Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
History Quarterly Digital Archives

Source: April, 1966 Volume 14 Number 1, Pages 17–23

The Philadelphia and Chester Valley Railroad

Mrs. William L. Nassau, Jr.

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The Chester Valley Railroad is a single-track road about twenty-two miles long, extending in nearly a straight line from Downingtown, Chester County, through the valley to Bridgeport, Montgomery County.

It was constructed in the middle of the nineteenth century to serve passengers and freight but is currently used only for the latter.

I chose the history of this railroad as my project for several reasons. First, its proximity to the Swedesford Road, our current subject; and second because of close personal and family associations with it from its beginning to the present.

My introduction to this railroad was when in 1898, at ten weeks of age, the family brought me and a nurse on the Chester Valley Railroad from Bridgeport to Howellville. There grandfather, Winfield Wilson, met us with horses and carriage to bring us to Wilson Farm, on Swedesford Road, our future home in the Great Valley, or Chester Valley, as it was then called.

Some of my earliest recollections are meeting the trains at Howellville station, which I considered a most interesting spot. If one wished to take an early morning ride with father he had to be in the carriage at the front door when the train whistled for Cedar Hollow Station, for at that moment father always appeared. The family horse "Belle" knew the signal too, for with a click, click, and giddap, off she hurried for that 7:20 train. Grandfather Wilson also took that train from Garden Station. I remember the long wooden foot path from his home Elda Farm, on the north side of Swedesford Road, then a continuation of it on the south side to Garden Station - a flag stop.

For several years, during our elementary school life, five of us had school at home (my youngest brother was only a toddler, so he was not included). A large room in the third floor was converted into a school room. Miss Potts, our teacher from Norristown, commuted daily via the Chester Valley Railroad, arriving on the 8:40 A.M. train at Howellville and returning at 4:20 P.M. Thus more rides for us and more opportunities to wave to the engineer and fireman, who graciously responded to our enthusiasm.

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Of course I have vivid recollections of the fun and excitement of going with mother or grandfather on the noon train to shop in Norristown or to visit friends, living between home and Bridgeport. Also of our many visitors who were met at Howellville Station.

The railroad brought us our mail and packages. Our post office was at Howellville. It had originally been in the village and was called Chester Valley Post Office, but when we moved it was at the railroad station 1857 to 1906. Frequently the family received letters using the fifty year old address of Chester Valley Post Office.

There were only six passenger trains per day making trips to and from the terminal station at Downingtown to Bridgeport. Each of these trains consisted of at least an engine, coal car, one passenger car, and a combination car "one third smoker" and two thirds mail baggage. Since most of the farmers shipped milk daily via the railroad, all stations and most of the "flag stops" had loading platforms for that purpose. It is easy to recollect the din of all those cans being loaded or unloaded. The morning trains always had one or two extra cars just for the milk cans, and the train schedule allowed two minute stops to permit loading. Farmers would take turns waiting on the platform to aid ' the train crew,- one man on the platform, a trainman in the car, tilting the forty quart cans and then rolling them around and around on their rim into place in the car.

Baskets of perishable food stuffs were sent out from Philadelphia markets via the baggage cars, as well as all packages and purchases, there being no other parcel delivery.

Barrels of china, sugar, flour, etc. arrived via freight. Of course the freight trains carried coal, feed, farm and building supplies, quarry and mill products, etc. Many of the stations had sidings built in order that freight cars could be left there for several days for loading and unloading. For example, Father always purchased one or two carloads of coal each year for home use. Since horse and cart were the only means of hauling the coal to the house, the freight car had to wait on the Paoli Railroad siding,(and, well do I remember the noise and odor of all that coal going down the chute to the cellar!).

The large quantities of milk and freight to be carried necessitated locating stations close to each other. In 1892, there were twenty-one stations in the 21.5 miles of track between Bridgeport and Downingtown - namely, Bridgeport, Shainline, Henderson, King of Prussia, Maples, Centerville, Rennyson, Howellvilie, Paoli Road, Cedar Hollow, Lees, Valley Store, Malins, Mill Lane, White Horse, Glen Loch, Summit, Exton, Oakland, Ackworth, Downingtown. You will note that many of these were named for prominent local families:- Shainline, Henderson, Rennyson. Lees, Malins, Ackworth (for the Acker and Worth families) and Downingtown for the Downings.

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Thirteen of the original stations are listed in the current timetable, although the names of several have been changed:- Centerville, named in 1853 because of its situation midway between the hills enclosing the valley, became New Centerville, when a post office of that name was opened in 1857. When the Rennyson family moved from the valley, that station became Chesterbrook, the name of the adjoining Cassatt farm, Oakland became Whitford, the name of a town in Wales, the ancestral home of the Thomas family, White Horse, named for an early tavern became Plainbrook.

New Centerville Station on the Philadelphia and Chester Valley R.R.

Many of these stations are still standing, but after passenger service was discontinued they were converted into private houses. I have recent snapshots of several of these.

As for my predecessors and the part that the Chester Valley Railroad held in their lives, we must go back to the very beginning of the laying out of this railroad through a quiet country valley. Naturally, in spite of the need of transportation, there was strong opposition to the project, and originators had to contend with complaints such as - trains will frighten the live-stock, sparks will set fire to adjoining fields or homes, valuable property will be destroyed, farms will be bisected, etc. In spite of all this, financial backing was finally secured from England, I believe. A group of young engineers and surveyors came over from New York City to make the initial survey in 1830.

My great-grandfather, David Wilson, became interested in the project and furnished the group with a team of horses, to be driven by his son Winfield, my grandfather, then a young man. Winfield traveled with them driving the horses, carrying the surveyors' chain, giving them helpful local information etc. These young men became great friends, and later two of them and my grandfather married sisters.

The railroad was finally completed in 1852, and the following year grandfather Winfield S. Wilson was appointed agent with headquarters at Downingtown. Later he was made Superintendent of The Chester Valley Railroad, followed by an appointment as Secretary and Treasurer of the Philadelphia Germantown and Norristown Railroad. In 1865 he was made General Superintendent of both the Philadelphia Germantown and Norristown Railroad and the Chester Valley Railroad. Later he was made Purchasing Agent of the Philadelphia and Reading Co. At the time of his death in 1905, he was President of the Philadelphia Germantown and Norristown Railroad and although more than 80 years old, was preparing to take his usual early

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morning train at Garden Station. Two of his sons continued the family interest in railroads:-- David became Secretary and Treasurer for the Reading Coal and Iron Company and on the Board of Managers of the Philadelphia Germantown and Norristown Railroad and my father C. Colket Wilson became Secretary and Treasurer of the Philadelphia Germantown and Norristown Railroad. My oldest brother C. Colket Wilson, Jr., now holds that position. William West Wilson, Uncle David's oldest son (Conrad's father) is the President of the Philadelphia Germantown and Norristown Railroad.

Enough of family ties and personal reminiscences, let us proceed with the history of this small railroad.

After several years of preliminary study, surveys, and financial planning, The Norristown and Valley Railroad Company was incorporated April 15, 1835, to construct a railroad from some convenient point on the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad (now the Pennsylvania Railroad) east of the Brandywine Creek, some suitable point of connection with the Philadelphia Germantown and Norristown Railroad near the borough of Norristown. The incorporators were allowed three years in which to begin the construction of the railroad and an additional four years in which to complete it. The Commonwealth reserved the right to purchase the railroad at any time before the expiration of twenty years. Nearly all the able-bodied citizens along the proposed route were named as incorporators. Notwithstanding the number and energy of these men, the railroad did not progress with sufficient speed, for at the end of the seven years allowed, the legislature had to grant an additional three year extension to April 1845 for the completion. Downingtown and Conshohocken were determined as termini of the road, but after a large portion of the road near Downingtown had been graded and a considerable amount of stock and bonds had been issued on account of it, the operations halted.

In 1850, the public-spirited citizens of the Chester Valley again rose to the occasion and attempted to revive the charter of the Norristown and Valley Railroad Company, which had lapsed through the non-completion of its road within the time limit prescribed by law. By special acts of the Legislature, they succeeded on April 22, 1850, in obtaining a revival of the charter changing the name to the Chester Valley Railroad Company. The stock and bond holders of the defunct Norristown and Valley Railroad Company were permitted to participate in the new company and to receive certain securities of the new company in exchange for those of the Norristown and Valley Railroad on account of the grading and other work that had been done. Bridgeport, instead of Conshohocken, was made the eastern terminus, although Conshohocken should have been chosen as the more advantageous

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location. On December 31, 1852, the Philadelphia, Germantown and Norristown Railroad signed a 5-year agreement with the Chester Valley Railroad Company to operate the new railroad, furnishing cars, engines, etc.; the Chester Valley Railroad ' to provide the road and make extraordinary repairs if needed, the receipts divided according to the terms adopted. Work on the road progressed with so much vigor that on September 12, 1853, the road was opened to public travel amid the rejoicing of the citizens of the valley. On September 27th a sumptuous dinner was held at the Swan Hotel, Downingtown, to celebrate the occasion.

Connection to Philadelphia was made between the Philadelphia, Germantown and Norristown Railroad on the Chester Valley Railroad lines by means of the Swedesford Bridge at the lower end of Norristown. This arrangement brought about a very troublesome and dangerous crossing of the main tracks of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad at Bridgeport and interfered seriously with the handling of coal trains. The Reading had expended considerable money at Bridgeport for sidings with scarcely any return in the way of new business. When therefore the business between the Chester Valley Railroad and the Philadelphia, Germantown and Norristown Railroad assumed some proportions, the Reading management saw a means of abolishing the dangerous crossing of its tracks, securing additional business, and at the same time putting in service the improvements at Bridgeport that had remained idle for so many years.

As the date of maturity of the five-year agreement with the Philadelphia, Germantown and Norristown Railroad Company approached, strong rivalry sprang up between it and the Reading "for the privilege of operating the Chester Valley Railroad." The inducements offered by the Reading proved the stronger and a five-year agreement was signed December 14, 1858, whereby the Philadelphia and Reading Company assured the operation of the Chester Valley on January 1, 1859. During this era the fare from Downingtown to 9th and Green Street Station in Philadelphia was 62 1/2 cents. The agreement was subsequently extended from time to time until the property of the Chester Valley Railroad Company was sold under proceedings in a foreclosure of its mortgage on January 17, 1888. The purchasers met the following March 4th and organized the present Philadelphia and Chester Valley Railroad Company under the general railroad l a w o f t he Commonwealth. Although an integral part of the Reading System, the Philadelphia and Chester Valley Railroad is operated independently and is listed in today's timetable as Chester Valley Branch, of the Reading.

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Thus this small railroad opened in 1853 has been in use for more than 100 years. Daily I hear its cheerful whistle as it carries sometimes as many as forty freight cars, through the valley - stopping at Howellville Quarries, Foot Mineral Company, lumber yards, etc.,- still serving the people of the community. I have even heard rumors of the possibility of running special passenger trains! So, who knows what may lie ahead for the Chester Valley Railroad!

Old Ironsides

The Philadelphia, Germantown and Norristown Railroad, now leased by the Reading Company, early in the 19th century, had constructed roads from Philadelphia to Germantown and Philadelphia to Norristown, on which horsedrawn passenger cars were operated. In November 1832 the first steam propelled locomotive "The Old Ironsides", made its initial trip from the 9th and Green Street Station in Philadelphia to Germantown. It was the first steam engine built in the United States and was made by M. W. Baldwin in Philadelphia.

Following is an excerpt from a letter written by James Moore, first engineer who ran the engine "Old Ironsides". "This engine named "Old Ironsides", was put upon the road and run by one of Mr. Baldwin's chief machinists - a Scotchman by the name of Swanson. He ran it for several weeks; when he turned it over to me, and I run it during sixty consecutive days, including Sundays, and ending in a snow storm. We did not stop in any case on account of snow or rain. I ran it on an average of from

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sixteen to seventeen hours daily, regardless of the weather. Whatever repairs became necessary to be made on the engine were made at night, as there were none other to take i t s place. The engine had but four wheels, one pair of which were drivers. The wheels had cast-iron hubs, wooden spokes and wrought iron tires. There wore no brakes either upon the engine or on the cars, consequently the train had to be stopped by reversing the engine."

Chester Valley Railroad crosses Swedesford Road.



Mr. C. Colket Wilson, Jr., Paoli, Pa. Secretary-Treasurer of The Philadelphia, Germantown and Norristown Railroad.

Laws of the General Assembly of Pennsylvania-1850. Pp. 546-549 "Chester County Place Names" - Edward Pinkowski, 1962.

H. P. Henry - Real Estate Agent of The Reading Company.

Copies of Agreement -December 31, 1852, between Chester Valley Railroad and Philadelphia, Germantown and Norristown R.R.

Copy of the "Pilot" Vol.Xl-No. 4, Philadelphia April 1910, containing history of Chester Valley R.R. Co. by J. V. Hare later secretary and treasurer of the Reading.

Norristown Herald - August 4, 1906. W. S. Wilson, Obituary.

Mr. W. Hunter, Present agent - Downingtown-Current timetable.

Chester County Historical Society - Newspaper clippings.

Montgomery County Historical Society,- Newspaper clippings.

Personal Reminiscences.

The Pennsylvania Story - Fortenbaugh and Tarman.


Mrs. Meree N. Camp - 1964-1965

Mrs. William Worth - Cedar Hollow Station.

Daily Local News - August 25,1964-Fire at Cedar Hollow.

"Old Ironsides" - C. C. Wilson, Jr.

History - November 26, 1832


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