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A Transatlantic Connection: Philadelphia, London, and Urban Public Transit at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

by

Going Underground: Travel Beneath the Metropolis 1863-2013
James Wolfinger
A Transatlantic Connection: Philadelphia, London, and Urban Public Transit at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
18 January 2013

By American standards, Philadelphia was a large, dense, and old city by the late nineteenth century. Concentrated at the narrow point of land bounded by the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, the city proper held a population of some 850,000 people in 1880 and nearly double that in 1910.  One of the most pressing questions for political and financial leaders was how to move people and goods through such a congested city. Their answers were not so different from, and in some ways drew on, what they saw in London.

Subway–Surface trolley car travels along Market Street tunnel in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (wikipedia)

Subway–Surface trolley car travels along Market Street tunnel in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (wikipedia)

As early as the 1860s and for half a century afterwards, representatives involved in transportation policy in the two cities exchanged correspondence about trams and subways.  In particular, they discussed technological innovation, the public reception of and resistance to transportation, and the connection between transit systems and urban growth. To Philadelphia boosters, many of whom worried about falling behind New York City and harbored a certain Anglophilia, London offered a model of modernization and growth. Swift, economical transportation was at the core of that model.

This paper focuses on the development of Philadelphia’s transit system a century or more ago, while highlighting the connections between the Quaker City and London. The two cities participated in a transnational exchange of ideas that Philadelphians believed would help them keep up with the modern world.  By offering an international comparative perspective, this paper should fit well with the conference’s call for papers that examine the political, social, and planning histories of subways.

Biography: James Wolfinger is an associate professor of History and Education at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois. His research and teaching focus on urban, political, labor, and African American history in the twentieth century. He is the author of Philadelphia Divided: Race and Politics in the City of Brotherly Love (University of North Carolina Press, 2007) as well as numerous articles and reviews. He has received fellowships and grants from the Organization of American Historians, American Philosophical Society, and the Newberry Library. He is currently working on an urban and labor history of public transportation in Philadelphia from the 1880s to the 1960s tentatively titled “Capital’s Quest: Management, Labor, and the Search for Social Control in Philadelphia’s Mass Transit Industry.”

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