Reading Railroad Heritage Museum
By Bryan Hay
In “Life’s Railway to Heaven,” Johnny Cash sings, “Heed the curves and watch the tunnels, never falter, never fail, keep your hand upon the throttle, and your eye upon the rail.”
It’s a relevant creed for the generations of people from Pennsylvania’s Americana Region who operated the freight and passenger trains for the Reading Co., one of the world’s largest corporations in its day. Established in 1833 as the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad to transport anthracite coal, the Reading Railroad helped power the Industrial Revolution as it served to expand markets in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware.
So iconic was its importance to the nation’s economic growth that the Reading Railroad earned an immortal place among the more lucrative properties on the Monopoly board. Although the railroad ceased operations in 1976 as commercial trucking took over freight delivery, its legacy still chugs along at the Reading Railroad Heritage Museum in Hamburg. Since 2008, the museum has been sharing the story of how the company gave rise to the Industrial Revolution, provided thousands of jobs and supplied coal to heat homes and power factories throughout Berks County and beyond.
The museum is operated by the nonprofit Reading Company Technical & Historical Society, whose all-volunteer staff works tirelessly to preserve, interpret and exhibit vintage locomotives, freight and passenger cars, as well as an archive of thousands of photos, books and blueprints and an ever-growing collection of lanterns, signals, hardware, and tools. The museum, which hosts special events throughout the year, welcomed more than 3,500 visitors last year.
“Museum visitors see firsthand the giants of an industry that for decades pulled the coal and passenger trains in this area,” said Carol Adams, who chairs the community outreach committee of the Reading Company Technical & Historical Society. “The museum is dedicated to the Reading Railroad, which was a significant influence on the economic prosperity of Pennsylvania and the whole nation,” she said. “It brought coal directly from the mines to the docks in Philadelphia and New York and businesses along the way. Without that supply of coal to create steam to power factories and heat for homes and businesses, the development of this area would have been much reduced.”
On the grounds of Reading Railroad Heritage Museum, you can walk among those giants — more than 70 historic locomotives and cars — and learn from a museum docent about railroad technology and the men and women who worked for the railroad. “Most visitors standing next to these locomotives are amazed at their size and power,” Adams said. “We also display a business car that was used by the president of the railroad, very nicely appointed as you can imagine.”
Visitors also get to tour an original Reading caboose, learn its function on the train and why it is no longer used today. Inside the exhibit hall, there’s a replica of a 1930s-era station agent’s office, which shows what it was like to keep track of freight and passenger trains with a gate-arm telephone, telegraph, and mounds of paper
You’ll also see collections and exhibits that depict the far-reaching cultural influences of the railroad, from a bass drum used by the Reading Locomotive Shop Band to the still-popular Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia. Some recent additions include a 16-by-60-foot mural depicting four historic Reading locomotives painted by Birdsboro artist Carrie Kingsbury and the outdoor Munchkin Railway, where kids can try out hand-pedaled cars on railroad tracks.
The museum is working toward a new building to house and protect some of their important locomotives and cars. Museum events include “Nostalgic Christmas Trains,” featuring vintage and modern model trains in a holiday setting (Thanksgiving weekend through Jan. 14) and evening tours of the railyard by lantern light on selected evenings in December.
For the volunteers who maintain the museum and keep the legendary railroad alive, their mission is clear. “We believe that we must preserve the history and influence of the Reading Railroad,” Adams said. “It shaped communities not only in Pennsylvania’s Americana region but also the entire mid-Atlantic region.”
For more information, see our Reading Railroad Heritage Museum listing.