We're Going Down to the Shore: Public travel from city streets to river to seashore, 1890-1940

The first half of the 20th century in southeast Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware was a remarkable period. The area experienced rapid growth in industry, commerce and transportation.

Growing industrial capability in Philadelphia provided the factories and workforce to build the trains, ships and other vehicles needed for commerce and transportation. Public transportation flourished during that fifty year period.

The people who lived in the region applied their diverse skills to make the area prosper. These hard working people also sought relaxation and recreation. The nearby Delaware River provided a natural thoroughfare to the New Jersey seashore cities and towns as well as other communities along it's banks.

During the 19th century, railroads linked the Atlantic with the Pacific coast. Trains from Philadelphia also ran north, south and east to towns and cities on the Atlantic shore. Steamships and ferries connected the city to New Jersey and Delaware. However, it was during the 1880s and 1890s that electrification of trolley cars, elevated and subway trains made rapid public transit possible in Philadelphia and the surrounding areas.

Trains, trolley cars, and ferry boats permitted hard working families to travel to vacation areas in southern New Jersey and Delaware. Families could travel from their homes in Philadelphia to Atlantic City in less than two hours, moreover they could walk from the elevated trains to the ferries under cover from the rain. The same was true on the Camden side of the river where the ferry terminals connected directly to the waiting steam trains. The convenience was such that one day excursions to the "Shore" were popular without an automobile.

The Reading and Pennsylvania railroads, later to become the Reading and Pennsylvania Seashore Line, made customer convenience their mission. The relatively short distance and flat terrain made close scheduling of high speed trains possible. The speeds attained on the run to Atlantic City were remarkable even by today's standards. Some of the special excursions included the Fisherman's Special. You would go "Down the Shore" early in the morning with rod reel and basket in hand. Returning home in late afternoon, sunburned with a basket full of fish. Other excursions included trips to the Shore for Easter or the Miss America Pageant at the end of the season in September.

Other riverboat excursions were popular with families looking to escape from row homes without air conditioning. The Wilson Line operated boat trips on the river to places like Chester, Wilmington and Riverview Beach Amusement park in Pennsville, New Jersey. It was a great boat ride, an exciting day in the Park with a picnic lunch and then back on the boat in the afternoon before the ship's whistle blew. Other river steamers carried underprivileged children from Philadelphia down the river to an open air park at the foot of Red Bank Avenue in National Park, New Jersey providing food fresh air and exercise. The Park was popularly known as Soupy Island for the soup served at lunch time.

The Independence Seaport Museum is presently located very near the sight of the elevated train station connected to the ferry terminals. Across the river on the Camden side near the present day aquarium the ferry terminals connected to the train sheds. Passengers would make the river crossing in less than five minutes. All very exciting for the children clinging to their mothers' hands on the way to the Shore. We're Going Down the Shore, so developed, a phrase used by Philadelphians then and now.

The ferries and trains also provided transportation to vacations in Ocean City, Wildwood and Cape May. Slightly longer trips not as convenient for one day excursions. It would take nearly fifty years for cars, bridges and road improvements to equal this travel experience. Within 20 years of the completion in 1926 of the Delaware River Bridge, now called the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, ferry passenger service would cease and signal the end of this remarkable era on the Delaware River.

Online mini-exhibit written by Seaport Museum Volunteer Jim Malloy, Summer 2010.

Additional Resources
• Learn about Soupy Island: Fresh Air and Hot Soup at a Delaware River Playground (via PhilPlace.org) »
• Learn about Philadelphia's Steetcar History at Philly Trolley Tracks (phillytrolley.org) »
• Learn about the Wilson Line, a Delaware River excusion boat line serving Philadelphia, Chester, Wilmington, and Riverview Beach Park (via oldchesterpa.com) »
• If you're interested in the seashore rail lines, The Reading seashore lines: a pictorial documentary of the Atlantic City Railroad by William J. Coxey and James E. Kranefeld (2007) is a wonderful resource (via worldcat.org) »
• If you're interested in Philadelphia's transportation history, Philadelphia in motion: a nostalgic view of how Philadelphians traveled, 1902-1940 by J. W. Boorse Jr. (1976) is another wonderful resource (via worldcat.org) »