Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company

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Prior to the 1870s, Philadelphia's public transportation system consisted of dozens of independently owned and operated horse-drawn streetcar lines. However, as Philadelphia's population grew, increasing street congestion and the disorganization of the numerous independent streetcar lines created a need for a more efficient transportation system. Efficiency could only be achieved through expensive mechanization, which required consolidated capital. The path to electrification and unification was begun in 1883 when three men, William Kemble, Peter Widener and William Elkins, formed the Philadelphia Traction Company to supply power to existing lines. At that point, there were three primary rival companies operating in Philadelphia: Philadelphia Traction Company, People's Traction Company and Electric Traction Company. They merged to form the Union Traction Company in 1895. Still, the problem of street congestion remained, and the solution seemed to lie in subway and elevated rail lines. To accomplish this, Union Traction Company was absorbed into a new organization, the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company (PRT) in 1902. Construction on the Market Street subway began in 1903, and by 1905 the western part of the subway was open for use.

Through a 1907 contract with the City of Philadelphia, the municipality gained control over the public transportation system and the company gave up leadership in the development of Philadelphia's rapid transit system. In addition, the burden of snow removal and other maintenance tasks formerly carried out by the rail companies, as well as the car licensing fees mandated in the 1850s by streetcar laws, were taken away. The city gained control of PRT through a number of measures. Namely, municipal representatives were given seats on the Board of Directors. The city also gained access to PRT financial records and the right to approve mergers or any other major changes to the company structure.

Despite the changes brought on by the 1907 charter, PRT still experienced financial troubles and could not finance the promised subway lines. Further pressure was placed on the PRT in the form of multiple strikes by transit workers demanding pay increases. The strike of 1910 turned into a violent city-wide riot, after which PRT underwent a drastic refinancing and reorganization. Thomas E. Mitten (1864-1929) took over management of PRT in 1911. He placated the workers by establishing a Co-Operative Welfare Association, expanded PRT's business, and brought the company back from the brink of financial ruin.

In 1913, the city established the Department of City Transit, which would oversee the development of rapid transit in Philadelphia. PRT could then rent or lease the infrastructure constructed and paid for by the city department. The relationship between PRT and the municipality was not without conflict, and disputes over finances continued well into the 1930s. Nevertheless, PRT and the Department of City Transit managed the public transportation system until 1940, when Philadelphia Transportation Company (PTC) was created. With the establishment of this company, the City of Philadelphia and public transportation became even more intertwined. The city received half the company's profits and the right to purchase all its property. Essentially, through the formation of this private company, the municipality gained even more control of Philadelphia's transit system. In 1968, PTC was purchased by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), a municipal authority still in control more than 40 years later.


Baer, Christopher T. "John F. Tucker Transit Collection Finding Aid." Hagley Museum and Library (Wilmington), accession 2046. April 2010.

Cheape, Charles W. Moving the Masses: Urban Public Transit in New York, Boston and Philadelphia, 1880-1912 . Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980.

Weigley, Russell F., ed. Philadelphia: A 300 Year History . New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1982.

From the guide to the Harold E. Cox transportation collection, Bulk, 1858-1960, 1803-1967, (The Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Shaw, John Mackay. Papers, 1919-1929. Temple University Libraries, Paley Library
creatorOf Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company. Harold E. Cox transportation collection 1803 - 1967 1858 - 1960 Historical Society of Pennsylvania
referencedIn The History of Willow Grove Park [1896-1976], 1991 American Philosophical Society
referencedIn Wilmington Trust Company. Trust Dept. Investment analysis files ("N-P"), 1909-1959 (bulk 1931-1954). Hagley Museum & Library
referencedIn Wiegand, W. F. (William F.). Record of Philadelphia Transporation Company route changes. Historical Society of Pennsylvania
referencedIn Moore, J. Hampton (Joseph Hampton), 1864-1950. J. Hampton Moore papers, 1786-1952 (bulk 1906-1936). Historical Society of Pennsylvania
creatorOf Harold E. Cox transportation collection, Bulk, 1858-1960, 1803-1967 Historical Society of Pennsylvania
referencedIn Greenfield, Albert M., 1887-1967. Papers, 1921-1967 1921-1929. Historical Society of Pennsylvania
creatorOf Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company. [Pamphlets]. Yale University Library
referencedIn Smith, John Gibb. [John Gibb Smith trolley photographs] -- 1889-1946. Free Library of Philadelphia, Parkway Central Library
referencedIn Philadelphia Suburban Transportation Company. Records, 1792-1973 (bulk 1848-1973). Hagley Museum & Library
referencedIn Blankenburg, Rudolph, 1843-1918. Papers, 1881-1913. Historical Society of Pennsylvania
creatorOf Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority. Records, 1874-1989 (bulk, 1895-1976). Hagley Museum & Library
referencedIn Greenfield, Albert M., 1887-1967. Papers, 1921-1967. Historical Society of Pennsylvania
referencedIn Pennsylvania Railroad Company. Office of Chief Engineer Philadelphia Improvements. Records, 1925-1938. Hagley Museum & Library
creatorOf Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company. [Pamphlets. Financial history.]. Yale University Library
referencedIn Chestnut Hill Historical Society railroad and trolley collection, 1896-1939 Chestnut Hill Historical Society
referencedIn Archives Organization File, 1875-1986, pt.2. Cornell University Library
referencedIn Philadelphia Transportation Company. Agency history record. Hagley Museum & Library
referencedIn Pennsylvania Railroad Company. Office of Traffic Manager, Philadelphia. Records, 1920-1928. Hagley Museum & Library
referencedIn Tucker, John F. (John Foster), 1950-2008, collector. John F. Tucker transit history collection, 1895-2002 (bulk, 1920-1990). Hagley Museum & Library
referencedIn Davis, W. W. H. (William Watts Hart), 1820-1910. Historic scraps, 1902-1904. Bucks County Historical Society
Role Title Holding Repository
Place Name Admin Code Country
Philadelphia (Pa.).
Local transit--Pennsylvania--Philadelphia
Law offices--Records and correspondence

Corporate Body

Active 1803

Active 1967




Ark ID: w6pc71d8

SNAC ID: 14757992