Photo of an intersection with a red brick building flanked by trolley tracks and wires above
Deteriorating wire and track from Route 23, still visible at the intersection of 11th and Susquehanna streets in North Philadelphia, 2017. All photographs by Khalif Rivers

The Ghosts of Route 23

Khalif Rivers

A photographic journey to unearth the relics of a defunct streetcar that once ran the length of the city

Philadelphia’s Route 23 dates back to the mid-nineteenth century, when it was a horse-drawn passenger railway along Germantown Avenue. The advent of railway electrification near the end of the century paved the way for faster, horse-free streetcars by 1894. Originally known as the Germantown Ave Line, Route 23 ran from the Germantown car barn, a maintenance depot, to the North Philadelphia car barn located at 8th and Dauphin streets. By the early 1920s, it had already merged with three other lines and was renamed Route 23, a 14-mile saunter from Chestnut Hill to South Philadelphia. It held the distinction of being the city’s longest streetcar route.

Above: A Route 23 SEPTA bus passes through weathered trolley poles and cobblestone-paved tracks along Germantown Avenue, 2022; Below: The Route 23 wire and track extending into the distance at 11th and Diamond streets in North Philadelphia, 2017

In 1992, streetcar service on the route was abruptly suspended and replaced with buses. Despite ceasing daily passenger service, SEPTA continued to utilize trolleys for a variety of specialty services into the late 1990s. Private fan trips organized by enthusiasts were conducted on the line as late as 2003.

Left: A 1970s-era SEPTA streetcar car stop still survives at 12th and Fairmount streets in North Philadelphia, with a modern bus stop visible in the background, 2022; Right: Abandoned SEPTA PCC streetcars rust away behind an industrial building in North Philadelphia. PCC #2171, formerly part of Route 23’s rolling stock, can be seen in the background, 2016

While SEPTA has never officially ruled out the possibility, a return of the Route 23 trolley is highly unlikely. Much of its infrastructure has been decimated over time, and the surviving portions languish in purgatory. The PennDOT-rebuilt Chestnut Hill segment appears capable of supporting passenger service, but much of the line further south has fallen victim to decommissioning, deterioration, and endless roadwork. 

Left: An old trolley turn zone sign remains affixed to a pole in South Philadelphia. In 2015, Route 23 was split into two shorter routes at Center City, and the southern portion was renamed Route 45, 2022; Center: Trolley wire still suspended above partially paved-over tracks at the intersection of 12th Street and Oregon Avenue in South Philadelphia, 2022; Right: A decommissioned trolley pole still standing tall near SEPTA’s former Luzerne car depot in Hunting Park, which served the Route 23 trolley until its suspension, 2022

These photos explore the poignant futility of Route 23’s continued survival. Its nostalgic beauty tells the story of its best days, now far behind it.

Khalif Rivers is a visual artist, history buff, and writer. He utilizes a combination of photography and storytelling to explore his native Philadelphia and the world beyond.

This post was supported by a Re:imagining Recovery grant to the Philadelphia Museum of Art from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.