THE RAILROAD IN ROYERSFORD
The Philadelphia and Reading Railroad (P&R) was chartered April 4, 1833, to build a line between Philadelphia and Reading, along the Schuylkill River. The portion from Reading to Norristown opened July 16, 1838, and the full line on December 9, 1839. This Railroad was one of the first railroads in the United States. Along with the Little Schuylkill, a horse-drawn railroad in the Schuylkill River Valley, it formed the earliest components of what became the Reading Company. Primarily, the P&R was constructed to haul anthracite coal from the mines in northeastern Pennsylvania's Coal Region to Philadelphia. Energy-dense coal had been replacing increasingly scarce wood as fuel in businesses and homes since the 1810s.
The original Philadelphia & Reading mainline extended south from the mining town of Pottsville to Reading and then onward to Philadelphia, following the gently graded banks of the Schuylkill River for nearly all of the 93-mile journey. The line contained double track upon its completion in 1843.
The first train to pass through Royersford, in 1839, was a Philadelphia & Reading Railroad train that was pulled by a Cowan & Marx steam engine as shown below. This train was 80 cars long and carried 1,635 barrels of flour, 23 tons of pig iron, 6 tons of coal, 2 hogsheads of whiskey, and 60 passengers in two cars at the rear of the train.
The story of the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad in Royersford begins in 1838 when railroad talk around town was all abuzz. There were only four houses and a couple of farms in the area we now call Royersford. People were concerned about fires starting from sparks off the engine. They feared the noise and the smoke, but they could not stop progress. Some looked at it as an opportunity to make money. One local farmer, Samuel Custer, began constructing a tavern. His tavern was being built on the homestead of Rueben Winter, Sr., on what today would be the southeastern corner of the railroad crossing at Main Street. Another local farmer, just north of the crossing, was Frederick Bergstresser and he had the same idea. It became sort of a race that year to see who would finish first and be granted the ticket franchise and establish their place as the station. By 1839 both had completed their taverns and much to their surprise a court ruling allowed both parties to sell tickets. Berkstresser's tavern had more customers due in part to having a small Post Office in the building. Frederick Bergstresser brought in Daniel Schwenk to run his tavern.
Shown here, below, is an early 1900’s scene of Schwenk’s Tavern built in 1838. It served as the railroad station until 1931 when it was replaced by a new structure that is currently the home of Pink Moose Ice Cream Cafe and Catering and Tiffany's Grooming Salon.
Daniel Schwenk was a popular guy and soon everyone was calling it Schwenk's Tavern, a name it would carry for 91 years. He eventually purchased the tavern. One day two railroad men stopped by to inquire about the name of the place. Someone got up from the bar and pointed out the window to the Royer's flatbed boat. It was tied up at the dock down by the river. He said, "This is Royer's Ford." A few weeks later two railroad workers hung a new sign on the front of the building that read Royer's Ford. This was the first time the name was ever displayed in public. It finalized things. It seems Royer's Ford got a railroad, a station and a name all in 1839. The Post Office quickly adopted the name and it remained unchanged until 1879 when the new borough adopted the current name of Royersford.
The opening of rail service in 1839 was instrumental in the early growth of Royersford. Many industries were developed that depended on the railroad. Although passenger rail service was a success, freight trains were the backbone of the rail business. Freight trains still operate today under the Norfolk Southern Railroad system. Starting locally in 1839 as the Philadelphia & Reading, the company became the Reading Railroad in 1924, then Conrail in 1976 and finally Norfolk Southern in 1999. The major freight business in the beginning was the moving of coal from the northern areas in Pennsylvania down to the city of Philadelphia. This put the railroad in direct competition with the canal and it didn't take long for them to establish their dominance. Railroad shipping was faster and did not have to shut down during the winter when the canal froze over for months. It was no coincidence that the two towns built their first bridge in 1840, just a year after the railroad began operations in Royersford.
Here we see an 1840 sketch of the Black Rock Tunnel and Bridge. The tunnel, one of two built by the railroad for this line, is below Royersford on the mainline. It was built between 1835 and 1837. It opened in 1838 as a double track tunnel. It is 1,932 feet long and is a single-track tunnel still in use today.
Frederick Bergstresser, a local farmer from Royersford built his farmhouse in 1818 and 20 years later built a tavern down at the tracks which became the railroad station. He sold the establishment to a young Daniel Schwenk and it became well known as Schwenk’s Tavern. In 2014 the Spring-Ford Area Historical Society purchased this historic document.
Shown below is a group of Reading Railroad workers at the Royersford station. The photo from the1800s was featured in a local newspaper story and it seems as though these guys were all posing for their photograph.
The photograph to the left is one of the RF tower. From this frame 12’ x 16’ tower, the operator controlled the trackage within the area. MP 32.05 RF Tower, Royersford
The early sign that was posted on the local station by railroad officials read Royer’s Ford. In 1879 the small town obtained a charter and it was at this time that the official name was changed to Royersford and from then on, the signs looked like this one above. Today these porcelain signs are cherished by many collectors and command a high price at auction.
The 1908 postcard view below, shows the Black Rock bridge and tunnel located between Royersford and Phoenixville on the mainline of the Reading Railroad. It was published by Frank St. Clair of Royersford who had a store on Main Street.
The Black Rock Tunnel was constructed by the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad between 1835 and 1837 and opened in 1838. This tunnel is the third oldest railroad tunnel still in use in the United States. It was cut through a hill in Phoenixville below nearby Royersford on the same mainline. The tunnel and line still used by Norfolk Southern as part of its Harrisburg Line. The tunnel was originally 1,932 feet long, 19 feet wide, and 17 feet high. Construction of the tunnel cost an estimated $178,992. In 1858 and 1859 the Black Rock tunnel was widened to accommodate the wider rolling stock. The northern end of the tunnel is high on a steep bank of the Schuylkill River so the rail line makes a dramatic transition from tunnel to bridge.
The photo shown below is another postcard from Frank St. Clair showing the entrance to the Black Rock tunnel from the Royersford side and St. Clair noted that reference on the postcard at the bottom.
Below is a colorized enhancement of a 1898 photograph taken from the Archives of Royersford book. The book was printed and published by John Milton Lewin, who was the owner of the Royersford Shoe Store on Main Street in Royersford. A switcher engine is backing up this car to a siding to be unloaded. Lewin, a businessman, started out as a shoemaker, but he brought in most of the shoes that were sold in his store. He did a lot of shoe repairs but even then most of the shoes were mass produced.
In this postcard view, (below), from 1905 we see the line up of industries located along the mainline of the Reading railroad as it passes through Royersford. The station in Royersford is behind you, and as one continues on down the line towards Phoenixville, the small Mingo dock and station will be next. In two more miles we will cross the Black Rock Bridge over the Schuylkill River and then directly through the Black Rock tunnel. Just a short distance beyond the south side is the Phoenixville station known as Columbia Station. A few of the factories shown in this view are the Grander Stove Co., The Floyd-Wells Stove Co., and the Diamond Glass works.
The grand opening of the new Reading Railroad Station in Royersford, Pa. held on April 12, 1932. This photograph appeared in the official Reading Railroad magazine publication. If one looks closely to the extreme right, the old station, more commonly known as Schwenk’s Tavern, remains standing. The building was removed later that year and the area was consumed by a parking lot. The new station did not side up close to Main Street as the old tavern did. The new station is still owned by the railroad and leased out to private businesses.
There is a lot to see in the early 1900 photograph, below. The old station, Scwhenk’s Tavern is on the extreme left with the visible Royersford sign hanging on both sides of the porch roof. Right across the tracks is the American House Hotel &Tavern. As one can see the American House is in an advanced state of decline. The crossing gates are in the middle of the photo and to the far right the gateman’s shanty can be seen. There were so many trains during this time that a full-time job was filled by one man whose job was to crank the gates up and down for every train passing through. Passenger trains stopped and often blocked the tracks. Freight trains could stop to push cars into the sidings and the gateman was in the center of all this action. If you look up Main Street hill you can see the Hotel Freed at 3rd Avenue. It was the high-class hotel in town and many rail patrons would go up the hill for the finer accommodations it offered. On the right side of the photo, just across the tracks sits Custer’s Tavern. This tavern was built by another prominent farmer in Royersford, Samuel Custer. It was built in 1838 in anticipation of the coming railroad line which began operations locally in 1839. A cropped version of this photo appears in several postcards from the time but this photo came from the original negative.
This photo shows the station in the1930s shortly after the station was completed. On up the line to the north you can see the freight station and finally on the far right is the switch tower.
With the gates closed this Reading Railroad train is stopped in Royersford The steam engine is number 214 and I believe this would be in the 1940s. The gates were hand cranked until 1949.
Below we see Reading RR engine 351 stopped at the station in Royersford. This photo was taken from the hill on the other side of the tracks looking towards Spring City. The Tannery, Knitting Mill, Spring Company and Royersford Foundry can all be seen in the distance.
Below, I have marked the path of the Reading RR as it comes down through the town of Royersford using yellow stars. The white numbers indicate just some of the businesses served. The overview map dates to 1893. In 1839 when the railroad came through this whole area was mostly rich farmlands in Limerick township. Three major farms, Bergstresser, Custer, & Latshaw comprised the area shown on the map. You can see 54 years of growth and the evolution of this industrial town right before your eyes.
The businesses in numerical order are #1 The Newborn Glass Co. sometimes called the Royersford Glass co. #2 The Buckwalter Stove Company, #3 The Royersford Foundry & Machine Works, # 4 The Reading RR Station, #5 Emmer’s Hosiery Mill, #6 Enterprise Hosiery Mill, #7 Dreibelbis Lumber Mill, #8 Bush Brother’s Lumber Mill, #9 Floyd Wells Stove Co, #10 Grander Stove Co., #11 The Stove Tile Works, #12 Diamond Glass Co.& #13 The Keystone Meter Co. Many small industries on the mainline do not show on the map and several small companies were located nearby and trucked their goods to the station for pickup and deliveries.
When I began this blog I wrote an explanation of how I first became interested in railroads and local history. I then decided to put that reflection at the end because if you were more interested in the subject you could be spared my ramblings. Here it is:
I grew up in a village named Wilmer and the local railroad spur that went out to Devault passed right by our living room door. They ran at least one local freight train a day and I would go out and watch. You knew it was coming because our house shook. When I was in first grade, I was given a Lionel train with a black diesel engine just like the big train that passed our house. l was an instant rail fan at age 6. We put up a train platform every year at Christmas and the trains were set in motion for the joyous season and then carefully packed away until another year.
I remember calling my mother on the phone and asking her for a photo of the train that passed by our house. Her answer was short. "Don't have one- it ran everyday so there was no need for a photo." The only image I have now is in my mind and as I close my eyes, I can see it.
When I was much older my boyhood passion resurfaced, and I began to collect Lionel trains in numbers that were labeled excessive by my wife. I think the explanation is that they somehow brought me back to those happy times. She knew I loved photography and decided to affect a switch in my hobbies. She suggested I photograph real trains instead of spending money on model trains.
This suggestion was well received and soon I was filling albums as fast as I could take the photos. Before long the local photographs were not good enough. I was convinced, after reading a magazine article, that Glacier Park in Montana was the best place in the USA to photograph trains. The BNSF railroad, originally The Great Northern, cuts across the Rockies and reaches the peak at Maria's Pass. Route 2 runs parallel to the tracks for over 60 miles right through the park. There are snowcapped mountains, lush meadows, gentle waterfalls and snow sheds all along the route. I have always done things to an excess as most people with a collector's mentality tend to do. I will say that we have traveled to Montana 6 times and I have added to my railroad collection hundreds of photographs.
In between trips I was still hanging out at the Royersford station to get a glimpse of the passing trains. It was in 1988 that I talked to Lawrence Shaner down at the Station. Lawrence, the town historian, invited me inside the train station, then serving as a museum, to show me postcards of the old local railroad stations.
A new collecting hobby was born that day as I started going to flea markets and postcard shows looking for railroad postcards. Eventually I expanded into all local cards and purchased any postcard of Spring City or Royersford that I could find.
Lawrence and I were now sharing a hobby and I also joined the historical society. Two years later I was elected to the board of the society. In 2004 I was elected their president.
These things to me, are all logically connected, like links in a chain and each one leads to the next. If the train didn't run by my house, if I wasn't given a toy train that had to be packed away each year with care, just maybe the story would be different. As I began to write this blog about a local railroad I knew where it started for me.
William C. Brunner