The European settlement of Reading did not begin until the 1730s, when it was first divided into six tracts of land. These parcels later became part of a plan for the “Town of Reading” proposed in 1743 by William Penn’s sons Richard and Thomas. The Penn brothers named the town after Reading in Berkshire, England, the ancestral “shire” of the Penn family.
When the County of Berks was created in 1752, Reading became the County seat. The original Courthouse was erected in 1762 on what is now Penn Square. By the late 1820s, two canals served Reading, establishing the city as a halfway point in the system of canals linking the Susquehanna River with the Delaware River. The Schuylkill Navigation Canal, connecting Reading and Philadelphia, was completed in 1824; the Union Canal was in operation by 1828.
Reading developed rapidly between 1825 and 1850. The Industrial Revolution of the 1830s brought this country the invention of steam-powered machinery and a surge of advances in heavy industry and transportation. The largest local railroad was the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad. Incorporated in 1833, the Philadelphia and Reading constructed the first rail line from Reading to Pottstown in 1837. This line was extended to Philadelphia in 1839. The Philadelphia and Reading eventually became one of the largest railroad industries in the nation, and was – briefly – the largest industrial corporation in the world just prior to the Civil War.
At the dawn of the 20th Century, Reading was a major manufacturing center. As the City’s population grew, technological advancement led to modern industry and the manufacturing of machinery and automobiles. Retail activity became important, and the City had several large department stores. In 1923, there were 700 manufacturing institutions producing more than 300 different kinds of goods. Reading boasted the largest brick kiln in the country and was an important center for both hosiery manufacture and the production of builder’s hardware.
The economic depression of the 1930s affected the City just as it did the entire nation. However, the railroad and its related industries fared better than most because the rails were still used to move most basic commodities. The Depression still marked the beginning of the City’s seven-decade decline in prominence as a population and manufacturing center. The 1930 Census reported that the City was home to 111,171 people, or 48% of all Berks County residents, a peak that has never been equaled since.
In 1998, Reading celebrated its 250th Anniversary, based on the year that Thomas and Richard Penn first laid out the City. The yearlong celebration included a combined 250th Anniversary-Armed Forces Day Parade, various projects by individual schools, celebrations by various ethnic groups, a commemorative train trip to Philadelphia, and the burying of a time capsule to be opened in 2048. ▩
DID YOU KNOW?
In the standard US version of Monopoly, Reading Railroad is the first of four railroads. This railroad lies between the Income Tax and Oriental Avenue spaces, and costs $200, which is the standard railroad price. This railroad is named after our great city where it was originally based.
TODAY AND TOMORROW
The City of Reading is on the threshold of regaining its place as the heart of Berks County. By looking to its glorious past for inspiration, the citizens of Reading and Berks County are determined to revitalize center city from the banks of the Schuylkill River through Penn Square to City Park.
Reading already offers the traditional neighborhood design and mixed uses in its commercial areas that many communities are advocating in new developments. And a new hotel — the DoubleTree by Hilton — in the 700 block of Penn Street is drawing rave reviews and lots of bookings by various groups and organizations. In the same block, Santander Arena continues to be the go-to venue for major concerts and other attractions. A few blocks away on North Sixth Street, Santander Performing Arts Center serves as another vibrant entertainment destination. Reading Area Community College at the west end of Penn Street continues to grow and thrive, and the GoggleWorks Center for the Arts at Second and Washington Streets has revitalized that area with its 200,000 square feet of arts and cultural space.
Several new annual events are breathing new life into downtown Reading, too, many resulting from the generous support of the Berks County Community Foundation. They include Reading Fire + Ice Fest and Downtown Alive outdoor concert series, both which are produced by the Reading Downtown Improvement District and SMG, which manages Santander Arena and Santander Performing Arts Center. And traditional events such as the DID-produced Reading Holiday Parade and MidDay Cafes continue to attract more and more people each year.
INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT READING, PA
- When you’re having a good time in clean and safe Downtown Reading and you need assistance, call DID at 484-955-0315, or look for one of our Ambassadors in bright red jackets or shirts. We can even escort you to your car!
- One hundred years ago D. B. Hoffer & Sons at 126 S. 10th St. manufactured the Logan. Known as “That Car of Quality,” the 10 HP light delivery sold for $1,000.
- In 1900, Reading was the 50th largest city in the U.S. with a population of 78,961.
- In the 1920s there were more than 15 hotels in downtown Reading. All the rooms in the Mansion House at 5th & Penn Streets had private baths or hot and cold running water. A tea room was attached to the American House at 4th & Penn Streets. The New Reading Hotel at 36 S. 6th Street had 50-cent lunches.
- A Moore’s Diner was once at 9th & Penn Streets.
- The first bicycle came to Reading in 1880 and by 1900 there were six bicycle manufacturers in the area, three in downtown Reading, exporting bikes around the world.
- A whiskey distillery was once located at Front and Court Streets.
- Steamboat excursions were run on the Schuylkill River.
- In the 1890s, the Hunt Factory was producing more than 1 million cigars annually at 636 Court Street.
- The first “Penn Street” bridge was completed in 1818 at a cost of $50,000. It was called the Harrisburg Bridge and you paid a toll to cross it.
- A Pennsylvania Railroad passenger station was located on the north side of the Penn Street Bridge opposite Reading Area Community College’s Yocum Library.
- The Peanut Bar has been on Penn Street since 1933.
- There are at least 20 pieces of public art in Downtown Reading.
- The façade of the Reading News building at 431 Penn Street was moved from its original location on North 5th Street.
- There are more than 5,000 off-street parking spaces downtown.
- You can eat authentic American, Chinese, Cuban, English, Greek, Indian, Irish, Italian, and Mexican food in downtown restaurants.
- Penn Square had open-air market stalls between 1766 and 1871.
- The first Berks County Court House was in the middle of Penn Square.
- Iron Horse Hobby House has been at 60 S. 6th St. since 1978.
- The former Penn Cycle and Motor Company at 357 Penn Street sold Reading Standard, Henderson and Excelsior motorcycles, and Reading Standard bicycles.
- There were two bowling alleys downtown – the Central at 802 Penn Street and the Round-Up at 17 N. 8th Street.
- Eight department stores once were located on Penn Street, including four on Penn Square.
Find out more about the history of Reading at Berks History Center, 940 Centre Avenue, Reading, or at www.berkshistory.org.