The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

every hand

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– photo by Mitch Waxman

562,000 square feet. Built between 1927 and 1933, which is when it opened. Designed by the successor to Chicago’s D.H. Burnham & Company, who provided architectural services for both Washington D.C. and Pittsburgh’s Union Stations. Currently the property of Amtrak, 2955 Market Street in West Philadelphia is officially referred to as “William H. Gray III 30th Street Station” or colloquially as “30th Street Station.”

It is bloody magnificent, and speaks to the power and majesty of one of the great American corporate powers which has passed into history and out of our cultural consciousness – the Pennsylvania Railroad.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The largest corporation in the United States for more than a hundred years, PRR was founded in 1846. It grew, by 1882, to a size that saw its annual budget superseded only by that of the Federal Government. By 1926 – it had acquired, merged with, or owned 800 other rail companies. PRR operated nationally, and owned or operated nearly 12,000 miles of track in the northeastern United States, and was headquartered in Philadelphia. PRR was the primary carrier and transportation for John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company. Manufactured goods like refined oil from eastern port cities went west and south, cotton and timber went north, and agricultural products and raw petroleum went east to feed and employ the immigrant masses working in the coastal factories. All of this activity was train based.

Despite its capital intensive business, the PRR paid out the longest dividend payment in American business history to its stockholders from its founding in 1846 until its first reported losses in 1946. By WW2, it had annihilated all but one of its major rivals – the NY Central Railroad. The two rail giants were decimated by the arrival of the Interstate Highway system and containerization, which kicked off an era of deindustrialization in the North Eastern United States. In the end, they merged operations, becoming the Penn Central Railroad.

Bankruptcy was declared in 1968 for the combined Penn Central, ultimately resulting in President Richard Nixon nationalizing their assets as Conrail (freight) and Amtrak (passenger) in 1971. Their inner city and suburban commuter rail assets – Long Island Rail Road, for instance – were assigned to newly minted State level counterparts of Amtrak like MTA in New York State, or as in Philadelphia’s case, SEPTA.

Again – I’m not a rail historian. If you want to know more, I’d suggest taking a class, doing some googling, or reading up on the subject. It’s a fascinating subject, really.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

That’s the modern day Philadelphia skyline, as seen from the entry to 30th Street station.

It’s hard to conceive of the sort of monopoly power that PRR enjoyed in the American economy without referring to modern day technology companies like Apple or Google. Additionally, the National Security aspect of their business cannot be understated. Military conscripts were shipped to military bases for basic training via the rail, and trained soldiers were then delivered to the Atlantic port cities for overseas deployment by the PRR and others. Weapons and supply items could be manufactured in safe inland factories nearby sources of mineral supply, and then also be sent to the ports using rail.

Standard Oil is mentioned above, but the tonnages of coal, timber, mineral ore, agricultural products, and factory produced manufactured goods transported by this corporate goliath literally allowed the United States of America to evolve into a global superpower by connecting its most distant natural resources to each other with a high speed iron road. Rail doesn’t seem quick in an era when private space flight is possible, but until the 1930’s – the fastest speed most people ever travelled other than by rail was governed by a horse.

The corporation is actually still extant, but they’re in the property and casualty insurance business these days, and are now called “American Premier Underwriters.” Who knew?

– photo by Mitch Waxman

As I’ve said a few times in these posts about Philadelphia – as a New Yorker, I’m duty bound to shit talk Phillie – but in the particular case of 30th street Station, they’ve got us beat. Yeah, we’ve got Grand Central, but our Pennsylvania Railroad station – Old Penn Station – was demolished in 1963 to make way for the harbinger of the dystopian shithole version of NYC we all know in the modern day – modern day Penn Station.

Pictured above is the entrance to 30th Street Station.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

30th street Station received refurbishment and modernization upgrades in 1991. It’s one of the busiest intermodal train stations in the country, and Pennsylvania’s SEPTA system uses it as a regional hub for its commuter rail operations. There’s a separate subway station nearby called the “30th Street Subway station” and there’s streetcar/trolley service associated with that facility as well. Down below the ornate frontage, there are two levels of track, with the upper one hosting 3 east/west oriented platforms, and a lower level which offers 6 north/south ones.

No surprise here, but there’s cops and drug/bomb sniffer doggies roaming all over the joint. I’d advise you to not travel with your dynamite or heroin collection through 30th Street Station.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A nuanced bit of trivia is offered here, which speaks to the actuality of the rail world. It’s a station – which indicates that it’s not a final stop with a turnaround track – in which case it would be a terminal. NY Central Railroad’s Grand Central Terminal in New York is a terminal for modern day MTA Metro North commuter rail, but the new MTA LIRR East Side Access stop deep below it will be a station. Get it? Station means stop, terminal means end. The 7 line subway has terminals at Hudson Yards and Flushing, everything in between, including the platforms at Grand Central Terminal is a stop.

It’s all so complicated.

If you haven’t yet subscribed to Newtown Pentacle, please consider doing so using the “sign me up” button and field at the top right.

Also, I’d greatly appreciate it if any of you could share these posts out to your social media accounts if you like them. I’m about to start doing tours of Newtown Creek again, I think, and would like to increase the “reach” and readership of this continuing effort.

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Buy a book!

In the Shadows at Newtown Creek,” an 88 page softcover 8.5×11 magazine format photo book by Mitch Waxman, is now on sale at for $30.

Written by Mitch Waxman

November 17, 2021 at 11:00 am

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  1. […] Love Capitol in November of last year – “hideous gnawing” “menacing dreams” “every hand” and “passed close.” Again – I had little idea what to expect there, and a very limited […]

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