When a corporation pollutes our environment—as BP has done in the Gulf of Mexico—it’s easy to forget that the mess is accidental.
Deliberate pollution would be immoral. But corporations are merely amoral. Oil companies don’t want to pollute, but they are willing to run the risk if the payoff is large enough. So they spend lavishly on deep-sea drilling and little on remediation technology that produces no profit.
In Lower Merion, the same calculus was used in the 1880s by the Pennsylvania Railroad, then engaged in a long war against the rival Reading. Solely to take a few customers away from its enemy, the PRR—known for generations as simply “the Pennsy”—ran track so close to a local paper company that its soot made paper manufacturing impossible. The paper company went out of business.
Like the Pennsy cared.
“PRR was the Microsoft of its time,” said John Hepp, a railroad historian and associate professor of history at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre. “It was one of the strongest, wealthiest and most important corporations in the country.”
And it didn’t get that way compensating others for damages.
Founded in 1846, the Pennsylvania Railroad started out as a contractor for the Main Line of Public Works, a strange system of canals and railroads built with state money beginning in 1829. The “works” included the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad, which linked Philadelphia to Columbia on the Susquehanna River. But the works also included canals between Philadelphia and places like Reading and Allentown, and between Pittsburgh and Lake Erie. Depending on their destination, passengers and freight switched between trains and boats, and back again.
The PRR’s original assignment was to build a rail line from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh, which positioned the company to take over the entire system.
Never profitable, the entire purpose of the Main Line of Public Works had been to help Philadelphia compete with New York, which boomed after completion of the Erie Canal. But politics made it inefficient and, eventually, the legislature tired of its deficits. The works was auctioned in 1857, and PRR picked up the entire thing—118 miles of track, 273 miles of canal and 168 canal locks—for $7.5 million. It subsequently scrapped the canals.
Completion of PRR’s western branch in 1855 made it possible to travel by rail from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. During the Civil War, a merger gave it access to Baltimore. Mergers in the 1870s took PRR south to Washington and north to Jersey City, from which it served the New York market. In the 1880s, the Pennsy would reach Chicago.
Despite being financed with Philadelphia money, though, PRR had only a small presence in the city. This was true of all railroads. Steam engines occasionally exploded. As a consequence, locomotives were banned from the business district. For PRR, this meant that trains had to be disconnected from their engines in West Philadelphia, and then towed by horses or mules across the Market Street Bridge on the city’s streetcar lines. “Moving freight and passenger cars over the city railroad was an arduous process,” wrote historian David W. Messer.
Throughout the late 19th century, the Pennsy laid track and built new terminals. By 1903, it would have 450 miles of track within the city limits. Broad Street Station, a swaggering statement of the Pennsy’s power, opened in 1881.
Meanwhile, the Reading Railroad had also grown. Founded in 1843, its primary purpose had been to haul anthracite coal from the mines of northeast Pennsylvania. Its original line followed the Schuylkill River from Pottsville to Reading and was later extended south to Philadelphia. Opened in 1889, its Reading Terminal was a direct response to Broad Street Station.
Competition was fierce. In the 1870s, PRR attacked the Reading’s anthracite monopoly with its own line down the Schuylkill Valley. The Schuylkill Valley Division ran from Philadelphia to Shamokin and Wilkes-Barre. In Lower Merion, the track mostly followed Gully Run, a creek that flows along Belmont Avenue. This took it through the estate of PRR president George Brooke Roberts, who had the Bala station built primarily for his own use.
At Manayunk, the Pennsy crossed the river—and the Reading line—on a bridge that predated the current 1910 span. (The surviving Lower Merion portion is now being redeveloped as the 2.5-mile Cynwyd Heritage Trail for hiking and biking.)
Ashland Paper Mills occupied almost the exact spot where the competing railroads crossed, at the site of what is now the Belmont interchange of the Schuylkill Expressway. Founded just after the Civil War, Ashland’s owners included Sebastian Rudolph, a German immigrant who’d made money in the grocery business, and John W. Dixon, who’d patented a process to make wood pulp. Papermaking required clean water, which was obtained from Gully Run.
The factory employed several hundred workers and supplied newsprint for the city’s papers. To the south was the Pencoyd Iron Works owned by Percival Roberts, a cousin of the PRR president. To the north was the PRR bridge at Manayunk.
Ashland and Pencoyd products were shipped on the Reading. To the Pennsy and its president, this was intolerable. In 1883, it built a 1.25-mile spur off its Schuylkill line to reach Pencoyd. To get there, the spur looped under the PRR bridge and over the Reading line on a high trestle that swooped down and actually ran over the riverbank in some places. Like the Reading, the PRR branch ran next to the Ashland plant.
In theory, the PRR line should’ve been a good thing for Ashland; competition lowers rates. But it turned out to be a very bad thing.
Reading trains burned anthracite coal, while the Pennsy’s burned bituminous. Both railroad companies chose their fuels for strategic reasons. U.S. anthracite production was concentrated in northeastern Pennsylvania, and the Reading owned vast deposits there. PRR was similarly dominant in southwestern Pennsylvania, where bituminous deposits are plentiful. Even after the Pennsy penetrated anthracite territory, it continued to fuel its own trains with bituminous.
Bituminous, however, is a dirty fuel. Anthracite is still advertised as clean. As with all fuels, what isn’t burned goes up the smokestack. That was particularly so at Ashland, where PRR engineers passing the plant had to “step on the gas,” so to speak, to get up the steep grade. According to Rudolph’s suit, it all fell into Ashland’s water supply. “By the operation of the railroad,” it complained, “coal dust, cinders, soot and grease were constantly deposited in the [settling] pool, polluting the water and rendering it unfit for manufacturing purposes.”
Pennsy lawyers accused Rudolph of having a vendetta for singling out PRR. They suggested a roof over the pond and filters to remove impurities, but the Pennsy didn’t volunteer to pay for either. They tried torturous legal reasoning: Because Reading had a right of way across a corner of Ashland’s property, argued the lawyers, the company had given up its right to complain about another railroad.
Montgomery County’s Court of Common Pleas didn’t buy it and awarded Rudolph damages of $115,000—serious money at the time, though other sources set the plant’s value at $350,000. PRR appealed, but lost before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. “The cases are necessarily limited,” said the court, “but there appears to be no reason why, if pure water is necessary for some particular purpose of the owner of the property, and this purity will be necessarily injured by the operation of the road, the railroad company should not be required to pay for the injury.”
Did the Pennsy pay? Court records seem to have been lost. A family genealogy suggests that Rudolph continued to make paper, though perhaps at a different site.
Hepp, however, doubts that Rudolph collected. Few bested the Pennsylvania Railroad. “If you sued them, they would litigate you to death,” he said. “Once you got ‘unreasonable,’ they turned to their lawyers and said, ‘You have an unlimited budget. Win this.’”
We’ll see what happens with BP and the Gulf.
Mark E. Dixon welcomes comments. Write a letter.