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Heralding Our History: Perkasie and the rise and fall of the “North Penn” railroad line


Like many towns on the old North Pennsylvania Railroad line, Perkasie was created as a train town, with life built around the arrival and departure of passenger and freight services. But after World War II, train services steadily faded away during the Baby Boom.

The first trains rolled into Perkasie in late 1856, about 22 years before it became a borough. The last regularly scheduled passenger train left Perkasie on July 26, 1981. In between, trains brought business and tourism steadily to the region starting in 1879, when the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad acquired a long-term lease on the Bethlehem branch system built by the North Pennsylvania Railroad.

The major project that changed the Rockhill region was the Landis Ridge train tunnel, which began construction in 1853. Today, the tunnel sits between Perkasie Borough and East Rockhill Township. The tunnel was the longest in eastern Pennsylvania at 2,170 feet. Laborers dug out the tunnel by hand, and in one incident, the company’s Irish laborers were part of a riot at the tunnel camp. The brawl took place after a prize fight was stopped, and it involved more than 400 workers.

The tunnel made direct railroad traffic easier from Philadelphia to the coal-mining regions of Scranton and Wilkes-Barre. However, when the tunnel officially opened for business in 1857, the North Pennsylvania Railroad already had financial woes due to the costs of its ambitious plans.

The region between Ambler and South Bethlehem soon became known as “the North Penn” or “the North Penn Valley.” The term “North Penn Valley” frequently appeared in regional newspapers like the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Allentown Morning Call, and the Perkasie Central News starting in 1909, with the phrase was associated with the cigar business, baseball leagues, church synods, fraternal organizations, and other cultural groups.

Perkasie occupied a special spot on the North Penn line. In 1892, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad opened a luxurious passenger train station at Perkasie, designed by Wilson Brothers of Philadelphia, complete with heated waiting rooms for men and women. With its dedicated freight area and switching capability, the train depot was often busy.

However, by 1945 the transportation network that was the North Penn Valley’s backbone was ready for significant changes. While the railroads played a key role during World War II, the advent of motor vehicles lessened the dependence on mass transportation, especially at the Baby Boom’s start in 1946. By then gasoline rationing had ended, families started buying homes and cars, and employment opportunities were not always close to the old North Penn line.

The Reading Railroad was now the business entity running the train system in Perkasie and neighboring Sellersville, and the Reading started scaling back services. In 1952, the Reading started using diesel engines and added a new commuter service, called “the North Penn,” to Philadelphia. In 1955, the Reading introduced discounted Shoppers’ Tickets to lure suburban consumers to the city.

In February 1961, the Reading Railroad automated the switching process at the Perkasie station, which had been manned manually since 1856 because Perkasie’s station controlled trains moving through the Landis Ridge tunnel. Twenty years earlier, 20 people worked at the Perkasie station, and now only three employees remained.

More service and station cuts came in the following years. In 1962, the railroad eliminated all express trains on the Bethlehem branch, cut station agent service in Sellersville, and stopped transporting mail Agency service in Perkasie on March 29, 1968. By 1981, the Reading Railroad had gone into receivership and had been acquired by ConRail. The former Bethlehem Branch came into SEPTA’s possession. SEPTA finally ended train service in Perkasie in July 1981.

Since then, SEPTA has leased the tracks between Lansdale and Quakertown to two private freight haulers. While there had been some talk in SEPTA’s planning of studying a return of passenger service on the Bethlehem line, the agency’s decision in 2018 to focus on a new King of Prussia line curtailed those discussions.

Today, the North Penn line’s local legacy is Perkasie Borough itself, which would not exist without the tunnel and the train system built by hand many years ago. And one mystery remains. In March 1899, a former tunnel laborer, Rodger Herald, spoke with the Perkasie Central News about the tunnel project.

“More than a thousand different men were engaged in the enterprise during the four years of the work,” Herald said. “They were killed and died by scores of disease, an epidemic of cholera carrying a hundred off in a season. Some were buried in Haycock Catholic cemetery, many in an improvised graveyard near Rockhill hill itself. Their last resting place would be hard to find.”

Scott Bomboy is the chair of Perkasie Borough Council’s Historical Committee, and the author of two books about Perkasie’s history.

“Heralding Our History” is a weekly feature. Each month, the Herald delves into the history of one of its towns.

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