Between the year in which Reading became a Third Class City and the year in which Reading’s prosperity is said to have reached its peak, the City underwent some major physical changes as it saw the years of its greatest progress. The underlying determining factor in the residential development of Reading ceased to be the growth of industry, its influence supplanted by the emergence of local transportation.
The City added no more land area during this period: the large annexations of the 1850’s and 1860’s were more than enough to provide for the City’s development. Population nearly tripled to over 96,000 by 1910. The stock of dwelling houses increased accordingly. This was the great period for the building industry, which flourished with all other industries. The building associations built most of the houses of the 1870’s, 1880’s and 1890’s. Due to their financial programs, more people owned their homes in Reading than anywhere else and the City gained the distinction of being one of the best places in the United States for a working-class family to live. Rowhouses were built of increasingly finer quality and with more well-crafted decoration. This led both to a loss of regard for older buildings by home purchasers and to a more marked quality distinction between neighborhoods. The poorer laborers and many of the new immigrants who found work with the major industrial plants of South Reading populated the factory neighborhoods in older houses. The preference for new modern buildings also led to the large-scale demolition and replacement of many pre-Civil War buildings in Downtown Reading.
The building boom expanded the City to the extent that it soon became highly inconvenient to walk from one end to the other. Not many citizens had either the money or the facilities needed to own a horse. A passenger railway company was established in 1865 but went out of business shortly afterwards without accomplishing anything. The real beginning of local transportation was in 1873, when two companies were incorporated and began to lay tracks which were completed one year later. In 1874 the Reading City Passenger Railway Company began to run horse-drawn trollies on North Sixth Street to Robeson Street and to Charles Evans Cemetery. The Penn Street Passenger Railway Company ran on Penn Street from Front to Eleventh, then along Perkiomen Avenue to Nineteenth. In 1881 the Penn Street Company became the Perkiomen Avenue Passenger Railway Company: five years later this company ran additional track up Tenth Street to Marion, down to Ninth, returning along Ninth Street to Penn. In 1886 the first electric streetcar was introduced, and by 1893 all trollies in the City were run with electricity. In the same year all lines were consolidated as the Reading Traction Company. By the turn of the century there was a trolley line within reasonable walking distance of every neighborhood in Reading.
With the trollies, residents could travel between any two points in the City in a relatively short period of time, and the companies were diligent in closely following new residential development with new streetcar routes. Suddenly residence close to places of employment, whether industrial or commercial, was no longer necessary. The effects of this were far-reaching. Areas with little or no industry, like the far Northeast and Northwest, were now more open to residential development. People who changed jobs were not so pressed to change neighborhoods, so families began to stay in one home longer. People were liberated to choose to live in a certain neighborhood for more subjective reasons.
At the same time these subjective reasons began to change. After 1874 a spirit began to seep into Reading which had hit the larger American cities as early as 1850: a romantic view of the clean, wholesome, pure and picturesque rustic countryside. Many of Reading’s young, newly affluent upper-class people became dissatisfied with the ‘downtown’ life: shoulder-to-shoulder townhouses; factory soot; noise; close proximity to ‘immoral’ immigrant laborers. They began to look for areas in which to build a new lifestyle, and just then these areas were made accessible by the new streetcar lines.
The ‘suburbs’ which began to develop at this time – the Centre Avenue and Mineral Spring Road areas – were both choice locations just beyond residential neighborhoods, with no industrial development and gorgeous scenery. Centre Avenue, the site of the old turnpike to Pottsville, was undeveloped: few streets of the 1868 grid system had yet been laid. It ran along the crest of a hill, providing clear air and spectacular views of Northeast Reading and Mount Penn to the east, downtown Reading to the south, the Schuylkill River Valley to the west, and Charles Evans Cemetery and more open land to the north.
It was geographically separated from Downtown Reading by the Lebanon Valley Railroad tracks and the Great Hollow. Mineral Spring Road was another old road, romantically winding, with the added benefit of light use, running across the side of Mount Penn with a marvelous view of Mount Neversink and the valley below. These areas made perfect settings for the large, freestanding, ornate mansions which appeared from the mid – 1870’s through the turn of the century. Penn Square and Fifth Street – as well as other number streets a block or two north and south of Penn – retained their affluence through the period, but were slowly losing their fashionable prestige.
Only after the wealthy had moved to these ‘suburbs’ were semi-detached and rowhomes developed for the not-so-affluent in the adjoining areas. Still, Northwest Reading east of Front, and Southeast Reading north of Perkiomen Avenue became the homes of middle and upper – middle-class commercial, professional and managerial people rather than of factory laborers. By 1910 these neighborhoods had lost their suburban character, but remained two of the more fashionable urban areas of the City.
In 1874 a new railroad depot was erected in the triangle below Oley Street, replacing the one on South Seventh. By the 1880’s it had become known as the geographical center of Reading: the worth of a business or a hotel came to be measured by its proximity to the Depot rather than to Penn Square. It also quickly became one of the major landmarks of the stylish Northwest.
Most of the residential development in industrial areas during this period occurred in the Northwest, near to the Lebanon Valley tracks, where some new heavy manufacturing firms had been established. The Reading Iron Company, an offshoot of the Reading Iron Works which had become a subsidiary of the P & R, operated a plant by the Schuylkill River between Douglass Street and the Lebanon Valley Railroad tracks. Both Mt. Penn Stove Works and the American Iron and Steel Company employed many men at their factories on Third Street at the Lebanon Valley Railroad, as Lauer Brewery Company continued to do on Third between Elm and Walnut. The P & R maintained shops at Sixth and Douglass and at Sixth between Robeson and Amity.
Below: Philadelphia and Reading Railroad facilities, Reading, PA – 1922 and present day view site.
At the turn of the century a small, remote neighborhood (now known as Riverside) arose northwest of Charles Evans Cemetery west of Third Street, to provide housing for the employees of the A. Wilhelm Paint Company at Third and Bern, and of the Carpenter Steel Company, which was established by the river at Exeter Street in 1889.
Many of this period’s new factories were erected in established or half-established neighborhoods: most of these, like the Berkshire Silk Mill at Eleventh and Marion and the Nolde and Horst Company at Ninth and Windsor, engaged in light manufacturing and employed many females. The candy manufactory of William H. Luden was just becoming a large-scale industry since it moved to its Eighth and Walnut plant in 1900, after a small beginning on North Fifth in 1879 and later at Sixth and Washington. The large old industries of South Reading – Reading Iron, Reading Hardware, Reading Stove, Penn Hardware, Henry Clay, the Cotton Mill – continued to employ the nearby immigrant stock, which by 1900 included a large number of Polish in addition to the steady stream of Germans.
Below: View from about 1900 of the Schuylkill River looking toward Reading from the hill at the foot of South 9th St.. The extensive Reading Iron Works was located in South Reading along the banks of the Schuylkill River.
By 1910 a handful of industries had been established just outside the boundaries of the City, where they found the same efficient transportation at lower tax rates, and a local transportation system which could bring in employees from Reading. The outlying areas were very lightly developed. There were small neighborhoods in West Reading, the Lancaster Avenue area, and in Mount Penn, and even fewer residences in Glenside and Laureldale. Plans were, however, being made by developers for the expansion of all these areas. Industries which by 1910 had seen this potential included Blatt and O’Reilly, Orr and Sembower, and the Chartrell Tool Company in Cumru Township just north of Angelica Dam; the Textile Machine Works and Berkshire Hosiery Mills in Wyomissing along the Lebanon Valley Railroad; and the Reading Paper Mills in Glenside at the mouth of the Tulpehocken Creek.
The growth of Reading was tremendous between 1874 and 1910. Residential development had necessitated the raising of the number of wards from nine to sixteen between these years. The Northeast became the most populous quarter of the City. The Great Hollow, once a formidable obstacle in the Northwest, had been graded to a gentle valley almost unrecognizable today. The long-range plan for Reading of 1868 was still in use in 1910. The development plans for Penn’s Commons and the P & R yards had been abandoned. The City’s leaders were beginning to propose plans for the acquisition of additional territory to increase Reading’s land area, population and tax base, as the amount of developable land and the frequency of the establishment of new big industries within City limits were diminishing.