By the late 19th century, new transportation modes had improved access to the verdant reaches of West Fairmount Park. Carriageways, bridle paths, railroads and steamboats provided many modes of access for a wide cross section of Philadelphia. Beginning in 1897, the Fairmount Park Trolley made 14 of its 16 stops in West Park and quickly became a beloved and affordable means of reaching the park’s historic sites, recreational areas and Amusements.
With the end of trolley service in 1946 and the decline of park trail maintenance in the post World War II era, these various corridors became increasingly illegible and unusable. With the rise of mountain biking in both the Wissahickon Valley Park and West Park in the 1990s-2000s, a new system of user-created trails emerged but were not fully analyzed by the 2001 Trail Master Plan produced by Fairmount Park’s Natural Lands Restoration and Environmental Education Program (NLREEP), Andropogon Associates and Campbell Thomas & Co.
In 2007, Park staff began mapping these newer user-created trails and began working with a park-recognized stewardship group, the Belmont Plateau Trails Alliance (BPTA) to adjust or close trails harmful to park habitats.
In 2014, Philadelphia Parks & Recreation (PPR), Fairmount Park Conservancy (FPC) and PennPraxis released The New Fairmount Park plan—a broad, multi-phased effort to enhance accessibility of park amenities, reduce the physical and perceptual barriers to park use and provide “maps and apps” to allow citizens and visitors to better curate their park experiences.
One of the plan’s recommendations was to establish a “Trolley Trail” to provide “access for the park’s western neighbors by creating a continuous trail that follows the pathway of the scenic trolley that ran through the woods of West Fairmount Park in the early 20th century.” In order to assess the extent of the trolley right-of-way versus user-created mountain bike trails, FPC and PPR staff worked with Steve Thomas of Terra Firma Trails to comprehensively map and assess the entirety of the West Park trail network in 2015-2016.
With Terra Firma’s initial assessment in hand, the Conservancy and PPR consulted with the BPTA as to the establishment of a loop trail which would offer the least conflicts with bikers and cross country runners. BPTA volunteers provided a first draft of a loop which served as a basis for the ultimate route. PPR and Conservancy staff noted where the trolley loop encountered obstructions, steep slopes, degraded infrastructure and engineering hazards, trees and other infrastructure.
FPC also convened other important trail stakeholders to determine priorities, reduce user conflicts and communicate project goals and outcomes. It is hoped that this fieldwork will lay the foundation for planning trail re-routes, closures and enhancements while fostering users’ unique trail experiences and protecting critical habitat. Furthermore, as we move incrementally toward a safe and sustainable trail system, we hope to build mutual trust between park stewards, improve communication and grow organizational capacities.
- Provide a quality experience for all trail users;
- Provide connectivity between bordering neighborhoods, regional trails and various park amenities;
- Construct trails with sound, sustainable design principles.
- Eliminate eroding and fall-line trail segments, and any other unsustainable segments;
- Eliminate trails that damage or disturb wetlands, streams, or desirable woodland habitat;
- Assure minimal fragmentation of natural areas and retain undisturbed wildlife habitat for diverse taxa.
- Accommodate multiple user groups where feasible;
- Minimize user conflicts;
- Establish a trail system universally recognized by PPR, FPC and stewardship groups