During the mid-1800s, the fastest way to transform a cornfield into a booming town was to build a railroad through it. That is exactly how Lansdale came to be.
What is now Lansdale had been part of the , a 220-acre spread that amounted to a few houses, barns and chicken coops. Patriarch John Jenkins I’s house, built in 1770, is today the home of the Lansdale Historical Society. Back then, it was just another upper-middle class Welsh farmhouse surrounded by moderately fertile fields and dense woodland.
The railroad changed that. As soon as plans were announced in 1853 for the North Penn Railroad’s route, local folks began to move closer to the tracks. After all, steam trains were the epitome of transportation during that era.
This new line would run 55 miles from Philadelphia to the Lehigh Valley. For passengers, it meant a quick trip to Philadelphia; for shippers, it represented the shortest route to move coal from upstate Pennsylvania to the city.
The NPRR transformed the demographics of the region, creating many new towns and villages where none existed before. Lansdale may have been the luckiest of the lot.
While construction of the main line was under way, businessmen in Doylestown worried that the Bucks County seat would suffer economically if trains didn’t travel there. So they pooled their resources and offered to pay for a spur line to their town – an offer the rail company couldn’t refuse.
The NPRR’s chief surveyor, Philip Lansdale Fox, nailed down the spot where the spur would meet the main line. That point hasn’t moved in almost 160 years. His choice launched a sometimes wild and wooly junction town given the name “Lansdale” in honor of the surveyor.
The route to Doylestown opened in fall of 1857; the Bethlehem (Lehigh Valley) was put in service in January, 1858.
As predicted, Lansdale quickly grew to be a center of population and commerce. By settling there, residents and businesspeople could travel in three directions with little inconvenience. Then in the 1870s yet another spur route, the Stony Creek, was built between Lansdale and Norristown providing a link to the south and west.
By the late 1880s, more than 85 trains a day traveled through Lansdale carrying both passengers and freight. By then the profitable North Penn Railroad had permanently leased its right-of-way and equipment to the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad, which changed its name to the Reading Co. in the 1920s.
Increased availability of cars and trucks after World War II cut heavily into railroad revenue across the nation. The Reading took a big hit and eventually succumbed in the 1960s.
The one saving grace for the local line was commuter service to Philadelphia from Lansdale and Doylestown, which remains popular to this day. However, passenger service was terminated north of Lansdale on the Bethlehem branch in 1981.
On Lansdale Founders Day, August 25, local residents will have a rare opportunity to ride a diesel-powered excursion train up the line to Souderton. Three trips are planned during the day and details can be found at www.discoverlansdale.org.
Dick Shearer is president of the Lansdale Historical Society. Some of the information included in this story was originally published in a 1944 essay, “The History of the North Penn Railroad”, by Jay V. Hare, an official of the Reading Co.