Guide to Landforms Seen Along SEPTA’s Lansdale-Doylestown Regional Rail Line

Authors

Overview: Along its 34.4-mile trip from Center City Philadelphia to Doylestown a SEPTA train travels from the Philadelphia City Center to and then along the Coastal Plain-Piedmont Province boundary before moving from the Coastal Plain onto the Piedmont to reach the Tookany Creek drainage basin. Once in the Tookany Creek valley the train travels in a north direction adjacent to south oriented Tookany Creek before crossing the Schuylkill-Delaware River drainage divide at a shallow wind gap and entering the Wissahickon Creek drainage basin. Once in the Wissahickon Creek drainage basin the outbound train crosses the eastern extension of Whitemarsh Valley before traveling through the Sandy Run water gap between Fort Hill and Camp Hill to reach Fort Washington Station. North of Fort Washington the outbound train travels in a north-northwest direction across Triassic age shale, mudstone, and sandstone rocks as it follows the Wissahickon Creek valley headward before crossing the southwest oriented Wissahickon Creek headwaters between North Wales and Pennbrook. After leaving Lansdale Station the outbound train turns in a northeast direction as it again crosses the Schuylkill-Delaware River drainage divide and enters the Neshaminy Creek drainage basin and continues in a northeast and east direction to reach Doylestown Station.

City Center to Fern Rock Station: After leaving Jefferson (Market East) Station the rail line turns in a north direction as it climbs out of the tunnel (which at Jefferson Station is approximately at sea level) and rises above street level providing good views on both sides of urban development on the Coastal Plain surface to reach the elevated Temple University Station. From Temple University to the North Broad Station the tracks are above street level, but at the North Broad station the tracks descend below street level and are in a trench as streets and other rail lines are located overhead. After leaving the trench the tracks are again above street level to Wayne Junction Station (elevation approximately 100 feet above sea level) and then almost all the way to the Fern Rock Station (elevation approximately 120 feet above sea level).

Between City Center and Fern Rock Station the track is located on the Coastal Plain Province, although from Wayne Junction Station to Fern Rock Station the track is located along the boundary between the Coastal Plain Province (to the southeast or right of an outbound train) and the Piedmont Province (to the northwest or left). No Coastal Plain landforms or bedrock exposures are seen as urban development has completely altered whatever surface features were once present. Coastal Plain Province bedrock if it could be seen would be a thin layer of marine or fluvial sedimentary material deposited on a basement of metamorphic rocks with the sedimentary rocks generally thickening in a seaward direction. Metamorphic rocks near the surface, even if not on the surface, provide good foundation material for Philadelphia high rise buildings.

When the train is approaching the Wayne Junction Station a low tree-covered ridge is visible north and northwest of the train with higher elevations along the ridge crest being 230 or more feet above sea level. This ridge marks the Piedmont Province southeast boundary. This ridge is particularly noticeable after the SEPTA rail line crosses Hunting Park Avenue and a freight rail line just before passing a large SEPTA maintenance complex. The freight rail line was built in a shallow northeast to southwest oriented valley that the railroad deepened so as to pass under streets and the SEPTA line tracks. The shallow valley in which the freight rail line is located was eroded by southwest oriented water flowing to the Schuylkill River valley. Just before reaching the Wayne Junction station the SEPTA rail line turns in a northeast direction so as to continue along the boundary between the Piedmont and Coastal Plain Provinces to the Fern Rock Station.

Fern Rock to Melrose Park: After leaving the Fern Rock Station the track enters the Piedmont Province and while not obvious from the train it is climbing to an elevation of slightly over 200 feet above sea level as it passes through several cuts where bedrock exposures can be seen from the train window. The bedrock here is the Wissahickon Formation of probable early Paleozoic age, which is composed of metamorphic rocks that represent the roots of an ancient mountain range. Similar rocks are buried beneath the Coastal Plain Province marine and fluvial sediments, although in the Piedmont Province the metamorphic rocks stand higher in elevation and the sedimentary rock cover is frequently absent. Reasons why the metamorphic rocks stand higher in the Piedmont Province region have been debated in the geologic literature, although many geologists consider the Coastal Plain-Piedmont Province boundary to be an erosional feature. (Note: Most Doylestown Line trains do not stop at the Melrose Park or Elkins Park stations.)

Melrose Park to Elkins Park: The Melrose Park Station has an elevation of approximately 200 feet above sea level with a hill to the northwest rising to approximately 250 feet while a Tookany Creek tributary valley can be seen to the northeast. The area north of the Melrose Park station in the 1850s and 1860s was known as Oak Farm where William Morris Davis, the “father of American geography” grew up. The Piedmont Province surface in this region has been eroded by east and northeast oriented Tookany Creek tributaries and after leaving the Melrose Park Station the train passes through a rock cut as it crosses the ridge between two such tributary valleys before reaching the Elkins Park Station. The rail line between Melrose Park and Elkins Park maintains its elevation at close to 200 feet above sea level.

Elkins Park to Jenkintown: After leaving the Elkins Park Station the train passes over Old York Road (Route 611) and then closely follows Tookany Creek, with the creek being first located to the east (right side of outbound train) and then switching to the west (left). The rail line elevation at Elkins Park is slightly below 200 feet above sea level, but rises to slightly more than 200 feet at Jenkintown. South-flowing Tookany Creek crosses the 200-foot contour line a short distance south of the Jenkintown Station. While not easy to visualize the trip between Elkins Park and Jenkintown is made at the bottom of a V-shaped valley with elevations to the east at Jenkintown rising to more than 340 feet and elevations to the west rising to more than 400 feet. The water-eroded valley is carved in the Wissahickon Formation metamorphic rock complex, which underlies the entire region. Bedrock exposures are visible along both the rail line and the stream channel. This rock cut valley or gorge was eroded by large quantities of water, probably much more water than the present day Tookany Creek drainage basin could possibly produce. Evidence that water once flowed from other drainage basins into the Tookany Creek drainage basin is seen as the train travels north beyond Jenkintown Station.

Jenkintown to Glenside: The Jenkintown-Wyncote Station is located in the deepest section of the Tookany Creek gorge with elevations in Jenkintown to the east rising to approximately 340 feet and elevations along the Tookany Creek-Wissahickon Creek drainage divide to the west rising to more than 400 feet. Yet immediately after leaving Jenkintown Station there is a major rail junction with the SEPTA West Trenton Rail Line turning to the northeast while the Warminster and Doylestown Rail Lines turn to the northwest to follow a south oriented Tookany Creek tributary valley. The West Trenton Rail Line does not climb out of the valley, but instead continues in a deep east-northeast oriented through valley linking the south oriented Tookany Creek valley with the deep south oriented Pennypack Creek valley to the east.

Tookany Creek originates a short distance east of Glenside and flows in an east direction through Glenside to the rail junction location where it turns to flow in a south direction through the valley along which the outbound Doylestown train followed from Elkins Park to the rail junction. The outbound train first crosses the south oriented Tookany Creek segment just after leaving Jenkintown Station and shortly before the Rice’s Mill Road grade crossing crosses the upstream east oriented Tookany Creek headwaters segment. During the short distance between the two bridges Tookany Creek makes its abrupt turn just east of the Doylestown rail line. The south oriented Tookany Creek tributary valley, in which the outbound train travels to Glenside Station (elevation about 250 feet), is broad and much larger than any modern runoff could have eroded.

Glenside to North Hills: After leaving Glenside Station the outbound train, which is traveling in a northwest direction, soon comes to another rail junction where the Warminster Rail Line turns and begins to follow the valley of a southwest oriented Tookany Creek tributary upward toward a wind gap at Ardsley. The Doylestown line continues in a northwest direction and soon enters a deep cut as it crosses the Edge Hill ridge at another wind gap location. Limekiln Pike passes over the rail line at the wind gap location and the bridge elevation (about 350 feet) shows the approximate original wind gap floor elevation. An outcrop of quartzite sandstone that resists erosion (and seen as the train passes through the cut) is responsible for the southwest to northeast oriented ridge. While not seen from the train a large quarry is located on the left (west) side of the wind gap as the sandstone was used in making molds for the iron and steel manufacturing industries. North of the wind gap the outbound train enters the limestone floored Whitmarsh Valley as it approaches the North Hills Station (elevation about 270 feet).

North Hills to Oreland: The North Hills Country Club is on the left (southwest) side of the outgoing train after leaving the North Hills Station and the west flowing stream in the golf course (draining the attractive pond) is a Wissahickon Creek tributary and the train is crossing the east end of the Whitemarsh Valley. The sedimentary bedrock here is lower Paleozoic in age and is primarily composed of limestone, which was quarried at Oreland. The bedrock also contains mineralized zones that include iron ore, which during the 19th century were also mined in the Oreland area. Following closure of the iron mines clays associated with the iron deposits were mined to support several pottery operations. The mine and quarry sites cannot be seen from the train and today Oreland appears to be a typical suburban community.

Oreland to Fort Washington: After leaving Oreland Station (elevation about 230 feet) a concrete fence is on the left (side of the outgoing train and blocks views of a large water-filled quarry. Next the train crosses over a small west-flowing stream. That stream is Sandy Run, which drains much the Whitemarsh Valley east half. West of the tracks Sandy Run turns to flow in a north direction and will be seen again. The outgoing train next passes over Camp Hill Road and the hill on the right (northeast) side of the outgoing train is Camp Hill, which iss the Whitemarsh Valley north margin and which like Edge Hill is composed of erosion resistant quartzite.

The outgoing train now enters the Sandy Run water gap between Camp Hill on the east (right) side and Fort Hill on the west (left) side of the outbound train with Sandy Run visible on the left between the train and Fort Hill. Fort Hill is a continuation of the Camp Hill quartzite ridge and the valley through which the train is traveling is also used by Route 309, a Norfolk South freight rail line, and the Pennsylvania Turnpike to cross the high quartzite ridge and the train passes under all three in rapid succession. Just after passing under the Norfolk South freight rail line and before passing under the Pennsylvania Turnpike the outgoing train crosses Sandy Run again and Sandy Run is located along the right (northeast) side of the outbound train for a short distance before it turns to the west and flows under the tracks along the north side of Fort Hill to join south oriented Wissahickon Creek, which flows through another (unseen) water gap between Fort Hill and Militia Hill to reach and flow across the Whitemarsh Valley. The forested area to the southwest of the outgoing train is included in Fort Washington State Park and the town of Fort Washington is located on the northeast (or right) side of the outgoing train. A question to think about is why does Sandy Run flow in a north direction through a deep water gap eroded across the erosion resistant ridge to join Wissahickon Creek, which then flows in a south direction through an adjacent water gap eroded across the same erosion resistant ridge?

Fort Washington to Ambler: Immediately after leaving Fort Washington Station (elevation about 170 feet) the outgoing train goes under Lafayette Road and then travels through a cut in red colored sedimentary rocks. These rocks are Triassic in age. The Triassic age bedrock is much younger than the rocks forming the quartzite ridges and underlying the Whitemarsh Valley and a fault line unseen from the train was crossed shortly before reaching the Fort Washington Station. After passing through the cut there is a brief view of south-flowing Wissahickon Creek on the west (left) side of the outgoing train. The train continues in the Wissahickon Creek valley, although the creek is not seen again until just before reaching the Gwynedd Valley Station. Once the creek is no longer visible the train passes between a sewage treatment plant and a former industrial plant. Former asbestos product manufacturing sites can be seen both north and south of the Ambler Station. Ambler in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a major center for the manufacture of asbestos containing products at a time when asbestos was not viewed as a harmful product. Today the former asbestos manufacturing plant sites are considered an environmental hazard and on-going reclamation work can be seen taking place west of the train after leaving Ambler station.

Ambler to Penllyn to Gwynedd Valley: After leaving Ambler Station (elevation about 200 feet) the former asbestos manufacturing site is seen on the creek side of the train. The site is now being reclaimed to remove and/or bury the asbestos materials. The outgoing train is traveling in a northwest direction up the Wissahickon Creek valley. The creek is located behind the trees to the southwest. In Ambler the train crosses small southwest oriented Wissahickon Creek tributaries, although these streams are easily missed. After leaving Penllyn Station (elevation about 240 feet) the train crosses Willow Run, another small southwest oriented Wissahickon Creek tributary. While not seen some streams on the other side of the valley are oriented in northeast direction and join southeast oriented Wissahickon Creek as barbed tributaries. Shortly before reaching Gwynedd Valley Station the outgoing train crosses a south oriented Wissahickon Creek segment.

Gwynedd Valley to North Wales: After leaving Gwynedd Valley Station (elevation about 280 feet) the train again crosses Wissahickon Creek, but this time the creek is flowing in an east direction. Wissahickon Creek originates east of Lansdale near Montgomery Mall and flows in a southwest direction on the north side of North Wales (the outgoing train will cross that southwest oriented headwaters segment after leaving North Wales Station). After flowing past North Wales Wissahickon Creek turns to flow in a southeast direction through a water gap eroded across a Triassic age sandstone ridge and then turns to flow in an east direction to Gwynedd Valley where it turns to flow in a south and southeast direction. The railroad does not follow the creek, but instead travels through a deep cut carved into the ridge through which the Wissahickon Creek water gap was eroded. After crossing the east-oriented Wissahickon Creek segment the outgoing train gains elevation before entering the deep cut (the ridge crest on either side of the cut has an elevation of more than 400 feet). Prior to 1930s the railroad used a tunnel at this location, but the tunnel was removed in the 1930s when the railroad was electrified. Bedrock seen in the cut is Triassic age sandstones and is dipping in a northwest direction. The dip indicates the rocks were tilted at some time after their formation as horizontal sedimentary layers. Once through the deep cut the outgoing train crosses a shallow southwest oriented Wissahickon Creek tributary valley and then enters a somewhat shallower cut where the red colored bedrock consists of more gently dipping Triassic shale and mudstone layers. After leaving the shallower cut the outgoing train progresses through North Wales to the station.

North Wales to Pennbrook and to Lansdale: Once the outgoing train has departed the North Wales Station (elevation about 370 feet) it crosses the shallow southwest oriented Wissahickon Creek headwaters valley (at an elevation of about 350 feet) and then gradually climbs to leave the Wissahickon Creek drainage basin. The southwest oriented Wissahickon Creek headwaters segment is small and easily missed. Pennbrook Station (elevation about 370 feet) is located near the low drainage divide between southwest oriented Wissahickon Creek headwaters and southwest oriented Towamencin Creek headwaters, with Towamecin Creek eventually joining south and southwest oriented Skippack Creek, which flows to south oriented Perkiomen Creek and then the Schuylkill River. Headwaters of a southwest oriented Towamecin Creek tributary (not much more than a shallow ditch) are crossed shortly before arriving at Lansdale Station.

Lansdale to Fortuna and to Colmar and Link Belt: After leaving Lansdale Station (elevation about 350 feet) the outgoing train turns to travel in a northeast direction and quickly leaves the Towamecin Creek drainage basin and travels along the drainage divide between two northeast oriented West Branch Neshaminy Creek tributaries. The West Branch Neshaminy Creek originates north of Lansdale as a southwest oriented stream and then turns to flow in a northeast direction as other northeast oriented tributaries join it. The northeast and southwest orientations of stream valleys in this region reflect the northeast to southwest orientation of the dipping Triassic sedimentary rock layers, but also provides evidence for massive and prolonged southwest oriented floods at the time the major south oriented trunk stream valleys were eroded. The northeast oriented streams are located in what were originally southwest oriented valleys that were beheaded and reversed by headward erosion of much deeper south and southeast oriented valleys. Fortuna Station (elevation about 350 feet) and Colmar Station (elevation about 310 feet) are both on a low ridge separating two northeast oriented West Branch Neshaminy Creek tributaries. The small northeast oriented tributary located on the southeast side of the low ridge turns to flow in a north direction near Colmar and the railroad crosses it between the Colmar and Link Belt stations

Link Belt to Chalfont: Doylestown trains do not stop at the Link Belt Station, which may be recognized by the large parking lots and industrial plant on the northwest side of the track. After passing the Link Belt Station the outgoing train crosses another small north oriented tributary before entering the West Branch Neshaminy Creek valley and crossing the creek at an elevation of approximately 260 feet. The West Branch Neshaminy Creek is then located on the right (or south) side of the outbound train and the track turns in an east direction as it follows the valley to reach Chalfont Station. The West Branch Neshaminy Creek meanders across its floodplain here, which is roughly 100 feet lower than the surrounding uplands, and is in places adjacent to the track and in other places on the other side of the floodplain. Two small southeast oriented tributaries are crossed as the train travels to Chalfont Station (elevation about 250 feet).

Chalfont to New Britain: Chalfont is where the West Branch and North Branch of Neshaminy come together to form Neshaminy Creek, which flows in a meandering east oriented valley before turning in a southeast and south direction to eventually join the southwest oriented Delaware River. The North Branch Neshaminy Creek is crossed just east of the Chalfont Station and is flowing in a south direction at that location. Before turning to flow in a south direction the North Branch Neshaminy Creek is a southwest oriented stream and originates in the Buck County uplands near the deep southeast-oriented Delaware River valley. Pine Run is a southwest oriented North Branch Neshaminy Creek tributary and joins the North Branch Neshaminy Creek at the railroad bridge location and is the stream seen north of the track just east of the bridge. Bedrock here is still Triassic age sedimentary rocks as the outgoing train travels on the divide between southwest oriented Pine Run and east oriented Neshaminy Creek before reaching the Delaware Valley University campus.

New Britain to Delaware Valley University and to Doylestown: The Delaware Valley University Station (elevation about 300 feet) is located at the head of a southwest oriented Neshaminy Creek tributary and after leaving the Station the outgoing train curves to the northeast and passes under Route 611 to enter the head of another southwest oriented Neshaminy Creek tributary valley to reach Dolylestown Station at an elevation of about 320 feet).

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