Nat King Cole sang about getting your kicks on Route 66, but we found our kicks on Route 1, the Baltimore Pike. (My song suggestions: Have a ton of fun/You son-of-a-gun/ On Route 1. Or, Find all you like/As you ride your bike/On Baltimore Pike. No?)
For those of us who grew up in the western suburbs of Philadelphia, the influence of Baltimore Pike was huge, so huge we barely noticed it. Like a river or a mountain, it was just there, always was and always will be.
It was historically important, tying together the colonial cities of Philadelphia and Baltimore. Later, our communities grew along it and it became big part of my family history and my earliest memories. It is where my friends and I played, lived, and became adults (wink, wink). Now I can say I traveled on all of it.
But first a clarification. Route 1 goes all the way from Maine to Florida and I only mean the section between Philadelphia and Baltimore. Even there, “Baltimore Pike” and “Route 1” are not exactly the same and both have changed over the years. In Kennett Square there are several blocks named Old Baltimore Pike (been on that, too). Just which parts do I mean? The old sections or the new? Read on and find out. I still claim to have been over all of it, and this is probably more than 90% correct, however you count it. Close enough.
The heart of Lansdowne is around the intersection of Lansdowne Avenue and Baltimore Pike from where you can see Philadelphia’s City Hall on a clear day. The movie theater and the drug stores where many of us worked and hung out were there. (Drug stores then had lunch counters and a bank of phone booths, very important to make calls away from our parent’s ears. Our evenings often started from one.) Jim Musser worked for 50 cents an hour at the Sun Ray Drug Store on the corner (or whatever chain owned it back then). A little south was the Horn & Hardart restaurant. A little farther on was Gladstone Manor, a part of Lansdowne where many of us lived, and its commuter train station where my mother drove to meet my father coming home from his job in center city Philadelphia. (Route 1 is a north-south highway and I use that nomenclature, but this part runs more west than south.) Further south is Clifton Heights where my father grew up, and Aldan, that became the second half of our school name. The populated towns ended with Media and Swarthmore. From there it was (certainly not now) open country where we once raced our cars to Christie’s Corner, the intersection with Concord Pike.
Baltimore Pike begins near the University of Penn campus where it is called Baltimore Avenue and where my wife and I had our first apartment. As it continues south, it crosses the Schuylkill River and splits the suburbs of Yeadon (where Jackie Puriefoy lives) and East Lansdowne where I grew up right around the corner from my maternal grandparents. It passes the Fernwood Cemetery where my great-grandparents are buried. On the other side was the Fernwood School where we spent first few grades until the burned down East Lansdowne school was rebuilt. Farther south, past Lansdowne, past Gladstone Manor, past Clifton Heights, Baltimore Pike passes through Media, the county seat, where me and my high school classmates would go on summer evenings to play miniature golf and snack at the Dairy Queen. That was as far as we usually went, and beyond that was vague foreign territory, “Here there be dragons,” as they used to say on the old maps. Now I connect more with those distant parts as my wife and I volunteer at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square.
A major discovery came recently as my wife and I were driving back from Pensacola. We stayed overnight near Chattanooga and would hit the Baltimore Beltway (I-695) mid-afternoon. I was blissfully unconcerned. Our route would avoid the tense Washington Beltway, and we would be driving on just half of the Baltimore Beltway on a weekday, well before the rush hour. How bad could the traffic be? (How naive could I be?)
I saw more traffic there than I had ever seen at one place. We were crawling along the Beltway at the top of a hill, and all I could see was miles of solid traffic, six lanes both in front and behind. What could it possibly be like at rush hour, or, heaven forbid, if there was an accident?
We were slowly approaching the junction with I-95 North, but my GPS lady sensed we were in heavy traffic and told me to get off at the next exit. I thought she was taking us on a shortcut to I-95, but I soon realized she was directing us up Route 1 all the way to the familiar area of Longwood Gardens on the north side of Kennett Square.
At first, I was afraid we had made a terrible mistake because it was a local road with strip-malls and traffic lights, one after another, but it soon opened up into a superb, lightly traveled divided highway that only narrowed at Kennett Square and continued past the familiar entrance to Longwood Gardens where we so often approached from the other direction. The drive home changed from a high-speed, high-traffic, white-knuckled Interstate nightmare to an enjoyable country drive.
And I had discovered the rest of Baltimore Pike. Thanks, GPS lady.