Originally published in the June 2017 issue of Berks County Living
The small borough of Leesport formed thanks to one local man who recognized opportunity when the railroad came to town. However, unlike many other areas in Berks County that sprang up along the tracks, Leesport experienced a full transportation evolution in its early history.
A Transportation Evolution
The development of Leesport Borough began as early as 1745 when the area was surveyed for a road connecting Reading to Maidencreek. The Centre Turnpike was completed years later, in 1805, linking Reading and Schuylkill County and kick starting the local transportation evolution. Just a few years later, in 1812, the Schuylkill Navigation Company was formed to transport coal, lumber, produce, and other goods out of Schuylkill County via a system of canals along the river. The canals spanned 108 miles beginning in Port Carbon, running through five counties, and ending in Philadelphia.
The Leesport section of the Schuylkill Canal was completed in 1822 and soon a small trading post sprang up along the route – near what is now the intersection of Canal and Shackamaxon – where farmers would go to exchange their produce for other goods. Four locks originally operated in the area, which attracted many other small businesses and residents to the riverbanks. The canal was hugely successful for many years, primarily due to the huge demand for coal generated by the Industrial Revolution. However, the Schuylkill Navigation Company suffered from the opening of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad in 1842. By 1870 the canal was leased to the railroad company, and expansion of the rail lines eventually led to its closure.
Wrong Side of the Tracks
The railroad’s activities created an impetus to lay out a town north of Reading. Samuel Lee recognized the opportunity and purchased a 75-acre tract of land on the east bank of the river with the intention of setting aside lots to build a town. But when the railroad was finally built, the tracks were laid on the west side of the river. The railroad needed a name to put on the station built there, so they borrowed the name from across the water and called it West Leesport. The village that grew around it soon adopted the name. The towns on both sides of the river grew and prospered, but eventually merged in 1954 so the east side could utilize the water system the west side had developed. Three years later the two sides of the borough formally incorporated together as Leesport.
Today the small borough’s real claim to fame is the Leesport Farmer’s Market. It was founded as the Leesport Market and Auction by LeRoy Weist and family in 1947 out of a need for a place to sell livestock. When LeRoy and his wife Mary married they purchased 30 acres of farmland on the north side of Leesport with the intention of building homes. But around the same time the Bernville slaughterhouse stopped taking livestock and the Weists saw the need for a place to sell them. With the help of their family they built a cattle barn and a 4,000-sqaure-foot market building. On opening day – July 9, 1947 – 97 head of cattle were consigned by 25 sellers.
What’s in a Name? Samuel Lee rented warehouse space at the local port along the Schuylkill Canal, which soon came to be known as Lee’s Port. Leesport became the borough’s official name in 1957.
Town Centers? Leesport’s growth was unique in that the center of town shifted with each new mode of transportation. First was the Centre Turnpike stagecoach station, then the lockhouse, the railroad station, and finally Pottstown Pike.
Calling all History Buffs The Leesport Area Historical Society will be presenting on the history of the borough next month! Visit leesporthistory.org or call 610.926.6600 for details.