The El, Under Construction

Subway construction on Market between 17th and 18th, summer 1904.

Library Company of Philadelphia

How the opening day for Philly’s brand new Market-Frankford Line went

Some things, it turns out, never change.

Correction appended

“Public Hails With Delight Opening of ‘L’” trumpeted the Inquirer on the morning of March 5, 1907, one day after tens of thousands of riders had spent their nickels on the new elevated train and subway line that ran from the 15th Street loop to the western limits of what was then America’s third-largest city.

“New Ticket System Has Its Vagaries,” the paper observed.

So some things never change.

Transfers were not accepted on the new line, nor were the customary six-for-a-quarter tickets. The five-cent fares would be equivalent to $1.22 in today’s currency.

The Inquirer reporter pronounced the cars of “the Market street L” to be new, comfortable and clean. The service was “comparatively noiseless, smooth and without wagons or blockades.”

During the day there was “the usual batch of rumors” about accidents, the newspaper reported. But this was the fake news of its day.

The first train left at 6 a.m. and made the trip from 69th Street to City Hall in 20 minutes. The tracks to the Schuylkill’s west bank were elevated; the length from the east bank to 15th Street tunneled under the city.

“Those who live out near the Cobb’s Creek border line got for the first time in their Philadelphia career a taste of something like rapid transit,” the paper reported in a story deemed worthy of display on the front page, though below the fold. It is difficult to know the tone of those words, now 110 years old, though quite possibly it was ironic: the transportation company was called Philadelphia Rapid Transit.

The company was prepared for the expected crowds and pickpockets. Plainclothes officers were positioned at the various stations. At the end of the work day, enormous numbers of riders jammed the 15th Street Terminal.

The new transportation mode promised to bring customers to the doors of the great department stores around Eighth and Market, and accelerate development in the fast-growing western edges of the city.

The merchants were pleased.

Morris L. Clothier: “I regard the new ‘L’ as a great improvement.” He said he looked forward to the day the subway ran to the Delaware River, which would occur the following year.

Samuel D. Lit: “The beginnings of a new Philadelphia.”

Ellis A. Gimbel: “A gala day….. It will benefit especially those who cannot pay a big rental for a home downtown — will be a great boon to the working people.” The fact that the trains stopped at 7:30 p.m. he called “the fly in the ointment.”

Correction: Tickets for the El were six-for-a-quarter at the opening of the Market-Frankford Line, not six-for-$1, as first reported.

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