by JB Hyppolite and Len Lear
You might say that West Mt. Airy’s Edward W. Duffy, 66, author of “Philadelphia: A Railroad History” (published 2013 by Camino Books, Inc., $19.95) definitely does not have a one-track mind.
But unlike frivolous railroad puns, Duffy’s exhaustively researched tome follows the rise, fall and impact of Philadelphia’s railroad industry. A graduate of La Salle and Temple Universities (an MBA degree in Real Estate Development) as well as a former U.S. Army officer, Duffy worked for the Philadelphia Department of Commerce and several other city or quasi-governmental agencies. His interest in railroads dates from his role as liaison between the city of Philadelphia and various rail reorganization agencies in the early ’70s that resulted in the creation of Conrail in 1976.
Philadelphia’s once thriving railroad industry encountered tough competition from automobiles and what Ed cited as “excessive regulation” by the Interstate Commerce Commission. As a result, seven railroads in the Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states fell into bankruptcy.
Congress passed the Regional Rail Reorganization Act of 1973, presumably to enable the federal government to put the railroad system back together on sound footing. The city of Philadelphia was asked about its stance on the act as it unfolded in 1973 through 1975. “I ended up being the person who did the writing of the city’s comments during that period,” said Duffy. All of this led to the creation of Conrail, short for the Consolidated Rail Corporation.
“It did quite well. It rewarded the federal government with $1.9 billion profit for all the investment the government had put into Conrail. A couple of years after Conrail became independent, it was taken over by CSX and Norfolk Southern, who implemented the preferred alternative of the final system plan.”
To understand why there was so much competition in Philadelphia’s railroad system, one would have to go back to the early years of the United States. Canals were used extensively for shipping, due to the success of the Erie Canal system (opened in 1825), the water level route between Albany and Buffalo. Before this Philadelphia was America’s capital, biggest city and economic machine, but New York eventually took over as the nation’s financial center. “Philadelphia tried to compete with New York,” said Duffy. “It was not a very good alternative to the water level route, but it was an alternative nonetheless.”
A group of Philadelphians created the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1846, which became the largest railroad by traffic and revenue in the U.S. for the first half of the 20th century. Over the years it acquired, merged with or owned part of at least 800 other rail lines and companies. At one time it was the largest publicly traded corporation in the world, with a budget larger than that of the U.S. government and a workforce of about 250,000 people.
Duffy’s book points out that Philadelphia is still covered with railroad infrastructure today. Not only does it have regional rail, two subway lines and more, but it also has many hidden gems like the area near the Art Museum and Schuylkill River Park. “I would say that the people who are interested in how Philadelphia developed (should read the book).”
The book discusses the impact of the rail industry on four major Philadelphia companies — Baldwin Locomotive, Cramp Shipyard, Midvale Steel and The Budd Company — and on the Philadelphia waterfront and its port. Duffy also explores the railroads’ relationship to the loss of industrial jobs during the 1960s. Employment went from about 247,000 industrial jobs in 1967 to as low as 24,000 in this decade.
Ed strongly believes that Philadelphia’s railroad history should be further embraced by the city. “Philadelphia could do a much better job of remembering and promoting its railroad history.” For example, a monument erected in 1838 around 49th and Grays Ferry Avenue that commemorates the creation of the first railroad line to the south is, according to Duffy, in “disgraceful” shape today. It’s covered with graffiti and trash. “This monument should be brought to the 30th Street Station for people to appreciate.”
The primary challenge for Ed in writing this book was doing the extensive research after not doing so since 1980. “It was sort of like learning how to play the piano again,” he said.
Duffy has been living in the Chestnut Hill/Mt. Airy area for 40 years. His older daughter Leigh helped with photography for the book; his younger daughter Fionna helped with “IT guidance,” and his wife Sue was “my source of inspiration.”
“Philadelphia: A Railroad History” can be obtained at Barnes And Noble or through www.caminobooks.com. More information at 215-413-1917.