The Rise and Fall of the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company

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The Rise and Fall of the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company

2012-12-07 10:07

As an intern with the Greenfield Digital Project, I’ve been working through the summer and the fall researching organizations related to the Bankers Trust story. So far I’ve been most excited about the story of Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company, the predescessor to Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), and its president from 1911 to 1929, Thomas Mitten.

Philadelphia Rapid Transit was incorporated in 1902, and began construction of electric streetcar lines to West Philadelphia, as the affluent and fashionable suburb was developing rapidly. Within the year, PRT made plans for the city’s first subway line running under Market Street (predecessor to today’s Market-Frankford Line), completed in 1907, as well as a street-surface line on Broad Street.

Electric PRT trolley, 1902 (Philadelphia Record Photograph Morgue Collection, no. V7).

The company planned and grew at exponential rates in the early 20th century, but its management was inefficient, secretive, and grossly unpopular with the public. By the time the Market Street line was complete, PRT was nearly bankrupt, and its poor financial decisions trickled down to fed up workers. Hoping to piggyback on the public’s dissatisfaction with PRT’s recent fare increases, streetcar drivers decided to strike for higher wages and better conditions in May 1909.

As someone who rides SEPTA almost every day, it’s not hard for me to imagine Philadelphia public transit inciting riots in the streets, although labor unrest on this scale seems foreign to me in 21st century. On the afternoon of May 29th, 1909, strikers gathered all over the city, especially concentrating in streetcar suburb areas like West Philadelphia, Frankford, Brewerytown, and Germantown. The strikes turned violent after sunset: strikers gathered into unruly groups that at some points swelled to over 600 men. Some left dynamite on trolley tracks, vaulted rocks into crowds, stormed trolley cars, and uprooted supportive trolley poles.

Damages to the transit network tied up almost all of the lines in Philadelphia for days. The strike was eventually called off after negotiations between the PRT unions and management began, but the company continued to experience extreme labor unrest, including another long and violent strike, into 1910.

Enter Thomas Mitten, an Englishman who was installed as PRT president in late 1911, after the former president, Charles E. Krueger, dropped dead of a heart attack at his clubhouse earlier in the year.

Greeting riders aboard a PRT trolley. Albert M. Greenfield is third in line (Albert M. Greenfield Papers, collection no. 1952).

I was excited to learn about Mitten and PRT’s labor solutions: breaking clean of the conflict-ridden, top-down model of negotiations between company management and the two PRT unions, Mitten instead developed his “Cooperative Plan,” which earmarked 22 percent of all company earnings for wages, pensions, and other benefits. By late 1912, Mitten had installed the Cooperative Welfare Association, which organized employee sick and death benefits, and provided for co-op buying of food and other consumer goods for employees. PRT was fairly unique in its labor dealings, and employees resisted outside unions like the Amalgamated Association through the 1920s.

PRT’s fortune under Mitten rose with the all but too common seedy financial practices of the 1920s, and fell dramatically when the system became unstable later in the decade. After some questionable business gambles, the company went up for sale to the city in 1927. In September 1929, still heading the company, the city began an investigation against Mitten citing “excessive fees and diversion of funds.” A month later Mitten was found dead, drowned in his summer home in the Poconos. The Great Depression halted transit construction in Philadelphia, and the transit workers cooperative ended with PRT’s downfall.

Germantown trolley, 1939. (Philadelphia Record Photograph Morgue Collection, no. V7)

In 1940, PRT was officially reorganized into Philadelphia Transportation Company (Albert M. Greenfield, the star of our Bankers Trust project, was one of two men who led the reorganization of the company!). The old company union was long gone by the mid-‘40s, and employees were organized by the Teamsters and the Transit Workers Union. Control of the city’s transit lines passed to National City Lines in the 1950s, which was then consolodated into SEPTA in 1968.


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on

This is a very bare-bones discription. You might consider going over old newspaper stories, the Main Branch of the FLP has an outstanding microfilm collection going back to the 1700's.

As a student at Temple, I can tell you that the Media Services located on the ground floor of Paley has a very extensive collection of old newspapers on microfilm as well.

I have a very personal interest in the history of the PRT for a number of reasons, one is that I hope to do a documentry on the 1910 General Strike.

Two, is that I am a distant relative of Judge Harry S. "Hanging Harry" McDevitt whose decision in April 1931 ended the PRT.

Submitted by Dana Dorman on

The PRT certainly has a rich and complex history. You may also be interested in other PRT-related materials in HSP’s collections. HSP's Albert M. Greenfield papers (collection #1959) includes correspondence, reports, and other printed matter related to the company, and the Harold E. Cox transportation collection (collection #3158) includes records from the PRT, its predecessor rail lines, and its successor, the Philadelphia Transportation Company.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on

Thomas Mitten took over a money losing Transportation Company filled with disgruntled employees and turned it into a successful franchise with profit sharing and on time standardized vehicles which served the people of Philadelphia for two decades. He truly was a Renaissance Man. Mitten's death and the great depression made the demise of the PRT inevitable.

Submitted by Chris Zearfoss (not verified) on

This photo depicts a brand new PTC trackless trolley, evidently at a ribbon cutting ceremony in October 1941, when trackless trolleys entered service on Route 61, which operated between Center City and Manayunk (and still does today as a bus route), on which route they had replaced streetcars. The gentleman standing on the steps of the trackless trolley greeting other dignitaries is Ralph Senter, president of PTC.

Submitted by Joe Boscia (not verified) on

To add to Chris' comments, the boarding passenger is handing Senter a large commemorative token made by PRT especially for the inauguration of the Trackless trolleys on Rt. 61. The passenger behind him has his token ready. It is the second in a series of four. The first was for the advent of the first PCC cars in 1938, the third for the advent of PCC's on Rt 23 in the late 1940's, and the last for the new Market Frankford El cars from Budd Co. in 1960.

Submitted by Harry Garforth (not verified) on

To build on what Mr. Zearfoss described, Route 61 operated as far as Main & Leverington Avenue before being exended onto Venice Island. As a double ended trolley, it turned back in the middle of the street. Later, a wye was used in the middle of the intersection with Leverington Avenue. The use of a wye continued after converson to trackless vehicles. 

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on

I recall riding from our home in Cheltenham, just outside the Philadelphia City Limits on PTC trolleys. Our family lived on 6 Central Ave and my grandparents lived @ 316 Cottman Street and I recall (& I hope my mind is not fading) riding on the trolleys from Cheltenham that were pre-PCC units. Something about the old trolleys had more character, creaked more on turns and had more 'old style'and distinctive smell than the 'new' PCC units. I finally grew to appreciate the PCC units - and in keeping with my memories of the past have retained a 1952 Studebaker 'Commander' in original condition and have restored three Packard trucks (1905-1923)....

Submitted by George J. Galloway (not verified) on

The microfilm at Temple University in the basement of Paley is full of old Philadelphia Bulletin articles on the severe, bloody strikes that my grandfather was party to. About 20 years ago, as a student at Temple, I did a bio on my grandfather, "Honest" John Galloway. He drove the same trolley #40 for 40 years. I always thought I would write about the Mitten years and maybe now I will. Joseph Mitten was a genius. The turmoil of the early 20th century transit strikes, bankruptcies, and corruption by officials in and out of public office is a well spring of literary drama that only Philly could produce. But it didn't stop there. The fight for the heart of America's unions, including the transit union in Philly was besieged by communist influence. Catholic hardliners, like "Honest" John kept them at bay while still being faithful to their union principles. Enjoyed the pictures and story, but there's a whole lot more out there to dig into.

Submitted by R. Dennis (not verified) on

I have a personal interest as well, as my grandfather was a motorman in the 1920s and 1930s. wondering if anyone knows if employee records from this time frame exist anywhere? would love to try to track something (anything!) down with my grandfather's name.

Submitted by on

There are some employee-related files in the Harold E. Cox transportation collection (Collection 3158), but there are no actual personnel records. Follow this link to view the collection's finding aid:

If you find something you might want to look at, the collection can be accessed any time during HSP's public hours. If you're not local to HSP, then you can use our Research By Mail service.

Thanks for reading and commenting!

Submitted by Joe Boscia (not verified) on

These were kept in the basement of Callowhill Depot until the 1970's, when Septa deemed them a fire hazard and threw them all out, with no regard for historical significance.

What was his name, and do you know what carhouse or routes he worked?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on

I was a student at Penn, from 1946 through 1953, and often took the route 40
trolley to the subway; was your grand dad driving it during those years?
My classmate and I always enjoyed the leisurely atmosphere on the 40, as opposed to other lines. The driver was always a great guy, and contributed to the pleasant atmosphere on the trolley.
I well recall all the groans around the corners!!! Fun days!!!

Submitted by Jerry C (not verified) on

Charles A Conway PTC badge #9866

He started with the P R T in 1935 and retired in 1974. Initially, he was trained as a motor man on the trollies.
A couple of years later he became a bus driver.
As a kid I often went to the Luzurne car barn with him.
Early on, when the P R T bought some doubledecker buses, he drove one up and down Broad St.
During WWII, he drove service members and workers to and from the Phila Navy Yard. During the 1940's strike, he had armed Army guards riding on the buses.
After about 30 yrs. he had to give up driving. He became a "money vault puller" from the buses and trackless trollies a the Frankfort Depot. Then he was a "cleaner", wearing a coverup suit and respirator, cleaning out the equip. with a large high preasure air hose and a giant vacumn unit afixed to the rear door opening. After that he was a store keeper at Frankford and finished up at the the Olney Depot Supply room.

Submitted by Dave Lockard (not verified) on

For all I know about PRT, I can relate mostly to the PTC that at one time ran trolley cars to Willow Grove Park, Willow Grove, PA.

Willow Grove Park was built by PRT as a destination for Philadelphia city folks. I can recall where the trolley stop was ana tunnel or concourse under Easton Road to park patrons did not have to cross Easton Road at grade level. I recall peeking into the secured gates as the tunnel was closed off years before.

Joseph Conti, who from 1919 developed Casa Conti from a stage coach stop into thriving 1,900 seat restaurant/hotel. John Phillip Sousa stayed at Casa Conti when he played WIllow Grove in the 1920's.

Submitted by Ian stringer (not verified) on


I’m from Hensall a tiny village in Yorkshire in Northern England. One of my friends goes metal detecting as we are near the roman city of Eboracum (York) roman relics are often found. However he has just given me a button he discovered last week. On it around the edge it has the wording PHIL’A RAPID TRANSIT CO and in the middle is the monogram PRT with a big C around it I’m assuming it’s from Philly but how on earth did it end up in a field in NorthYorkshire in England  my only clues are that the metal detector people recently found a lot of WWI German army buttons. It appears that captured German soldiers had their uniforms taken off them. Later the uniforms were scattered on the fields as a cheap fertiliser and to protect delicate crops from frost  

As I have not heard stories of Pennsylvania transit staff working for the German army all I can surmise is that old transit uniforms were collected in the US in the Second World War and perhaps sent as aid to freezing Britain after the war 

Have you any theories? 

I can send a photo if you let me have an email address



Submitted by on

Hi Ian,

Greetings! I used to do some work with York Archaeological Trust, so I have a soft spot for your part of the world!

I don't know specifically about PRT uniforms being sent overseas, I'm afraid. That's definitely one possibility -- it's interesting, though, that only the one button has survived. Possibly it was only one uniform sent over, maybe by a relative, or as part of a care package?

It might be worth contacting the Free Library of Philadelphia or the City Archives of Philadelphia to see if they have any records of donations of old PRT uniforms. The company would have switched over years before any postwar aid, but I suppose an old store of uniforms (or even just buttons) may have hung around....

Submitted by Darlene Radler (not verified) on

several members of our family were Conductors. It is sad to think that the only trace of Irwin would have been employee records. cannot figure out who his parents were.  

Submitted by Robspost (not verified) on

The third picture: "Germantown Trolley, 1939, is operating on Wayne ave. and is signed for Rt.53 WAYNE/CARPENTER. Rt. 53 WAYNE was chosen as the first route to receive new PCC streetcars. this car is west bound to the loop terminal at Carpenter Lane

Submitted by ed dugan (not verified) on

I got back to Philly too late for the spring semester, and to fill my time got a job as a motorman/conductor on a trolly. My main route was Number 3, down Frankfort ave. to Columbia, west on Columbia to the Park and then a turn-around and back up to the Franfort depot. Great experience since I grew up in Brewerytown and hauled a lot of my neigbors to and fro. OUR ONE RULE, BE A LATE AS YOU WANT BUT NEVER, NEVER EARLY!

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