In 1964, commuters in Montgomery County got a new and luxurious transportation option when Philadelphia Suburban Transit Company introduced two new trains, called Liberty Liners. These trains ran on the Red Arrow Line and promised a refreshment lounge, air conditioning, and soft music piped into the passenger cars. They had been decorated by Philadelphia artist Horace Paul.
The new trains were actually refurbished cars that were built in 1940 by the St. Louis Car Company for the North Shore Line in Illinois. The trains had already covered more than six million miles each when Philadelphia Suburban Transit purchased them after the North Shore Line folded due to competition from new highways.
In fact, Philadelphia Suburban Transit was the rare private commuter transit company that managed to survive the 1950’s and 1960’s. The Red Arrow Line ran busses, trollies, and trains throughout the Philadelphia region, but its leader, Merritt H. Taylor, Jr., resisted the private-public partnerships that developed in the 1960’s, such as the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Compact (SEPACT).1
One of the ways the company attracted riders was through plush, fancy trains like the Liberty Liners.
Our material on the inaugural run of the Liberty Liner on January 26, 1964 was donated by David E. Groshens. They include tickets, photographs, coasters, and a history of the trains and how they were refurbished. There’s even a paper explaining the new music system: “In each train is a tape deck containing magnetic tape cartridges. Each cartridge holds four recorded tracks, with 30 minutes of continuous play per track.”
The trains ran on the Norristown High Speed Line, which had previously been run by the Philadelphia and Western Railway Company. That company fared poorly in the Depression, and Philadelphia Suburban Transit gained a controlling interest in 1946, and finally merged the two companies in 1953.
The Philadelphia Suburban Transit Company had begun in 1848 as a turnpike and horse carriage company. The company went through many mergers and permutations over the decades. The Red Arrow Line started when the company, then known as the Philadelphia & West Chester Traction Company, began its first bus route in 1923.
The P&W bridge in Norristown
Seeing the time of private mass transit coming to an end, Taylor sold the Red Arrow Line to SEPTA in 1970. SEPTA kept the name and logo for seven years after the acquisition, but eventually, they went out of use.2 The Liberty Liners were sold in 1981. The Rockhill Trolley Museum in Rockhill Furnance, PA, now owns one of them.
1 From https://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/red-arrow-lines/ accessed Nov. 15, 2018
A view of Ambler from the 1871 atlas by G. M. Hopkins.
The European settlement of what would one day be Ambler began when a Quaker family named Harmer bought the land along the Wissahickon from William Penn. By the middle of the nineteenth century, a mill town, known as Wissahickon had developed. By 1855, the settlement was prominent enough that the North Penn Railroadbuilt a station in the town. The station was also called Wissahickon.
About one year later, on July 17, 1856, the north bound Shackamaxon crashed into the south bound Aramingo between Fort Washington and Camp Hill. Fifty-nine people died in what was then the deadliest train wreck in history and 86 were injured, according to Frank D. Quattrone’s book Ambler. Some bodies were never found and some were unidentified, so the exact number of dead might be higher. It was known as the “Picnic Train Tragedy” because many of the riders on the Shackamaxon were day trippers up from St. Michael’s in Kensington, and the train may have been overloaded.
A newspaper drawing imagining the wreck.
The rail line curved near Camp Hill and neither engineer could see the other. The Shackamaxon may have left Philadelphia early, further confusing things. When the locomotives hit head on, the explosion of the boilers could be heard for miles around and the fire that followed could also be seen for some distance. It was the fire, and not the collision, that seems to have claimed the most victims.
Volunteers from nearby homes and farms arrived as quickly as they could. Most prominent among them was Mary Johnson Ambler, a Quaker widow who lived two miles away in Wissahickon. She gathered medical supplies and walked the two miles to the wreck. Once there, she calmly attended the wounded.
After her death in 1868, North Penn Railroad decided to honor her work at the accident site by renaming the Wissahickon train station in her honor. When the borough incorporated in 1888, it took the name Ambler.
Postcard showing the Ambler train station