Main Line of Philadelphia
Main Line, Philadelphia Main Line
Collection of suburban communities
|County||Primarily Montgomery and Chester counties; certain northern parts of Delaware County|
|Named for||The Pennsylvania Railroad's Main Line|
|Time zone||UTC-5 (EST)|
|• Summer (DST)||UTC-4 (EDT)|
|Area codes||215, 267, 445, 610, and 484|
The Philadelphia Main Line, known simply as the Main Line, is an informally delineated historical and social region of suburban Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Lying along the former Pennsylvania Railroad's once prestigious Main Line, it runs northwest from Center City Philadelphia parallel to Lancaster Avenue, also known as U.S. Route 30.
The railroad first connected the Main Line towns in the 19th century. They became home to sprawling country estates belonging to Philadelphia's wealthiest families, and over the decades became a bastion of "old money". The Main Line includes some of the wealthiest communities in the country, including Gladwyne, Villanova, Radnor, and Ardmore. Today, the railroad is Amtrak's Keystone Corridor, along which SEPTA's Paoli/Thorndale Line operates.
See also: History of Pennsylvania
The Main Line region was long part of Lenapehoking, the homeland of the matrilineal Lenape Native Americans (the "true people", or "Delaware Indians"). Europeans arrived in the 1600s, after William Penn sold a tract of land, called the Welsh Tract, to a group of Welsh Quakers in London in 1681. This accounts for the many Welsh place names in the area. However, what might be termed the "Celtification" of many Main Line place and street names occurred long after colonial times. So, for instance, as a marketing device to attract wealthy new residents, the area once awkwardly named Athensville became the more culturally glamorous Ardmore (Ardmore is a place name found in Ireland and Scotland) in 1873.
The Pennsylvania Railroad built its main line during the early 19th century as part of the Main Line of Public Works that spanned Pennsylvania. Later in the century, the railroad, which owned much of the land surrounding the tracks, encouraged the development of this picturesque environment by building way stations along the portion of its track closest to Philadelphia. The benefits of what was touted as "healthy yet cultivated country living" attracted Philadelphia's social elite, many of whom had one house in the city and another larger "country home" on the Main Line.
In the 20th century, many wealthy Philadelphia families moved to the Main Line suburbs. Part of the national trend of suburbanization, this drove rapid investment, prosperity, and growth that turned the area into greater Philadelphia's most affluent and fashionable region. Estates with sweeping lawns and towering maples, the débutante balls and the Merion Cricket Club, which drew crowds of 25,000 spectators to its matches in the early 1900s, were the setting for the 1940 Grant/Hepburn/Stewart motion picture The Philadelphia Story.
The railroad placed stops about two minutes apart, starting with Overbrook. The surrounding communities became known by the railroad station names which started at Broad Street Station in Center City Philadelphia and went on to 32nd Street Station (replaced by 30th Street Station in 1933), the 52nd Street Station (decommissioned), and then the Main Line stations: Overbrook, Merion, Narberth, Wynnewood, Ardmore, Haverford, Bryn Mawr, Rosemont, Villanova, Radnor, St. Davids, Wayne, Strafford, Devon, Berwyn, Daylesford, Paoli, and Malvern. At least five of these station buildings, along with the first Bryn Mawr Hotel, were designed by Wilson Brothers & Company. A branch line of the Main Line (currently known as SEPTA's Cynwyd Line) extended to the communities now known as Bala and Cynwyd (via Wynnefield Station in Philadelphia), then proceeded to the West Laurel Hill Cemetery (where there was once a station, as well,) and crossed back into Philadelphia over the Schuylkill River via the famous Manayunk Bridge. Broad Street Station was replaced with Suburban Station in 1930, and 30th Street Station replaced 32nd Street three years later. Suburban service now extends west of the Main Line to the communities of Exton, Whitford, Downingtown, and Thorndale.
The railroad line then continued on to Chicago, with major stations at Lancaster, Harrisburg and Pittsburgh. The railroad, since taken over by Amtrak, is still in service, although its route is slightly different from the original. It also serves the Paoli/Thorndale Line of the SEPTA Regional Rail system.
It was not only extremely wealthy people on the Main Line in the period 1880-1920. Wealthy households required large numbers of servants in order to maintain their lifestyle. Often these servants were Black migrants from the South and recent immigrants from Europe. For example, in the 1900 census, Tredyffrin Township was 13.5% Black; another 15% had been born in Europe. The two largest countries of origin were Italy and Ireland. The corresponding figures for Lower Merion Township were 6% Black and 15% born in Europe; almost 11% were from Ireland.
Another dimension of this story is illustrated by the community of Mount Pleasant, in Tredyffrin Township just north of Wayne. This is a community that became predominantly Black in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
As shown in the census for 1920, most of the Black residents of this neighborhood or their parents had come from the South. Many of the men in this neighborhood (along Henry Avenue and Mount Pleasant Avenue) were employed by the railroad, as quarry workers, or as chauffeurs and gardeners by private families. The occupations often given for women were cook and laundress. This remains a predominantly Black community to the present day.
Today, the Main Line is another name for the western suburbs of Philadelphia along Lancaster Avenue (U.S. Route 30) and the former main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad and extending from the city limits to, traditionally, Bryn Mawr and ultimately Paoli, an area of about 200 square miles (520 km2). The upper- and upper middle-class enclave has historically been one of the bastions of "old money" in the Northeast, along with places like Long Island's North Shore (AKA: "Gold Coast"); Westchester County, New York; Middlesex County, Massachusetts; and Fairfield County, Connecticut.
Neighborhoods along the Main Line include nineteenth and early twentieth-century railroad suburbs and post-war subdivisions, as well as a few surviving buildings from before the suburban development era. The area today is known primarily for several educational institutions as well as robust suburban life.
The original Main Line towns are widely considered to follow the acronym "Old Maids Never Wed And Have Babies." From Philadelphia, they are:
These seven towns are characterized as one of the primary bastions of old money in Southeastern Pennsylvania. They are comparably more dense than other suburbs and have lively, walkable downtowns. All of these communities were established along Lancaster Avenue prior to the railroad's construction.
Further, as early as 1887, Bala and Cynwyd were also included in atlases of the Pennsylvania Railroad in Lower Merion Township and Montgomery County. By 1908, one of the first atlases to refer specifically to the "Main Line" as a socio-cultural entity includes:
Additionally, the following towns are often grouped with the core Main Line:
Beyond the 9 aforementioned communities, many nearby communities have seeded growth in the twentieth century, either in between the core towns or nearby them. They include:
These communities are primarily residential and consist of larger lot sizes than in the nine core towns. All of them, except Gladwyne, are on the railroad and have their own station stop.
There is no collective data for the Main Line, so all data is by ZIP Code. The median family income on the Main Line is $192,630. In comparison, the median family income for the state of Pennsylvania is $87,500. The following ZIP codes are those within the previously mentioned municipalities that make up the Main Line. All data are from the 2021 American Communities Survey.
|ZIP code||Name/Aliases||Population||Median family income||Median home price|
|19010||Bryn Mawr, Rosemont, Garrett Hill||21,629||$169,471||$670,500|
|19072||Narberth, Penn Valley||10,782||$211,500||$659,200|
|19087||Wayne, St. Davids, Strafford, Chesterbrook||33,717||$181,217||$598,000|
|19096||Wynnewood, Penn Wynne||15,107||$215,441||$572,800|
The Main Line is served by numerous modes of transportation among which are three commuter rail lines operated by SEPTA. Connecting the region directly with Center City Philadelphia are the Paoli/Thorndale Line which shares the former Pennsylvania Railroad four track Keystone Corridor grade with Amtrak, and the Manayunk/Norristown Line which operates over the former Reading Railroad Norristown grade. The light rail Norristown High Speed Line runs over the Philadelphia and Western Railroad line between 69th Street Transportation Center in Upper Darby and Norristown Transportation Center in Norristown. Amtrak's intercity Keystone Service (New York City to Harrisburg) and Pennsylvanian (New York City to Pittsburgh) also serve the region with stops at the jointly operated Amtrak/SEPTA stations at Ardmore and Paoli.
The main thoroughfare through the Main Line is U.S. Route 30 which follows Lancaster Avenue (formerly the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike) running east to west and serves as the backbone of the region by connecting a large majority of its towns and municipalities. Other highways serving the area are the Schuylkill Expressway (I-76) which connects it to Philadelphia, and the Blue Route (I-476) which runs north to south connecting the region with the Northeast Extension and the Pennsylvania Turnpike to the north, and to Philadelphia International Airport and I-95 to the south. Along the northern edge of the Main Line, US 202 runs from the Schuylkill Expressway in a southwesterly direction, crossing US 30 in Frazer.
SEPTA also commissions suburban buses on Routes 105 and 106 to run from the 69th Street Transportation Center in Upper Darby to Rosemont (Route 105) and Paoli (Route 106). These buses run almost entirely along Lancaster Avenue.
SEPTA also offers light rail service through the Norristown High Speed Line. The Norristown High Speed Line runs along the Main Line from Upper Darby to Ithan Avenue Station and Villanova Station before making a northward turn at the junction of Lancaster Avenue and the Blue Route toward Norristown.
The school districts that serve the Main Line are Lower Merion School District in Montgomery County, Radnor Township School District and School District of Haverford Township in Delaware County, and Tredyffrin/Easttown School District and Great Valley School District in Chester County. The region has numerous nationally ranked public and private schools. Among them are:
Public High Schools