Originally published in the December issue of Berks County Living; photos courtesy of the West Reading Community Revitalization Foundation
The Borough of West Reading was not always the cultural epicenter we know it as today. It wasn’t until the population boom in neighboring Wyomissing spilled into the area that it began the transformation into one of the most diverse entertainment districts in Berks.
All Infrastructure, No Frills
The area that would become West Reading was originally settled in 1733. A few small homes were built over time, but the area did not experience any real growth until 1864 when Frederick Frill purchased 116 acres of farmland and laid out the lots in what would become known as the “Frill Plan.” The lots sold quickly and developed into present-day Franklin Street, then Third through Sixth Streets were settled as the population spread west from the city. The first attempt at incorporation failed amidst loud protests but four years later, on March 18, 1907 the borough was officially incorporated.
West Reading’s greatest expansion occurred from 1923 to 1930 as a result of the Wyomissing Development Company’s expansion and beautification efforts. The growing population in the neighboring borough spilled east toward the city and contributed to significant growth of West Reading. The borough grew to become the largest of Berks County’s 30 boroughs by the 1950s.
While West Reading was not the direct product of rail development like the City of Reading, the area was still caught in the collateral damage resulting from one of the country’s largest and most destructive railroad strikes. Reading had become the largest anthracite carrier in the world and many of the line’s workers settled west of the city. In 1877, in response to a coordinated 10% pay cut across several major area lines, many West Reading residents went on strike.
The strike spread rapidly, becoming the first nationwide labor action. When news of the riots in Pittsburgh reached Reading, local strikers were sparked into action. A mob crowded the streets near Penn Avenue, and in their fury the group set fire to the Lebanon Valley Railroad Bridge over the Schuylkill River. The bridge – a main artery to Harrisburg – was destroyed.
Love West Reading
In addition to serving as the home for many of the city’s rail workers, West Reading also came to be known for brickmaking. Three yards in the area employed more than 200 people and frame buildings and clay pits largely covered the southern section of the community. The area did not become the cultural center we know it as today until 1998 when a group of elected officials and business owners came together to develop an improvement plan to rescue the area from years of benign neglect.
The plan included an expanded borough hall and a new fire hall in addition to borough-wide equipment and facility updates and beautification efforts. The plan also formed the PA Main Street Program, to deliver management services to local businesses. Since it’s formation the program has improved property values and vacancy rates along Penn Avenue and has presided over 35 new business openings from 1999 to 2007. Today the foundation runs a full schedule of family-friendly events, bringing in thousands of people from all over the county to shop, dine, and love West Reading.
Did You Know?
The Mine Hole An old iron ore mine became a community attraction when a spring broke through the walls and flooded the hole. Residents frequented “Weiser Lake” for many years until it was filled in for development.
527 Penn Avenue The West Reading Hotel was the oldest building in the borough. It closed in 1964 after 145 years. The 3-story hotel was located where Chef Alan’s Bistro sits, and served as a meeting place and social club.
You’re Invited The Reading Hospital’s annual Garden Party has been running for more than 80 years. The event features old-fashioned lawn games that promote wellness and raise money for a variety of medical causes.