Tucked between the trees of West Fairmount Park is a 4.5-mile trail loop that holds much more than it first appears.
A hike, run, or bike ride along recently completed multi-use “Trolley Trail” — which roughly follows the route of the former Fairmount Park Trolley — will take you on a journey that lies at the “intersection of history and nature,” said Kevin Roche of the Fairmount Park Conservancy.
The winding trail carries what Roche describes as an “air of mystery.”
A frequent leader of tours along the pathway, he’s also the director of institutional giving at the parks advocacy nonprofit, one of several groups that collaborated to design and carve out this usable trail over the past several years.
Pieces of the route followed by the old trolley, which ran from the 1890s to the 1940s, have since become parts of the Schuylkill Expressway (I-76), and some are now park roads.
Where the trail can, it traces straightaways of the former tracks, Roche said, but it also includes some windier portions that don’t exactly follow the old route of the historic cars.
The trail itself — a joint effort by Fairmount Park Conservancy, the Belmont Plateau Trails Alliance, and Philadelphia Parks & Rec — was actually completed two years ago. But turn-by-turn signage wasn’t installed until last month, thanks to supply chain issues. A formal ribbon-cutting is planned for Saturday, though it could get rescheduled if there’s rain.
70 cars and millions of passengers
In the late 19th century, a firm called the Fairmount Park Transit Company built a trolley line as a way for people to get around Philadelphia’s massive public park.
The trolley made 16 stops throughout the green space surrounding the Schuylkill, and offered a 22-minute round-trip ride, according to Roche, of the Fairmount Park Conservancy. It prompted the construction and opening of the Strawberry Mansion Bridge, connecting the park on both sides of the river.
On their first day in service, the fleet of 70 open-air trolley cars carried an estimated 20,000 people, according to a June 14, 1897 article in the Inquirer, who each paid a nickel fare.
The line also took people to Woodside Park, an amusement destination the trolley company built right outside the public park, along Ford Road. It featured a number of rides and attractions, including a swimming pool, a roller coaster, and the carousel now housed at the Please Touch Museum.
But the park wasn’t a welcoming destination for all, according to the West Philadelphia Collaborative History website. Discriminatory Jim Crow policies kept Black visitors out of the park’s rollerdrome and pool until 1952, just three years before the entire park shuttered.
The trolley line was popular — reports from its final year estimated it carried between 750,000 and 2 million people a year — but it still wasn’t enough to save the Fairmount Park Transit Company from bankruptcy.
The line was abandoned in 1946, amid the rise of the automobile as a common means of transportation. It was also tough to stay on top of maintenance alongside the tracks, according to Roche, and the seasonality of the trolleys (they were far more popular in the summertime) made the business model unsustainable.
The trolley route “has succumbed at last to changed conditions,” the Inquirer wrote upon its demise. The materials associated with the trolley and its tracks ended up being auctioned off.
What you’ll find along the way
Some pieces along the current trail hearken back to its hidden history.
Early on, you’ll pass under the slanted Skew Arch Bridge, a bridge constructed out of brick, most likely for the purpose of crossing over the trolley tracks. The short tunnel it forms is a staple on Instagram.
Further along the path, there’s a worn Woodside Station platform — it looks like a slab of concrete no one seems to have bothered to remove.
Also still intact, though not directly part of the trail, is the old “car barn” where the fleet of trolley cars were once stored. Parks & Rec uses it for modern vehicle storage, Roche said.
A hike along the Trolley Trail also leads you past a few sites that predate the trolley.
The trail runs near the Belmont Mansion, a stop on the Underground Railroad. You’ll also pass by the site of the Belmont Inclined Plane, where an important railroad first happened: a Philly-based locomotive company managed to pull a load up a hill with its own power at 15 miles per hour in 1836 — a feat so impressive at the time some people wouldn’t believe it without seeing it.
There are two main entrances to the Trolley Trail: at the northeast end of Chamounix Drive (near the Chamounix Mansion), or near the Edgely Ultimate Frisbee Fields.
The Fairmount Park Conservancy is working to add new trailheads at Ford Road and the base of the Belmont Plateau next year, Roche said, and is also doing masonry work to help maintain the Skew Arch Bridge.
You’ll find a map and information at both current trailheads, and turn-by-turn signage and mile markers as you go along the path. There are also two signs that offer additional history at spots along the trail. There’s an online version of the trail map here.
If you go, note that some parts of the trail are very narrow, and some are also quite hilly. If you want a guide, check for a guided hike led by Roche.