At this past summer’s pop-up Oval in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, one of the many soaring printed screens that adorned Eakins Oval featured an image of an ornate, brick bridge and tunnel, surrounded by lush foliage. It was a compelling image, meant to highlight one of the many little-known pieces of history hiding in Fairmount Park.
If you tend to frequent West Fairmount Park’s many mountain biking trails, chances are you’ve stumbled upon this tunnel, which is a short walk from the historic Chamounix Hostel. But back in its hey day, the impressive engineering work of a art was just one of the many passages part of the Fairmount Park Trolley.
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Few Philadelphians know that from 1896 to 1946, Philly used to be home to the Fairmount Park Trolley, one of the few passenger trolleys in the world that ran solely through a city park. Passengers could board at 33rd and Dauphin streets, and the open-air trolley would make 16 stops within Strawberry Mansion and West Fairmount Park, bringing residents to the park’s Woodside amusement park and recreational areas.
As evidenced by this silent video, the Fairmount Park Trolley offered a scenic ride through the park. The natural landscape was only enhanced by the 20 impressive bridges and tunnel structures built specifically for the trolley line, like delicately arched Chamounix Tunnel (or what Hidden City Philadelphia refers to today as the “prettiest bridge to nowhere.”).
The trolley’s demise
As the story goes, the advent of the automobile killed the need for the Fairmount Park Trolley, and it shut down service in September 1946. The park’s trails suffered years of neglect and went unmaintained in the post-World War II era, leaving the trolley’s 10 miles of trails to go unused and inaccessible. The trolley’s end also played a role in the closure of Woodside Amusement Park, which was a main stop along the rail.
The trolley equipment was ultimately auctioned off, but the bridges and tunnels were left standing throughout West Fairmount Park.
The Trolley Trail
It wasn’t until mountain biking became a popular activity here in the late 1990s and early 2000s that people began to explore and reconsider the abandoned trolley line. As cyclists traversed through the park, they created user-created trails, some of which happened to travel along portions of the trolley’s original route.
This is about the time that the Parks and Recreation Department and Fairmount Park Conservancy stepped in and began mapping these user-created trails. With the help of PennPraxis, the groups established a master plan in 2014, with the goal of enhancing the park experience for visitors and making its sites more accessible.
The Trolley Trail was one of the projects that came out of the master plan. In efforts to better connect locals with the park’s trail systems, the Trolley Trail will ultimately be a nearly five-mile loop that will follow portions of the original Fairmount Park Trolley route, taking cyclists, hikers, and runners past, through, and over old tunnel structures and bridge spans.
The first half-mile of the trail is already complete (you can find a map of it here) and work on the second phase of the project is underway. According to the Fairmount Park Conservancy, it will add on an additional 3,400 feet of trail “from the ‘elbow’ where the Belmont cross country trail (aka Fire Road) makes a 90-degree turn to the former trolley tunnel under Greenland Drive.”
Keep an eye out for these changes on your next adventure through the park. You might even have the pleasure of stumbling across one of these impressive pieces of transportation history yourself.