By Andrew Bernstein
Mount Penn rises to the east of Reading, is named for the brothers Penn – and father Penn – who came from England and settled the area we now know as Reading and West Reading. The city first started as a settlement at a crossing of the Schuylkill River, shown to early settlers by members of the Native American Lenni-Lenape tribe around 1680. When the city was formally established in 1748, the river crossing and the mountain together gave Reading one of its first descriptors: The city that stretches from the river to the mountain.
In later times, Mount Penn became a focal point of recreation in Pennsylvania’s Americana Region. Thanks to local bicycle manufacturing and races held weekly at a cycling track in nearby City Park, Reading had become a prominent cycling destination by the late 1860s.
Mount Penn, which sits immediately east of the park, was the region’s next logical sporting venue and from 1900 to about 1908, motor car pioneer Charles Duryea designed, built, and tested cars by driving them up a switchback-style lane from the area of City Park to a point near the summit of Mount Penn, about 1,000 feet above. Through these tests, Duryea was able to improve the power-to-weight ratio and durability of his automobiles. City leaders weren’t content to see their mountain used only as a car test track and allowed the building of the famous Pagoda structure on the southern summit. Later on, to offer yet another reason for a Reading resident to summit Mountain Penn, the William Penn Memorial Firetower and a luxury hotel were built on the actual summit of the mountain, both offering a nearly uninterrupted view of Reading to the west, and Oley Valley to the East.
Duryea wasn’t just an automobile engineer, but also had a meaningful impact on the economic well-being of the area. To recognize his contribution, the road where he had tested early cars was named Duryea Drive in his honor, and in his tradition, car racing has continued on his eponymous lane with events like the Duryea Hillclimb drawing racers and race fans from all over the world.
Bicycle racing, no longer seen in City Park, has also continued on Mount Penn. Since the 1990s, a number of races have sent athletes up Duryea Drive and Skyline Drive, including the WEEU Cycle Series, the Breakaway/Precision Stage Race, The United States Junior Nationals, The Commerce Bank Triple Crown Reading Classic, and the Reading 120 Pro Road Race.
Now, Mount Penn is poised to host yet another historic event: The Mt. Penn Hillclimb, the first leg of the Reading Radsport Festival. This community event will send all kinds of riders up Duryea Drive on Friday, September 8, 2017. With its related Music on the Mountain concerts in five locations on the climb, the event will offer a challenging climb to any cyclist who wants to challenge themselves, and a one-of-a-kind spectating experience for anyone who wants to turn out and cheer the riders up the hill. The race will start in City Park, which will also host live music, a wheelie competition, and food trucks. The race will finish at the rededicated William Penn Memorial Fire Tire – a fitting tribute to Reading’s proud history and long bike racing heritage. For more information on the Mt.Penn Hillclimb, please visit readingradsport.com.