Originally published in Berks County Living’s September issue. See more of what’s happening around town here!
Situated on the banks of the Schuylkill River just south of Blue Mountain, the Borough of Hamburg was once a central hub between Harrisburg and Philadelphia. In less than a century, the farming land along the river was transformed from the homestead of a German settler into an industrial power second only to Reading. Thanks to its connections to the Central Turnpike, the Schuylkill River Canal and two major rail lines, the small migrant town grew into one of the largest boroughs in the county and contributed to the formation of smaller neighboring communities.
From Homestead to Hub
Hamburg was settled by Martin Kaercher in 1732 because of its rich soil and its good communication points with the coal mines in the north and Philadelphia to the south. Kaerchertown, named after its founding father, soon came to be known as Hamburg after the nationality of the first settlers. Kaercher’s son, Martin Jr., laid out the town in 1772 and began selling lots to other settlers, but Hamburg did not experience much growth until 1812 when the Center Turnpike between Reading and Pottsville (now Route 61) was completed. It was the only road from Philadelphia to Harrisburg at the time. Soon the small town was also connected to the two cities by the river canal and two major rail lines, transforming it into a bustling hub for freight and passenger travel.
A Transportation Evolution
In 1816, when the average monthly farm wage was less than $10, construction of the $2 million Schuylkill River Canal began. It was completed in 1825 with 62 miles of canal and 41 miles of river linking the coal regions of Pottsville to Philadelphia. It took six weeks for 100-foot long barges to carry 90 tons of coal to the city and return. For a time it looked like Hamburg might become the entrepot for coal, until the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad bought up all the property along the banks and leased the canal in 1870. The Pennsylvania Railroad came to town in 1885, and between the two rail lines the canal became obsolete. With the introduction of the railroads, Hamburg turned its hopes to becoming a railway junction. It already had tracks running north and south on both sides of the river, and plans to build the South Mountain Railroad, an east-west line from Harrisburg to Jonestown. Unfortunately those plans collapsed during the Panic of 1873.
The Great Flood
Many details of the early history of Hamburg were wiped away on August 3, 1906 when a freak cloudburst caused the river to rise and the breast of an ice dam to burst, flooding the streets. Damage to the streets and six local bridges totaled nearly $20,000 and residents were left without electricity and clean drinking water for several days. The conditions after the flood led to a typhoid epidemic, resulting in the deaths of five residents. The only official casualty of the flood was Allen Romich, whose tin shop was washed down Third Street.
Winter Royalty: The King Frost Parade was started in 1910, and has run 51 times. It was put on hold for years during times of national crisis, including the Great Depression, WWI and WWII.
101 Places to Shop: In the 1930s and 1940s Hamburg had more businesses per capita than any other town in America.
What’s in a Name? Hamburg is actually named after Bad Homberg, Germany, not Homburg as many believe. Because German was spoken here rather than written, the vowels were likely mistranslated into Hamburg.