that would make up a solid community. These were largely upper middle-management men who had become representative of successful businessmen. The area has continued to attract an elite group derived from this base.  To make the community more accessible by carriage, Houston contracted for the construction of the McCallum Street Bridge over Cresheim Creek in 1890 and then gave the bridge to the city. Houston also contributed to the community by the construction of public and private group facilities, donating land and contributing funds. Some of these are St. Martin's Episcopal Church, The Wissahickon Inn (once a summer resort, now Chestnut Hill Academy), the Philadelphia Cricket Club, and Butternut Cottage (providing a week-long vacation retreat for working women). Succeeding generations of the Houston Family have continued this tradition of support and benevolence, with the basis of the family fortune derived from the founder's industrial pursuits with the railroad and his investment in oil and other early industrial enterprises.
The Chestnut Hill Station was constructed in 1884, according to the designs of W. Bleddin Powell who was the architect for the Pennsylvania Railroad. It is a one-and-a-half story stone building with an encircling ground floor porch, gable roof and shed dormers.
3 Originally there was a train shed over the tracks but this burned down when sparks from a locomotive ignited the roof, and it was not replaced.  In 1917 the line was electrified, and locomotives were no longer used. In addition to the original station with its ticket booth, passenger waiting room, and train personnel area, there is a concrete interlocking tower where switching controls were operated for the tracks to a large rail yard where coaches were stored in the early days when locomotives were used, and later the multiple unit electric cars.  This building is not in use now, and there is only a crossover for the two tracks which is controlled from inside the station building. Since this was the end of the line, a locomotive turntable was situated on what is now a parking lot, and the former storage track area is now the site of an apartment building.  
The Pennsylvania Railroad was taken over by Penn Central in 1968, which was in turn taken over by Conrail in 1976. The Chestnut Hill West Line (R-8) is now a part of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) and runs through Center City in Philadelphia to its terminus at Fox Chase. In 1984 the Chestnut Hill National Bank leased the station building and made alterations (architect Dagit/Saylor in association with Luther Ginkinger, architect).  All of the original building is now utilized by the bank which opened May 9, 1985. A new ticket room and passenger waiting room was built on the track side under the original roof of the original passenger waiting platform, and includes a switch storage area and employees' locker room.

1   A timber trestle was first erected as a temporary structure. In 1918 a timber run-around was built in preparation for construction of a proposed concrete arched structure to replace the viaduct; the 1921 recession caused a delay and the bridge was never built (Telephone interview with John Tucker, November 9, 1989). In 1988-89 traffic over the viaduct was discontinued and commuters were transferred to buses at Allen's Lane Station so that the wrought iron viaduct could be replaced by the present state-of-the-art steel and concrete viaduct.
2   Information on Houston's life and his association with the Pennsylvania Railroad obtained from David R. Contosta, A Philadelphia Family: The Houstons and Woodwards of Chestnut Hill, (1988), pp. 1-33.
3   J.M. Moak.

Update May 2007 (by Jane Mork Gibson):
Chestnut Hill National Bank remodeled and occupied the building in 1985, and in 1993 merged with National Penn Bank, which retained the Chestnut Hill National Bank name until about 2001. The bank leases the former railroad station from SEPTA and has retained the architectural motif of the former Waiting Room, including the fireplace and oak paneling. In 1996 an ATM was constructed outside the building.

This station continues to operate as the initial station on SEPTA’s Chestnut Hill West R-8 Line. The Ticket Station and Waiting Room, built in 1985 as an attachment to the original building next to the railroad tracks, is open Monday to Friday from 6:30 a.m. to 12:45 p.m., but the station is otherwise unattended.

“Austin Tower" is a concrete building located in the parking lot of the former railroad station. It is owned by SEPTA and a sign on the building indicates it is for R-8 Line Maintenance.