Big things often start very small. They build over time and become something no one could have foreseen, and the story, whatever it may be, is found not in memory, but in the little bits that are left behind. Taken individually, these little bits, like brush strokes in a painting, don’t tell us much. But pieced together, they form important links in a big picture.
Such is the case of the Port Kennedy Station waybills.
Port Kennedy was a village located on Trooper Road near the Montgomery-Chester County border, where what now US 422 crosses over the Schuylkill River. The village was more or less demolished to make way for it, leaving only a few buildings standing. One of these is the old Philadelphia & Reading Railroad station.
The P&R was built in the late 1830s and early 1840s to haul coal from the anthracite regions of Schuylkill county directly to the Philadelphia markets (in a tremendous “dick move” to the Schuylkill Canal, finished just as construction was ramping up on the railroad). Along its route along the river up from the Belmont Inclined Plane, a number of villages sprang up, including Port Kennedy, which acted as a station for the large lime-producing industry in the area.
At the close of the 19th century, another industry was founded in the area that would dramatically alter the landscape of the area: the Ehret Magnesia Manufacturing Company. Founded in 1897, the company, in spite of its name, quarried the surrounding hills to produce what was then the miracle fireproof material: asbestos. The fibrous silicate mineral was used in many applications, from fireproof shingles to electrical and pipe insulation, and though it was observed even in the 19th century that it could be hazardous, nothing was changed for many years.
Ehret shipped many carloads of asbestos-containing materials out of Port Kennedy, through the village’s combined passenger and freight station. Built in 1904, the station served the village through 1966. Though refurbished a decade later for SEPTA’s short-lived service to Pottstown, a disastrous wreck and fire put an end to such service in 1981. The station, then renamed Valley Forge Park, was boarded up and closed, and has sat idled ever since.
By 1997, it became clear that Ehret and its successors had polluted the area with tons of asbestos, creating a tremendous health hazard. Cleanup only began just a few years ago, and some work in the remains of Port Kennedy is still ongoing.
But the Station itself still had its secrets. Somebody broke into the station recently and scattered some of its contents to the wind, where I happened upon them while jogging along the old bridle trail. Included among them: waybills for the delivery asbestos to Ehret, evidently for disposal in the park — which got the official O.K. at the time from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Even in the span of a month, which these cover, several thousand bags of fiber were delivered. When one considers that these practices continued over decades, it is a truly frightening prospect.
These little waybills, scattered about, tell us nothing if we cannot piece together the larger story. With the resources available to us at the end of a few keyboard strokes, such things are indeed possible.
ADDENDUM: As it so happens I had a nice talk with the folks from the National Park Service, who politely informed me that not only is the structure on Federal land, but anything found thereon, even if it was grandfathered in, belongs to the Federal Government. Though well-intentioned, my efforts were against the law. No harm no foul in this case, the waybills have been given to the archives at Valley Forge and I have learned a most valuable lesson. I hope you all shall too — if you ever chance upon any similar situation, or find something in a National Park, find a Park Ranger and report it, or give him or her what you’ve found, they will be most thankful!