Pennsylvania Railroad Schuylkill Branch

The Pennsylvania Railroad Schuylkill Branch was a former rail line that extended from Philadelphia to the anthracite coal regions of central Pennsylvania.

The Pennsylvania Railroad Schuylkill Branch was a former rail line that extended from Philadelphia to the anthracite coal regions of central Pennsylvania.



The Schuylkill Branch originated from the Pennsylvania Railroad’s (PRR) effort to develop its anthracite coal holdings in the upper Susquehanna River watershed. The first railroad to open between Philadelphia and Reading was the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad, established in 1833 to transport anthracite coal. 4 The P&R faced difficulties initially but eventually secured the financial support needed to complete its main line in 1842. It continued to expand throughout the 19th century, forming connections with the Baltimore & Ohio and Jersey Central railroads and growing into a network of 1,300 miles. In the 1890s, it was reorganized as the Reading Railroad.

The Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) was formed in 1846. By 1869, it had connected Philadelphia with Chicago and soon after reached New York. 4 Much of its growth occurred through acquisitions, expanding its network to approximately 10,000 miles.

Before 1874, when a constitutional amendment in Pennsylvania prohibited further investment by transportation entities in mining interests, the PRR had invested over $5 million in developing anthracite coal mines and owned an estimated one billion tons of economically recoverable anthracite coal. However, it lacked an easy railroad route from the coalfields to factories and docks along the Delaware River. Shipments to New York required cooperation with the Lehigh Valley Railroad, which had its own coal interests, while transporting anthracite to Philadelphia on PRR’s own rails, which required a circuitous route via Sunbury and Harrisburg.

A more direct route was sought along the Schuylkill River, paralleling the Reading’s mainline. The Reading’s successful efforts in the late 1870s to break PRR’s monopoly on Philadelphia-New York service provoked the PRR management. In retaliation, the PRR decided to build the Schuylkill Branch, breaking into Reading’s territory along the Schuylkill River. 1


The Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) chartered two subsidiaries to build its line up the Schuylkill River: the Philadelphia, Norristown & Phoenixville Railroad (PN&P) and the Phoenixville, Pottstown & Reading Railroad (PP&R), both incorporated on September 20, 1882. 2 The PN&P had charter rights to run from the PRR mainline between Philadelphia and Phoenixville, while the PP&R had rights to build from Phoenixville to Reading.

Construction on the PN&P began in August before the company was formally organized, along a 23.8-mile route from the main line near Monticello Street in Philadelphia to Phoenixville. 2 Work on the 30.3-mile PP&R began in November. On June 1, 1883, these two companies consolidated with the Phoenixville & West Chester Railroad, which had been building the PRR’s Phoenixville Branch, to form the Pennsylvania Schuylkill Valley Railroad. This new entity was then leased to the PRR for 50 years to be operated as its Schuylkill Branch.

The Pennsylvania Schuylkill Valley Railroad completed the Phoenixville Branch on August 1, 1883. The first segment of the Schuylkill Branch, 1.5 miles from the junction with the mainline to Bala, opened on August 1, 1884. The remainder of the line to Reading was completed in the same year, with 2.5 miles to Manayunk opening on May 12, 9.6 miles to Norristown on June 23, 22.7 miles to Phoenixville and Pottstown on September 22, and 18.1 miles to Reading on November 24. 2

The Schuylkill Branch began offering passenger commuter service between Philadelphia and Norristown in 1884 and extended it to Pottstown in 1886.

The segment from New Boston to Delano Junction, built by the Lehigh Valley Railroad before 1870, was leased by the PRR in 1885. A connection with the Lehigh Valley (LV) at New Boston Junction near Mahanoy City was completed by the PRR subsidiary Pottsville & Mahanoy Railroad in 1886. 3 4 Additionally, the PRR secured trackage rights over the LV to reach its Wilkes-Barre line, thus providing through service between Philadelphia and Wilkes-Barre. 4 Altogether, the PRR Schuylkill Valley Division extended 135 miles and included:

  • The Schuylkill Branch was completed in 1884 between 52nd Street in Philadelphia and Pottsville.
  • The Court Street Branch was built in 1885 from Court Street to 6th Street, a distance of .86 miles, in Reading. It was extended by .12 miles in 1908.
  • The Minersville Branch extended from Pottsville to Lytle, covering a distance of 7.22 miles.
  • The Phoenixville Branch, 6.2 miles long, was built from Phoenixville to Devault and opened on August 1, 1883.

On June 23, 1910, seven freight cars derailed from a truss bridge over the Reading Railroad Pottsville Branch at milepost 83.40. The company replaced the bridge with a more substantial Warren through truss to accommodate the increasing weights of coal cars, which had grown from 40-ton hoppers to 75-ton hoppers. The truss bridge over the adjoining Schuylkill River was replaced with girders in 1919, while the truss bridge over the adjoining Schuylkill Navigation Canal, abandoned between Port Clinton and Schuylkill Haven in 1888, was left in place and eventually replaced with earthen fill.

In the 1930s, as part of the PRR’s extensive electrification project, the Schuylkill Branch was electrified from its 52nd Street Junction in Philadelphia to Haws Avenue in Norristown. 4


The Schuylkill Valley Division never met the PRR’s expectations, as the Reading Railroad maintained its dominance in coal tonnage due to superior routing. 4 Demand for anthracite coal declined significantly after World War II as oil-burning systems replaced coal for heating.

In 1941, the Phoenixville Branch was abandoned from Devault to Swedsford Road Station in Frazer, a distance of three miles. 8 The section from Devault to Phoenixville, later operated by Norfolk Southern Railroad, was operated until circa 2006 and is currently out-of-service.

In 1965, the PRR petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to abandon all operations north of Pottsville. 4 In the following year, the 6.59-mile Minersville Branch was abandoned as the coal mines along the line had closed. 9

Additionally, with the rise in automobile popularity and the construction of an extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, passenger traffic of the Schuylkill Branch began to decline by the 1950s. This led the PRR to eliminate commuter rail service north of Manayunk in 1960, transferring Philadelphia, Norristown, and Reading commuter and through passenger service to the rival Reading Railroad.

In 1968, the PRR merged with the New York Central Railroad, forming the Penn Central Transportation Company. 4 In 1969, the Penn Central discontinued operations on the Schuylkill Branch north of Hamburg. 7 In 1970, Penn Central filed for bankruptcy, and in April 1976, its assets were transferred to the Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail). Conrail generally closed and abandoned the Schuylkill Branch north of Manayunk, retaining only a short section in Norristown for local industrial use as the Morrisville Connecting Track and another portion from Temple, north of Reading, to Hamburg, which was later served by the Reading Blue Mountain & Northern Railroad starting in 1983. A small section was also retained between Gibraltar and Birdsboro.

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) took over the Schuylkill Branch, excluding the isolated Norristown segment, in 1983. It operated the former Conrail service as its Cynwyd Line until 1986, when structural issues on the Manayunk Bridge connecting Bala Cynwyd and Manayunk/Ivy Ridge forced its closure. SEPTA then scaled back service to its Cynwyd Station in Bala Cynwyd. 4 Although the viaduct was later repaired, SEPTA never resumed service along the remaining branch line. Instead, it leased the unused section between Cynwyd and Ivy Ridge to local townships for use as an interim rail trail.

In August 1998, Norfolk Southern took control of the Morrisville Connecting Track in Norristown from Conrail, beginning operations over the line on June 1, 1999.

Rail Trail Development

The Schuylkill River Trail is an 82-mile rail trail that runs along the Schuylkill River between Philadelphia and Frackville. It generally follows the routes of the former Schuylkill Canal and PRR Schuylkill Branch. Although proposals for a trail along the old railroad began in the late 1960s, significant construction did not commence until the 1990s.

In November 2019, the Schuylkill River Greenways secured a $367,500 grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to rehabilitate the Schuylkill River bridge south of Auburn. 5 6 On November 9, 2023, after two decades of effort, the bridge was re-dedicated for the Schuylkill River Trail. The 320-foot girder structure, originally built in 1919, was rehabilitated with a new concrete deck and a ramp, allowing the trail to descend to an on-road section, River Road, which connects to a nearby off-road section. 5 6 7 It did not include the renovation of the Warren through truss structure over the Reading, Blue Mountain & Northern Railroad (former Reading Railroad Pottsville Branch) because of landowner opposition. 7 The completion of this project closed the last remaining gap in Auburn, creating a continuous 9.5-mile segment of trail between Auburn, Hamburg, and Port Clinton. 6



Further Reading


  1. Churella, Albert J. The Pennsylvania Railroad: Volume I, Building an Empire, 1846–1917. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.
  2. Coverdale & Colpitts. The Pennsylvania Railroad Company: The Corporate, Financial and Construction History of Lines Owned, Operated and Controlled To December 31, 1945. Volume I: The Pennsylvania Railroad Proper. Allen, Lane & Scott, 1946, pp. 165-187.
  3. Valuation Reports Vol. 22, Interstate Commerce Commission, Jan. 1929.
  4. Schuylkill River Trail History.” TrailLink.
  5. Hugg, Jason. “Schuylkill River Trail extended with Auburn Bridge completion, connecting Berks and Schuylkill Counties.” Berks Weekly, 9 Nov. 2023.
  6. The Auburn Bridge.” Schuylkill River Greenways.
  7. Smith, Brian. “Railroad bridge renovation project ceremoniously kicks off near Auburn.” Republican and Herald, 6 Dec. 2018, pp. A1-A8.
  8. The Phoenixville Branch.” Abandoned Rails.
  9. The Minersville Branch.” Abandoned Rails.


Add Yours →

Leave your comment!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.