Historical Markers
Leiper Railway Historical Marker
Mouse over for marker text

Leiper Railway

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
SR 2008 (Bullens Ln.) E of PA 320, Nether Providence Twp.

Dedication Date:
February 7, 1955

Behind the Marker

"Draft Exhibiting the view of the rout of the Railway as contemplated by Thomas Leiper Esqr from his Stone saw Mill and Quarries on Crum Creek to his landing on Ridley Creek, by Jno Thomson, October 1st 1809."
                                                       - Legend on map of survey for Leiper tramway

Head and shoudlers view.
Thomas Leiper, 1820
One of the earliest railways in America - and the first in Pennsylvania - was a three-quarter-mile-long wooden tramway between Crum and Ridley Creeks in Delaware County. It was built by businessman, financier, and statesman Thomas Leiper - a friend and onetime landlord of Thomas Jefferson.

Born in 1745 in Strathhaven, Scotland, Leiper had immigrated to Virginia in 1763 to enter the tobacco trade. In 1765, he moved to Philadelphia, opened a tobacco shop, and soon made his fortune by buying tobacco from Virginia plantation owners like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and then selling it abroad.

During the American Revolution, Leiper helped finance the fight for independence, and served as a member of the First City Troop at the battles of Brandywine and Germantown in Pennsylvania and the battles of Trenton, Princeton, and Monmouth in New Jersey. A founder of the Bank of North America, he also served on the board of the Bank of Pennsylvania and the Second Bank of the United States. Active in politics, Leiper also helped found what became the Democratic Party in Pennsylvania, then served as president of Philadelphia City Council (1802-1805), and as a presidential elector for Andrew Jackson. He also was a founder of the Franklin Institute.

In Delaware County, Leiper built mills to manufacture snuff and, about 1780, bought and operated nearby quarries. In 1790, he and fellow landowner John Wall applied to the state legislature for permission to construct a canal to ship their stone to market. When the legislature declined, they dropped the idea until Leiper happened upon an alternate mode of transportation then being pioneered in England - a "rail" road.

In May 1809, Leiper estimated that it would cost $1,592 to survey and construct a rail line from his quarry to Philadelphia. Leiper was encouraged by news out of Philadelphia that September, when surveyor John Thomson - father of markerJ. Edgar Thomson, who helped lay out the markerPhiladelphia and Columbia Railroad and later became chief engineer and president of the Pennsylvania Railroad - supervised construction of an experimental track in the city.

This 180-foot-long stretch of four-foot gauge track was laid with crossties spaced eight feet apart and a grade of more than 4 percent (four feet of rise for every 100 feet of travel), near the Bull Head Tavern in the city. In his 1884 history of Delaware County, Henry Ashmead recounted the day the railroad was first tried:

"When the day of trial came a large concourse of people assembled to witness the experiment. After having loaded the car with all the weights that could be procured from the neighboring hay-scales, wagers were offered to any amount that no horse could move it to the summit; but when the word was given the horse moved off with ease, amid the plaudits of the assembled multitude."

The success of this experimental track persuaded Leiper to move ahead with construction of his own wooden-railed track. A map of the route, dated October 1, 1809, and signed by Thomson, offers strong evidence that this was the first railroad line ever surveyed in the United States. With his map in hand, Thomson aided project engineer Reading Howell in building the line, which they completed in January or February, 1810.
Map of the Leiper Railroad
Map of the Leiper Railroad, Delaware County, PA, 1809-1828.

The route ran from Leiper's mill and quarries on Crum Creek near Springfield to a dock he rented on Ridley Creek. There, he shipped building stone aboard barges to the Delaware River and then to stonemasons in Philadelphia and elsewhere. Horses drew the cars, which rode on flanged, cast-iron wheels. When the metal car wheels wore out the wooden rails, Leiper replaced them with stone rails.

The railroad operated for about nineteen years, until 1828 or 1829. After Leiper died in 1825, his son, George G. Leiper, ran the line. The younger Leiper also built the canal that his father had first intended, which the Legislature finally authorized in 1827.

Leiper's railway was not the first to be built in North America; that distinction belongs to a gravity tramway built by British soldiers at the Niagara Portage at Lewiston, New York, in 1764, under the guidance of Capt. John Montressor, a British engineer and cartographer. The first industrial railway in America was either an inclined-plane tramway used to haul bricks on Beacon Hill in Boston about 1795, or a successor line built in 1807 in the same vicinity by Silas Whitney. While Leiper's tramway was not the first in North America, it remains the first known attempt to build a guide-way with wheeled vehicles in Pennsylvania.
Back to Top