The Kennett Township Railroad Story
By David Shepherd
In the mid 1800s, the idea of building railroads swept the country in a way comparable to the way the internet has swept the country in recent years. Kennett Township was no exception. Exhibiting considerable effort and perseverance, a number of visionary civic leaders successfully brought a railroad to our area, which dramatically improved the social and economic lives of Kennett Township residents and became an important part of the history of the development of our community.
The limitations of land transportation before railroads easily explain the enthusiasm for building railroads. Beginning early in the 1800s, several turnpikes, which were toll roads, served the area. Present day roads, such as the Baltimore Pike, following the same routes as turnpikes, still bear their names. Travel by road was slow and expensive. A stagecoach could travel 6 miles per hour. Wagons hauling freight were much slower and a team of oxen required 3 days to travel 25 miles. Road tolls could range up to 25 cents for a wagon to travel 10 miles. In addition, the time required for travel meant that travelers often stayed overnight at inns.
A rail line from Philadelphia to Columbia, Lancaster County, was opened in 1832. Operation of this line demonstrated the tremendous improvements offered by the railroad. A passenger car could carry dozens of passengers and a freight car could carry many wagon loads of goods. A trip from Philadelphia to Lancaster could be made in seven hours. In succeeding years, local railroad companies began springing up like mushrooms. In 1851, the West Chester and Philadelphia Railway Company was formed to offer direct service between these cities by a different southerly route through Media. At the same time, there was considerable interest in a railway line from Philadelphia to Baltimore by way of West Chester. It was planned to use a portion of the Philadelphia-West Chester tracks for this new line. In the early 1850s, a group of citizens under the leadership of Dr. Franklin Taylor of Kennett Square formed a Corporation to undertake an engineering survey for a rail line leaving the Philadelphia-West Chester line at Wawa (near Media), going through Kennett Square to Oxford. The engineering survey began in 1852 and was completed in 1854. There was considerable controversy over the exact placement of the line because the presence of a railroad could bring significant financial benefit to communities and individual landowners near the right of way.
The survey completed, the corporation was reformed as the Philadelphia and Baltimore Central Railroad with Franklin Taylor as President. Construction began in 1854. At the groundbreaking ceremony, Franklin Taylor threw one shovel of earth towards Philadelphia and another towards Baltimore. Several orators made speeches while standing on a chestnut stump. Construction of the line began at Wawa and proceeded west through Painters Crossing and through Chadds Ford, then Mendenhall and Rosedale to Kennett Square. Financing of the construction was difficult and delayed construction. This was a typical problem for most small railroads of the day.
The railroad provided service as it extended its tracks. Thus the railroad officially came to Kennett Square on December 17, 1859 with a celebration worthy of the occasion. The first train brought the National Guards of West Chester, Taylor’s Coronet Band, and a number of invited guests. Their arrival was greeted by cannon fire. Those arriving on the train were joined by a crowd that included officers of the railroad, local military units, and local citizens, who paraded through the streets to the Borough Hall. There were numerous speakers, including the ubiquitous Dr. Franklin Taylor. Afterwards, a meal was served to upwards of 300 people. The meal was followed by a military parade. Then it began to rain, so the crowd adjourned again to the Borough Hall for a band concert. Music and dancing planned for the evening were cancelled because of the rain. Eventually all of the guests boarded the train and left for West Chester.
Although the first station was in Kennett Square, the 1873 Witmer map shows two additional stations in Kennett Township at Rosedale, located near the site of the present Township building, and Fairville Station (now Mendenhall) near the present Mendenhall Inn on Route 52. One year after the railroad came to Kennett Square, it was extended to Oxford. The Civil War delayed the extension of the line into Maryland. After the War, the line was extended to Maryland, first to Rising Sun and then to Port Deposit, where another line connected to Baltimore.
The period between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the end of World War I in 1919 was probably the golden age of the railroad in the Township. The line was called the Octoraro Branch of the Philadelphia and Baltimore Central Railroad, which for a significant period of time was operated as a subsidiary of the Pennsylvania Railroad system. Early schedules show two trains per day each way through the Township with a weekly Market Train on Friday. Over time, the number of trains increased until 1910, there was a train to Philadelphia every hour.
The railroad passenger service brought great social change to the Township. People were able to travel with ease and travel they did. Philadelphia was only two hours away and the frequent schedules made it possible for people in the Township to commute to Philadelphia. A trip to the city for shopping or an evening at the theater was easily accomplished because the trains started early in the morning and ran late into the evening. Darwin Woodward, a Kennett Township farmer, was able to attend the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, thanks to tickets supplied by a Stebbins brother-in-law who worked for the railroad. Not only did the railroad permit travel out of the township, it permitted travel within the township. Children in the Rosedale and Mendenhall areas took the daily train to and from the Kennett High School on Mulberry Street or rode the train to attend the Saturday afternoon movie matinee at the Fireman’s Auditorium. The railroad offered periodic excursions to revival camp meetings and to resort areas, such as Cape May and Atlantic City.
As the railroad brought Kennett residents to the city, it also brought city residents to Kennett. In the early 1900s, the Theodore B. Woodward family operated a boarding house near Rosedale that could accommodate 100 guests. (Today it would be called a resort.) Vacationers came by railroad to the Rosedale station and were taken to the boarding house in a horse-drawn carriage. In this same period, there was a program called Country Week, under which poor children from the city would be brought to Kennett by train to stay with a farm family for a week. As people moved faster so did the mail. As early as 1877, published schedules show a daily mail train each way between Philadelphia and Baltimore. The mail train had a special car where mail was sorted between stations.
As the passenger service provided social benefits, the freight service brought economic benefits to the community. The Township was an agricultural area when the railroad arrived, and Philadelphia was a large market for agricultural products. The railroad provided a quick and inexpensive way for the farmers in the Township to move their products to market. This was especially true for perishable products, such as hay, grain, corn, and straw needed for the large horse population in the city. The trains also brought back manure for use in agriculture. Rail transport played an important part in developing our mushroom industry into what it is today. It became possible to ship large quantities of fresh mushrooms to Philadelphia and New York, where wholesalers would distribute them to retail produce dealers and restaurants.
The railroad also fostered the growth of manufacturing in the Township. In the mid 1800s, the Pennock family was manufacturing heavy agricultural equipment such as hay rakes, grain drills, and mowers. Shortly after the railroad arrived, the Pennocks built larger shops next to the railroad and built railroad cars during the Civil War. Later, the company was restructured to build rock crushers and road building equipment. Eventually it became the Good Roads Machinery Company. Before the plant closed in 1945, it employed 200 people. The Pennocks leased space in their shops to the J. R. Crozier Foundry that made iron castings used in a wide range of industrial and farm equipment. By 1940 that firm employed 80 people. The Pennocks also leased shop space to Jackson, Gause, and Company that made wood handles for a wide variety of tools. By 1869 this firm employed 23 people. Also near the railroad tracks was Joseph McMullen’s steam saw mill, which employed six people in manufacturing ship timbers and building materials.
As the railroad superseded the horse and the wagon, the automobile and the truck superseded the railroad. In 1919 the weekly market train to Philadelphia was discontinued. In the mid 1920s the steam engine and passenger cars were replaced with self-propelled single cars containing both a baggage and a passenger compartment. By the late 1940s the number of passengers dwindled to the point that the Octoraro passenger service was losing $800 per week. After almost 90 years, the passenger service was discontinued on April 30, 1948.
Freight service was interrupted about 1963. For many years, there was only sporadic freight service on the Octorara line. For a time, the line was owned by SEPTA, but no significant service was offered. At the present time the line from Wawa to Nottingham is owned by the Eastern Pennsylvania Railroad, a subsidiary of Pennsylvania Eastern Railroad. This line runs two freight trains per week in each direction. The line regularly carries steel plate, scrap steel, corn, propane, lumber, and oil.
We can no longer hear the rumble of a steam locomotive nor see passengers and milk cans waiting at the station. Nevertheless, we still have the tracks to remind us that the railroad, although diminished, is still operating almost 150 years after the roar of the cannons announced its arrival in Kennett Square in 1859, an event that changed life in our community forever.