A wide range of stations have served Lower Merion Township from the 1840s to the present. The early structures built by the Philadelphia & Columbia and the Pennsylvania were small and utilitarian; they reflected both railroads’ emphasis on long haul traffic. As the Pennsylvania Railroad actively began to court commuters in the 1870s, the station buildings grew larger and more elaborate. Finally, there was a return to simpler structures in the 1950s, when Victorian depots needed replacement.
During the 1870s and 1880s, the Pennsylvania built or rebuilt eleven stations to serve the township on the railroad’s main line and its branch to Reading. These structures ranged from standard designs (replicated in many locations throughout the massive system) executed in wood or brick at Bala, Cynwyd and Merion to individually designed depots of stone at Narberth, Wynnewood, Ardmore, Haverford and Bryn Mawr.
Overbrook, 5.6 miles west of Center City, is located on the Montgomery County-Philadelphia border and is the first stop on the Main Line serving Lower Merion. The core of the station is a frame structure that initially looked more like an American Gothic farmhouse than a depot. This engraving dates from the 1879s.
Merion. Less than a mile west of Overbrook, stands the Merion station. This view shows the original frame depot in the 1890s. the surviving complex at Merion today is probably one of the most complete examples of a “typical” early twentieth century suburban station in the region. The buildings are standard Pennsylvania Railroad designs executed in brick and stucco. On the outbound platform are the small waiting room and an express building (used to house packages sent out by the Center City stores).
The Elm depot (now Narberth, 7 miles from Center City) was one of the Pennsylvania’s stone built Main Line structures from the 1870s and predates by over twenty years the establishment of Narberth borough.
The depot at Wynnewood dates from the early 1870s and is perhaps the best preserved of the once ubiquitous stone stations built by the Pennsylvania Railroad along the Main Line. In addition to the structure at Elm, larger buildings in the same idiom were built at Ardmore, Haverford, Bryn Mawr and Villanova. Wynnewood station was famous for having one of the Pennsylvania’s few female station masters. For nearly fifty years (1903-1952), Mary Jefferis served both the railroad and the community.
An 1874 guide gave Ardmore and its station a glowing description: “The advantages presented by this locality have caused the erection of a number of elegant residences in the vicinity, and the demand for building sites is active. No station in the neighborhood of Philadelphia has greater promise. The railroad company erected here one of the most beautiful and convenient passenger stations on their line.”
This photograph shows the second station to serve Haverford, c. 1890, when the stop was still named Haverford College. The original depot was on the portion of the old Philladelphia & Columbia that was abandonded in 1870 when the Pennsylvania eliminated the White Hall curve. This stop was named after the nearby Quaker college and was the only station on the Main Line to have a Welsh name prior to the Pennsylvania’s renaming exercise of the 1870s and 1880s.
The Bryn Mawr station, in the late 1800s.
Bryn Mawr station, about 1905, was the showplace of the Pennsylvania’s Main Line stations. The largest and busiest of the line’s depots, it served the only suburb that the railroad took a direct role in developing. This Victorian depot, like its counterpart in Ardmore, was replaced by a more spartan brick structure in the early 1960s.
When the Pennsylvania built its line to Reading through Lower Merion in the 1880s, it continued to name stations after Welsh locations. Sarah Brinton Roberts, wife of the railroad’s president, is credited with choosing the names Bala and Cynwyd for the two main stops.
Bala is the first station in the township on the Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill Division to Reading and Pottsville. This neat frame structure was based on a standard design used by the railroad throughout its system. One prominent early passenger was Pennsylvania Railroad president George Roberts who lived in nearby Pencoyd Farms.
Cynwyd is an example of a Pennsylvania Railroad standard design executed in both brick and frame. The station building remains today largely unchanged; it is the only surviving Schuylkill Division depot in the township. Interestingly, Cynwyd was not listed as a stop on the first timetable issued for the line in 1884.
One of the more interesting stations in the township was the depot at West Laurel Hill, later named Barmouth. It was the last stop in Lower Merion on the Schuylkill Division and was built to serve the nearby cemetery of the same name. Visiting cemeteries was a popular activity for Victorians and the location of this station near one of the region’s largest generated much weekend traffic for the line for the first few decades of its existence.
This recent photograph of Rosemont station, the furthest west stop in Lower Merion, illustrates SEPTA’s program of leasing portions of its train stations. In this case, the majority of the structure is used by a real estate firm.
St. David’s, c. 1890. A sign posted at St. David’s station read: “Phila. 13.2 miles / Pittsburgh 339 miles.”
Wayne, c. 1890.
This mnemonic device has helped generations of riders remember the order of the stations on the Main Line. The first nine depots serve Lower Merion Township:
Overbrook (“over a brook”)
Merion (Merioneth, a county in Wales)
Narberth (town in Wales: sacred place)
Wynnewood (Dr. Thomas Wynne)
Ardmore (small town in Ireland)
Haverford (town in Wales: goat’s ford)
Bryn Mawr (town in Wales: great hill)
Rosemont (1683 farm of Rees Thomas)
Villanova (St. Thomas, 16th c. bishop)
Radnor (Radnorshire, a county in Wales)
St. Davids (Welsh saint)
Wayne (General “Mad” Anthony Wayne)
Strafford (Earl of Strafford)
Devon (English tourist resort)
Berwyn (town in Wales)
Daylesford (tourist resort in Australia)
Paoli (Pasquale Paoli, Corsican general)
The Main Line today is full of Welsh (and other Celtic) place and street names and many people assume that this nomenclature is a legacy of the early Welsh Quaker settlements. Although this is true of some names, such as the townships of Lower Merion, Haverford and Radnor, most were the creation of the Pennsylvania Railroad in the late nineteenth century. When the Pennsylvania began developing the area as an elite suburb, it found many of the existing place names too plebian for its aristocratic plans. In common with suburban real estate speculators nationwide during the period, the railroad wanted more sylvan names. It chose a series of Welsh and Celtic names for its stations and streets. Subsequently other developers followed suit, giving the Main Line its distinctive identity.