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The Battle for the Pedestrian Tunnel

On the morning of May 14, 1888, residents in Downingtown’s west ward awoke to noise and commotion by the train station on Lancaster Avenue.  Workers for the Pennsylvania Railroad got an early start that Monday digging, sawing, and hammering as they went about erecting a fence to block pedestrians from crossing the tracks at the Bradford Avenue grade crossing.

When trains first ran through Downingtown in 1834 there was little concern for safety at the grade crossing where (what was later named) Bradford Avenue intersected with the Lancaster Turnpike.  Wagon and carriage traffic to and from points south of the village was generally light and, at the time, most trains stopped in Downingtown, so that when they had reached this location, they were either stopped or had slowed considerably.

Bradford Avenue once extended over the railroad tracks where it intersected Lancaster Avenue.  The crossing was closed in 1873 when Viaduct Avenue was extended and a new stone arch tunnel was built several hundred yards west.  However, the crossing was still used extensively by pedestrians.

But over the next few decades train traffic not only increased considerably through Downingtown but the trains themselves became heavier, faster, and more powerful.  Many of the trains, especially fast freight trains, expressed right through the Borough.  At the same time, the southwest section of Downingtown was growing, and the only way these residents could get into the main part of town to work, shop, go to school or church, or visit friends was to cross the busy railroad tracks.

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The Viaduct Avenue tunnel, seen here in ca. 1910, was built in 1873 to eliminate the dangerous Bradford Avenue crossing by the train station.

This was a cause of much concern for both the Pennsylvania Railroad and Borough officials.  The problem was resolved (at least for vehicles) in 1873 when Viaduct Avenue was extended east to a point where a new stone arch tunnel was built under the tracks.  This solution allowed the safe back and forth of traffic between the Johnsontown section of Downingtown with the rest of the Borough.

However, even though this section of Bradford Avenue was abandoned by the Borough, crossing the tracks at this location was still popular with pedestrians.  Borough and Railroad officials both recognized that the situation was still very unsafe and that a new tunnel, just for pedestrians, needed to be built here.  The Borough wanted it done sooner rather than later, but the Pennsylvania Railroad delayed any action because they wanted to incorporate a pedestrian tunnel into their long-term plans for Downingtown – plans that included the addition of two tracks and the construction of a new passenger station on the south side of the tracks.

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These two maps show the Downingtown station area before and after the pedestrian tunnel was built in 1889.  The map on the left is from 1886 and shows the McFadden Hotel (R.R. Hotel) on the south side of two tracks.  The train station was on the north side of the tracks next to the Pennsylvania House Hotel.  The map on the right is from 1898 and shows the substantial changes made in the station area since the 1886 map was drawn.  The Pennsylvania Railroad purchased the land where the McFadden Hotel was located, added two more tracks, and built a new passenger station on the south side of the tracks.  The purchase of the land also allowed the Railroad to build a pedestrian tunnel (labeled “subway” on the 1898 map).

Borough officials were anxious for the tunnel, but they needed to tread lightly with the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad.  They wanted more train service to Downingtown and they desperately wanted a new station as well.  The current station on the north side of the tracks was in a “tumbledown condition” and was called a “disgrace to the town.”  Demanding the tunnel from the railroad, they felt, could jeopardize additional train service and the construction of a new station.  But by 1888 local officials had enough and tried to force the hand of the Railroad.  In a very raucous town meeting on January 14, councilmen voted to re-ordain the section of Bradford Avenue over the railroad tracks which was abandoned 15 years earlier.  Doing so would force the railroad to provide protection for pedestrians crossing the tracks.  But as one newspaper declared, the only reason this was done was to “cause the company to construct an underground passage and thus save the lives of people now daily endangered.”

In April of that year Councilman Alexander Tutton, at the request of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s general manager, introduced an ordinance that would have repealed the one passed in January which re-ordained Bradford Avenue.  It was easily defeated.  As a result, a month later on the morning of May 14, 1888, the Railroad responded to the Borough’s actions by building a fence across the tracks, thereby forcing pedestrians (or at least they thought) to walk through the Viaduct Avenue tunnel.  However, despite the fence, residents living in the southwest section of the Borough still found ways to cross the tracks and so the problem continued.

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The north and south entrances to the pedestrian tunnel are shown above.  The tunnel was built in 1889 and expanded 17 feet to the south in 1905 when the station building was moved 17 feet to the south to make room for a track to access the rail yard to the west.

But when tensions seemed to have reached a peak, the railroad announced plans to build the much-needed pedestrian tunnel.  The Pennsylvania Railroad had finally completed the purchase of land on the south side of the tracks which included the McFadden Hotel.  This land was crucial for a new station and a four-track main line.  Work on the tunnel began early the following year (1889) much to the delight of the residents of the southwest section of Downingtown who, according to one newspaper, “have been so many years pent up without other egress and who have been obliged to send their children daily across the tracks to the peril of life and limb.”

On April 7, 1889 Pennsylvania Railroad president George Brooke Roberts made a special stop in Downingtown, and standing by the almost-completed tunnel, announced that a new station would be built at the location.  Workers completed the tunnel’s final touches over the next week, and it officially opened the following Sunday, April 14th.  The dangerous crossing was now “a thing of the past.”

The original tunnel was about 65 feet long.  In 1905, 17 feet were added on its south end when the station was moved away from the tracks to make room for an approach track to the railroad yard to the west.  It most likely had a brick floor (now concrete) and its brick walls have been re-painted perhaps dozens of times over the years.  The tunnel has no official name, but over the years has acquired some descriptive monikers.  Hundreds of local residents and train commuters still use the tunnel each day.