History of Devon Station

Left: An engraving of Devon Station from the 1884 Pennsylvania Railroad excursion booklet.

Since the fall of the great American railroads in the mid-20th century, much of the rail infrastructure in the United States has remained intact, and has been adapted for use by mostly government-run transit agencies. More than just tracks and equipment, this inherited infrastructure includes bridges, large city terminal buildings and small town depots. While the large, showy city stations have either been replaced or beautifully restored, the intermediate depots have, for the most part, been allowed to deteriorate over the decades. These unique, finely crafted Victorian-era buildings are usually centrally-located in their towns, and offer a wonderful opportunity for developers and preservationists.

The Pennsylvania Railroad, at one time the largest railroad in the United States and the largest publicly-traded company in the world, bought the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad in 1860. Originally part of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s “Main Line of Public Works,” the P&C stretched west from Philadelphia to the Lancaster County town of Columbia. Combined with the West Philadephia Railroad (which followed a straighter path from Philadelphia to Ardmore, where it met the P&C), the Pennsylvania Railroad not only gained a new commuter branch to the quickly developing western suburbs, but also a direct route to Pittsburgh and points west. This line was a “main” line in more than what its old name suggested; it was the key to the Pennsylvania Railroad’s westward expansion.

As the railroad’s influence an popularity grew, so did towns around their newly acquired “Main Line.” The railroad itself saw potential for tourist dollars in this area, and built the Bryn Mawr Hotel about halfway down the line. An immediate success, the railroad helped build the town of Bryn Mawr to accompany this new resort. Towns such as Wayne, Berwyn, Ardmore and Narberth grew around their railroad depots in the 1870s and ‘80s. The railroad poured money into the system, not just for profit, but because railroad executives like A.J. Cassatt chose to make the Main Line their home. Each station was erected on the Main Line about one mile apart. At 16.4 miles from downtown Philadelphia, Devon Station was built in 1883, the prime era for Main Line development.

Devon Station is situated centrally in the town of Devon, in Easttown Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania. Devon is a small town in a string of overlapping Main Line communities; in its figures the U.S. Census combines it with its western neighbor to form “Devon-Berwyn.” Devon has been known for two major draws over the course of its history: the Devon Inn, and the Devon Horse Show.

Following the lead of the Bryn Mawr Hotel, the Devon Inn was built about 6 miles west of Bryn Mawr in a much more rural setting. The original Devon Inn burned to the ground in just 2 hours on August 13, 1883.1 The hotel proprietors wasted no time, and had architects G.W. and W.D. Hewitt design a new hotel that same year. George W. Hewitt was formerly principal in Furness & Hewitt, until he partnered with his brother. The station was likely built to complement the new hotel and provide visitors from the city with a beautiful gateway to the town of Devon, although it is unknown if the Hewitts were involved with the station's design. As the resort business died off, the hotel became the first home of the Valley Forge Military Academy in 1928. After just five months in residence there, the hotel caught fire and was completely destroyed. According to some rumors the fire was started by a cadet's cigarette.

The second major draw to Devon was (and still is) the Devon Horse Show, which started in 1896 and continues to this day. The Horse Show is the oldest and largest outdoor multi-breed horse show in the country,2 and takes place over a few days in May and June each year, though other events take place on the grounds throughout the year. Originally the Devon Inn hosted visitors to the show, and of course commuters from the city used Devon Station to reach the fair, which is within walking distance of the railroad. A transplanted country fair in the middle of the Main Line, the horse show brings a flavor to the area that is alien to the sophisticates who call the region home. Still, they take it as an opportunity for social climbing, and thus the show is successful as a fundraiser for the Bryn Mawr Hospital.

Though built at the same time as the Hewitts’ Devon Inn, it is not believed that the firm had anything to do with Devon Station’s design. Rather, it was the office of another pair of brothers that were the likely architects of Devon Station. The Wilson Brothers Company had been in-house architects for the Pennsylvania Railroad for years. In the 1870s, they designed the showcase Bryn Mawr Station, Ardmore Station, and a group of nearly identical small intermediate stations on the Main Line. In the 1880s, besides designing the first section of Philadelphia’s incredible Broad Street Station, they continued work designing small town stations such as Wayne and Berwyn. These projects are all documented in the Wilsons’ 1885 book “Catalogue of Work Executed,” but curiously, Devon Station is not mentioned. However, the closest architectural relative to Devon, Homewood Station, located just east of Pittsburgh, is attributed to the Wilsons in their section on railroad stations. Comparing Devon and Homewood, there is little chance that the two buildings came from the drafting table of two separate architects. The basic design of the station (which itself is a derivative of Wayne Station) was adapted to a brick variant for two more stations on the Main Line: St. Davids and Rosemont, and one further west at Downingtown. The only one with a stone first story façade, Devon’s materials may have been chosen to match those of its reason for being, the Devon Inn.

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