Switch and Signal

Nature is slowly enveloping the various components of this switch and signal apparatus on the eastern approach of the Grays Ferry Swing Bridge. Portions of the electro-mechanical device alerted the bridge tender that a train was present and the bridge could not be moved. Conversely if the bridge was open, trackmen could throw this switch and bar trains from moving across the bridge.The now-defunct Bethlehem Steel did brisk business in railroad “safety” switches in the early part of the 20th century. US Switch and Signal was (and is) also a major producer of railroad gates and signals.

On the surface of these components are raised company names, trademarks and operating instuctions (“depress here to apply padlock”) — creating a strange island of legibility amid the underbrush. While we understand or can conjecture the function of some parts, with others we lack the lived experience to gather meaning. And so this old century’s bit of modernity is being swallowed up both physically and conceptually.

Lost Dobson’s Run: Kelly Drive Flood Relief Improvements Explained



Last week, when the Inquirer ran a story about a surprisingly massive ($38 million) drainage improvement project that will snarl traffic just below the East Falls bridges, the region let out a collective groan. For something like six months, Kelly Drive will be reduced to two lanes — severely crimping one of the city’s major arteries. What was lost in the hubbub over traffic was an explanation as to why the Scotts Lane/Allegheny Ave. basin needs better drainage and how new impervious surfaces, development, and insufficient stormwater systems built in the early 20th century make this need acute.

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Schuylkill Expressway Palimpsest

These are Fairmount Park WPA-era maps altered by Park engineers in the mid-1950s to show the prospective course of the Schuylkill Expressway through Park lands. If you look below the whitewash you can see springs, monuments, and whole watersheds soon covered by bands of steel and concrete. This is near the Montgomery Ave. exit south of the Horticultural Center.

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Remnants of Philadelphia’s Gas Network

Although Charles Wilson Peale had been using coal gas to light his museum of oddities in Independence Hall as early as 1816 and the Chestnut Street Theater had gas lighting by 1822, city leaders rejected the idea of leaky gas tanks and were cold to the the idea of a city sponsored gas works in the early 19th century. That was until Samuel Merrick, a fire engine builder and founder of the Franklin Institute decided to get himself elected to council vowing to bring the city into the 19th century. By 1835 the ambitious Merrick had erected a facility at 24th and Chestnut Sts. on the model of London’s Regency Park Gas Works and a year later the ornately detailed facility was producing enough gas to light 2nd Street from South to Vine Sts.

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Docks, Wharves, Ferries and the “Port of Pennsylvania”


Last post we mentioned the efforts of Mayor Rudolph Blankenburg (1911-1916) to modernize the city’s infrastructure.  Part of his plan involved the hiring of talented department heads like A. Merritt Taylor and Morris Cooke.  Blankenburg also hired George W. Norris to head up the newly created Department of Wharves, Docks, and Ferries.  Norris embarked on an ambitious “finger pier” construction program — some of which exist today, like Municipal Pier No. 9.

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The Moving Walkways of Chestnut Street

This Sunday Mark Bowden wrote about how chronic underfunding and suburban neglect prevents SEPTA from expanding its system to meet coming energy crisis.  Though he dances around the reasons why SEPTA is expected to pay its own way, I think his point that yearly funding crises interrupt plans to prepare for a post-oil world is correct.  This is a point I have made my own studies of SEPTA.  As early as the 1970s, when the Authority was just beginning to integrate its predecessor private companies, the state expected SEPTA to tighten its belt and solve its own fiscal problems like a private corporation.  Except SEPTA had to deal with a fragmented patchwork of companies, labor agreements, and operating systems, not to mention competition from cars.  From 1968-1983 was a crucial period for SEPTA and massive infusions of cash could have created a more versatile system, a more multi-directional system, a less spokes-on-a-wheel type system.  If you want to read more about these missed opportunities click here.

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