Recollections of the White Marsh Branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad
The White Marsh Branch branched from the Chestnut Hill line just northeast of Allen’s Lane station connecting to the Trenton –Harrisburg Cut Off at White Marsh station near Fort Washington, PA. The Chestnut Hill Line was electrified in 1918 and the White Marsh Branch in 1924.
My family moved to 1617 Hillcrest Road, Laverock in 1935. We could hear the trains running on the single track railway approximately 600 feet from our house across a vacant wooded lot in the residential development. At the top of Hillcrest Road at Cheltenham Avenue (City Line) was Hillcrest station, a one foot high gravel and creosote timber platform with a 3 sided open faced shelter approximately 10 foot deep and perhaps 20 feet long. The station was in a deep cut over passed by the Cheltenham Avenue Bridge and accessed by a long flight of wooden steps leading down from Cheltenham Avenue. I cannot remember any auto parking near Hillcrest station, everybody walked there. I believe it was in the late 1930s when the railroad announced an expansion of service to 6 trains a day, and a few times we actually availed ourselves of the service for downtown shopping trips. Philadelphia bound trains went underground beyond 30th St. Station and terminated at Suburban Station which had opened in 1930 as a replacement for the above ground Broad Street Station.
On at least two occasion’s blockages on the mainline between Trenton and Philadelphia caused major train traffic powered by giant steam and electric locomotives to be detoured over the White Marsh Branch and through Laverock, much to the delight of this budding train enthusiast. The trains moved slowly, and I recall seeing perplexed and sullen passengers staring out at our unfamiliar back woods, quite a different view from the main line cityscape of their normal Philly bound journey. After the detour concluded and big trains quit rolling through Laverock, I saw a track inspector walking the line looking for damage. The White Marsh Branch was not rated for the big locomotives, and exceptions had been made only for duration of the emergency.
From 1945 to 1949, I rode weekday mornings from Hillcrest to Allen’s Lane and then to Queen Lane for school. Typically 8 to 10 passengers, would board at Hillcrest, those not students being business men making their daily commute to the city. Service had by then been reduced to 2 trains a day. As I recall the Philadelphia bound morning train departed Hillcrest around 8 AM and the evening return arrived about 6 PM. I believe the 4, 5, of 6 car MU trains were pulled from the yard at Chestnut Hill, deadheaded down to and switched onto the branch just above Allen’s Lane. We rode in the forward car heading toward Allen’s Lane, but the second car may have been a designated smoking car.
Hitting The Back of The Firebox
One summer, a track repair train was slowly working its way down the line, pausing periodically to allow the track workers to do their job. The friendly engineer invited me up into the cab to see the locomotive. Steam locomotives are hungry beasts constantly demanding coal and water to keep alive. The fireman taught me to scoop coal from the tender, step on a treadle which opened the doors into the firebox, and hurl the coal into the white heat of the firebox. I was pretty proud when I hit back of the firebox.
For several weeks in the fall, leaves on the track caused slippery traction and problems climbing the grade from Laverock Station to Hillcrest Station. Tractio9n failures was exacerbated by rain, or the presence of one or more non-powered cars in the multiple car train. On at least one occasion the train backed up and made another run at it. On another, conductor and brakeman walked in front ladling sand from buckets onto the rails. Unlike some large locomotives these multiple unit electric trains were not equipped with track sanders. The regular engineer on the morning train eventually rigged himself a homemade sander comprised of funnel attached at his cab window and hose leading down to and just in front of the front right wheel. Acrid smoke smelling of burning leaves was generated by the spinning train wheels.
For a few days in Spring, large numbers of tent caterpillars crawled on the rails causing traction problems and their own unique odor.
On a few occasions, curious to see what the rest of the White Marsh Branch looked like I would flag down the outbound local and ride out to White Marsh and back. On the outbound leg the local running like an express because there were virtually no morning outbound passengers, overshot the station and had to reverse and back up to pick me up) During one such ride the engineer set the brakes at the Sandy Run cut near Laverock station and climbed down to harvest some lush watercress growing in a ditch along the right of way.