Although "The Railroads of King of Prussia, PA: The Past Leads to the Future" is a book clearly aimed at a mostly local audience, I had every reason to believe the story told by Michael Stefan Shaw would closely mirror the experiences of cities and towns all around the Northeast. Thus, when Mr. Shaw contacted me and requested that I read and review his new book I was all too happy to do so. My suspicions were quickly confirmed. The more I read the more familiar the story sounded to me. The emergence of the railroads would spur economic growth and forever change the landscape of places like King of Prussia, PA. It is a time and a tale worth remembering.
Aside from a very interesting narrative "The Railroads of King of Prussia, PA" offers up a potpourri of photos, schedules, documents and other images that greatly enhance the readers understanding of the events that Shaw is attempting to convey. The author spends a good bit of time discussing the canals that were built in the area in the 1830's and 1840's to provide an economical way to move coal, timber and iron ore. In fact, the canals were the primary mode of transportation in the area in the years between 1830 and 1852. Being from Rhode Island, I was fascinated to learn of the existence of the Pennsylvania Canal. I had never even heard of it! A great deal of time and expense went into the construction of this canal which covered the 391 miles from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. I discovered that within just two decades of the completion of the canal railroads began to displace canals as the preferred method of moving freight and passengers. The emergence of the railroads exposed the flaws of the canal systems and hastened their demise. I was aware of this phenomenon because my wife and I occasionally hike on a trail alongside the remains of the Blackstone Canal in Uxbridge, MA which once brought horse-drawn barges from Worcester, MA to Providence. The history there is eerily similar to what went down in King of Prussia during the same period.
In "The Railroads of King of Prussia, PA" we learn that railroad service was introduced into the area in 1838 when the Philadelphia and Reading opened a new section of track that passed through Upper Merion. Before long, the railroad would become the focal point of the town. The prodigious growth of the railroads in this area was fueled by the skyrocketing demand for coal in the city of Philadelphia. By the mid 1860's passenger service had also been established in the town. A second major line known as the Chester Valley Railroad would soon be constructed to accommodate the movement of anthracite coal, marble, limestone, iron ore and agricultural goods. King of Prussia would continue to experience steady growth over the next several decades. Then between 1889 and 1892 the Pennsylvania Railroad established "The Trenton Cut-Off" which in some areas ran directly alongside the Philadelphia and Reading line. I was surprised to learn that at one time the Pennsylvania Railroad was the largest publicly traded company in the world. Interesting stuff! But by 1917 freight traffic would begin its inexorable shift to the local roads and highways in the region. The story was the same all across America. With the emergence of the automobile the handwriting was on the wall….the heyday of the railroads was coming to a close. Shaw does a fine job of chronicling this period for his readers. By 1928 passenger service would also begin to be phased out as busses replaced trains. It would be totally discontinued in 1932.
As I indicated earlier there is a smorgasbord of interesting images presented in "The Railroads of King of Prussia, PA." Perhaps my favorite is on page 30. A travel guide called "Pleasant Places on the Reading Railroad" details possible destinations for vacationers and weekend travelers along the line. Glancing through a couple of pages of this guide published in 1893 you really do get a feel for that time and those places. History buffs should also appreciate the material presented in Chapter 11. "Accidents on the Railroads" offers up a number of vintage newspaper clips chronicling various accidents that took place on the rails in King of Prussia over the years. These clips are supplemented with accident reports and court documents as well. These days King of Prussia is a thriving suburb of Philadelphia. I visited nearby Valley Forge Historical Park several years ago and was struck by just how densely populated this area is…row after row of condos as far as the eye can see. Portions of the abandoned railroad tracks are being converted to hiking trails and bike paths as part of the "Rails to Trails" program. That is a good thing. Meanwhile, there are increasing calls to bring commuter rail service back to the region. This certainly sounds like a perfectly reasonable idea but beware….it has been tried in other places including right here in Rhode Island. People say they want mass transit but when push comes to shove they are extremely reluctant to give up their cars.
I must tell you that I thoroughly enjoyed "The Railroads of King of Prussia, PA: The Past Leads to the Future". This book was obviously a labor of love for author Michael Stefan Shaw. An interesting project well executed. Recommended!
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