Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Particular Sights to See:Center City
Taxi drivers tell tourists that Center City is a "shining city on a hill". During the Industrial Era, the city almost urbanized out to the county line, and then retreated. Right now, the urban center is surrounded by a semi-deserted ring of former factories.

Revolutionary Philadelphia's Loyalists
History is written by the victors, so the Tory Loyalists of Revolutionary Philadelphia have mostly fallen from view.

City of Rivers and Rivulets
Philadelphia has always been defined by the waters that surround it.

Railroad Town
It's generally agreed, railroads failed to adjust their fixed capacity to changing demands. It's less certain Philadelphia was pulled down by that collapsing rail system.

Canada's Southern Seaport

Global Warming, soon?

When American railroading fell apart in 1970, the remnants were gathered into a financially failing passenger network, Amtrak, and in 1974 a prospering freight division, Conrail. Although prosperous enough, Conrail has remained largely invisible to the urban public, often moving trains only at night so the tracks could be used for passengers during the day. When Conrail got efficient enough, it was sold off in pieces, then largely disappeared from public attention. But Philadelphia had ended up with two freight railroads owned by Canadians displaying a great deal of imagination and vigor, investing huge amounts of money in the transportation revolution which includes container cargo and automated handling methods. And which does its best to avoid featherbedding unions, longshore pilferage, damage suits, inflated Workman's Compensation costs, and crooked politicians. All of these man-made obstacles to the efficiency of course hotly deny they were responsible for the wreck of the railroads, but now that they have been tamed, the recent recovery in the transportation industry suggests these factors really must have had a lot to do with creating the problems. Of course, the fundamental difficulty was railroad overbuilding during their long period of a transportation monopoly. A measured description would be that union intransigence did not exactly cause the bankruptcies, but resisted correcting it until bankruptcy was the only way out. The underlying disruption was the massive oversupply of rail transport created by highway and airline competition. There might have been other less destructive ways for the railroads to downsize gradually, but bankruptcy courts could at least set aside union work rules without paralyzing the rest of the country. In retrospect, the depression of the 1930s, World War II and the Korean War also contributed considerably to wasting time needed to reorganize railroad oversupply gracefully. And finally, it is very difficult to convince people of something they don't want to believe. The union leadership exaggerated but probably did believe much of their own rhetoric about fairness and management incompetence and greed. The bankruptcy did not settle those assertions at all. What it did settle was that excessive labor costs had indeed been ruinous, and that relief from them did indeed permit a remarkable rebound of profitability and efficiency under largely the same managers who had previously seemed so woebegone.

During all the strife and turmoil, no one thought very much about Canada, but now Canada seems a big part of our transportation future. Philadelphia discovered it had ended up with, not one but two Canadian rail systems. Freight trains now run almost exclusively at night so most Philadelphians would deny it if asked. Philadelphia's local labor and political problems have seemed to improve enough to persuade Canadian shippers to send what is currently 25% of the port's cargo through our system. So nowadays when Canadians come to town with big plans, a chastened city government is eager to appear helpful. The situation is greatly helped by the Canadian dollar currently trading at 88 American cents, and by having almost twenty non-stop flights to Canadian destinations originating daily at Philadelphia International Airport.

The first thing to notice is that the Canadians are eager to promote the deepening of the river, and have apparently been able to apply some useful pressure to the main opponents of Delaware port deepening, in the New Jersey legislature. The Canadians seem to be toying with two major ideas. They have considered making Philadelphia into Canada's Atlantic port, as the eastern terminus of a freight link from Philadelphia to Vancouver on the Pacific Ocean. It would seem that container ships are getting longer and fatter, making it more attractive to deepen the Delaware than widen the Panama Canal. And quicker, possibly even cheaper, to ship from Rotterdam to Yokohama by way of Marcus Hook, with portage service from Philadelphia to Vancouver.

Well, that's one idea, maybe not a likely one. A more modest idea is to make Philadelphia into Canada's southern port, with cargo going from Philadelphia to Kingston, Ontario. That's at the western end of the St. Lawrence River, and the eastern end of the Great Lakes. In all planning about cargo transportation, the vital issue is to have some cargo for the return voyage to keep trains and ships busy in both directions of a round trip. A busy freight-forwarding operation between Philadelphia and Kingston could gather cargo coming in along the St. Lawrence, plus the other, Midwest, direction, exchanging it for cargo going to South America and Africa -- by way of Philadelphia. Bigger visions of huge container ships coming up Delaware from India, sending cargo to Hong Kong by way of Ontario, could possibly be considered in the future if basic infrastructure is created for shorter traffic runs.

The whole thing brings back some history of the American Revolution. Times have changed, but geography is the same. If you extend Broad Street due north for four hundred miles, you come pretty close to Kingston, Ontario. That's at the western end of the Thousand Islands, a peculiar collection of channels and islands at the junction of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. Right now, Kingston thrives on charming summer vacationers, particularly those who like boating, fishing and sailing.

General John Sullivan

But at least half of the families in Kingston are said to have Philadelphia connections. If you go back to 1775 when war clouds were gathering, a lot of Philadelphians were royalists, and many more were pacifist Quakers. When revolutionary rioting and intimidation started to get serious, a great many British sympathizers packed up their goods and traveled out Ridge Avenue to Plymouth Meeting. From there they either went along the upper Delaware River or else followed what is essentially the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Up to the East Branch of the Susquehanna River to Binghamton, and across New York State to Kingston. That was Iroquois territory, with hostile French-speaking Indians to the west and friendly English-speaking Indians to the east (the Revolutionaries perceived the friendliness reversed), and the trip for the exiles must not have been completely care-free. Later on, this area was to be the scene of many "Indian" massacres, egged on by both sides of the revolution, and was on the edge of the eventually decisive battle of Saratoga. In 1777, George Washington dispatched General John Sullivan from Valley Forge to conquer the Iroquois, which Sullivan eventually did by burning crops and villages, essentially starving the Iroquois into near-extinction. When the Philadelphia Tories settled down at Kingston they intended just to hide out for the duration of the war, but events made it unsafe to return for many years, and the War of 1812 (largely fought in this area) finally made them realize they were Canadians permanently. Indeed, it was the Philadelphia-Kingston settlers who prompted the creation of the Canadian nation.

These families retained many relatives in Philadelphia, however, and a good many contested property claims. Vacationing created another reason to maintain connections between the two areas, and the affinities have remained strong. Meanwhile, immigration from non-Caucasian countries of the British Commonwealth has made Canada far less British than it once seemed, while anti-British sentiment in Philadelphia is now hard to find. With these strange connections and even stranger historical quirks, the sentiment in Canada to rejoin America is clearly growing. It's only a fireside chat, at the moment, but it's a movement worthy of a little noticing.

If you would like to review this backwoods trail of tears, fire up Google Earth and put Philadelphia as the origin and Kingston Ontario as the destination under the Directions tab. Then push the triangular button called Play Tour (under Places), and sit back for a fifteen-minute travelogue of the journey, as presently viewable at a virtual height of a mile. The trip over the Lehigh tunnel is particularly exciting.

A curious footnote to the curious friction between Philadelphia and Boston, old towns so alike in many other ways, seems somehow related to this episode. Pennsylvanians had trouble understanding why the New Englanders were so upset at the British; what was the problem at Lexington and Concord, anyway? The story of the Continental Congress was largely one of New England trying to get the rest of the colonies to help them fight the British. But only twenty-odd years later, New England was seriously considering secession from America rather than fight the British in the War of 1812. Several generations still later, the descendants of Philadelphia loyalists in Kingston have trouble explaining all this, but suspicion remains that the ancient affinity between Philadelphia and Kingston has something to do with it.

Originally published: Monday, June 19, 2006; most-recently modified: Wednesday, May 15, 2019