The Reading Railroad, Bee Line Service

The Reading Railroad (pronounced "Redding"), officially known as the Reading Company, was another of the many Northeastern anthracite carriers and arguably the most famous. Unfortunately, despite its celebrity it relied heavily on a commodity, which precipitously declined after World War II.  Before the fall, however, the Reading was a powerful system that at one point largely controlled the lucrative anthracite coal market by attempting to acquire all of the major railroads in the region.  This endeavor ultimately failed and it settled into operating a haphazard, tentacled=network of trackage radiating out of Reading, Pennsylvania.  Its system was largely devoid of a main line except for a small spine west of Philadelphia.  Following Penn Central's collapse the Reading fell into bankruptcy in 1971.  Despite the road's failure and inclusion into the Conrail Rail Corporation (Conrail), incredibly many of its principle lines remain in use today by various successors.

When the clean-burning fuel, known as anthracite coal, was discovered in northeastern Pennsylvania during the mid-18th century individuals began studying ways to transport the product to market for commercial use.  The first to do so successfully was the Lehigh Coal Mine Company of 1792.  Into the early 1800s the idea of waterway transportation, better known as canals, drew increasing support as an efficient means of moving people and freight.  The state of New York proved the concept's viability by opening the famous Erie Canal on October 26, 1825, running across the state from Buffalo to Albany and then down the Hudson River into New York.  According to Jim Shaughnessy's book, "Delaware & Hudson: The Bridge Line," on April 22, 1828 the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company first entered revenue service.  It became a profitable venture handling anthracite coal from near Honesdale to Kingston where it was then transported down the Hudson.  The origins of the Reading Railroad began just this way, as a canal operation.

Its earliest predecessor was the Little Schuylkill Navigation, Railroad & Coal Company, which was granted a charter by the state of Pennsylvania on February 28, 1826.  It planned to move coal from mines near the Panther Creek Valley at Tamaqua to Port Clinton (about 20 miles) where the product would then be transferred to the Schuylkill Navigation Company's canal linking Reading and Philadelphia.  The route's construction began in earnest during 1830 and it was opened for service in 1831 utilizing horses pulling carts over wooden rails with iron straps.  The rudimentary operation was slow and ground to halt during the late fall through early spring when temperatures kept the canals were frozen over.  Still, as the D&H operation proved, demand for anthracite was so great there remained a bright future in the business.  To overcome the obstacles of winter the Pennsylvania state legislature authorized construction of the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad on April 4, 1833.  The newfangled railroads could operate in all types of weather as the Baltimore & Ohio, Mohawk & Hudson, South Carolina Canal & Rail Road, and elsewhere were all proving.

The P&R was the earliest ancestor of future Reading's railroad operations.  It was envisioned to replace the canal, operating between Pottsville and Philadelphia via Reading along the Schuylkill River.  During this era railroads struggled to gain a footing in the face of stiff canal opposition; backed with money and political connections canal owners (and even the state of New York) stymied efforts of the later Lehigh Valley, Erie, and Mohawk & Hudson (an early New York Central predecessor) to see their lines built.  This was no different for the P&R, which fought local canal interests for years until opening its first segment between Reading and Pottstown in 1838.  One year later, on December 5, 1839, it completed the line into Philadelphia while the final extension to Pottsville opened in 1842.  Interestingly, this 93-mile route was the only true main line the Reading ever operated.  The rest of its network consisted largely of branch and secondary lines.

As Dale Woodland notes in this book, "Reading Diesels: Volume 2, The Second Generation," the opening of a coal terminal at Port Richmond along the Delaware River in Philadelphia on May 17, 1842 provided the railroad with an eastern outlet for its anthracite.  The P&R proved, once more, that rail transportation was superior to the canal.  According to Mike Schafer's book, "Classic American Railroads: Volume III," in 1844 it handled 42,843 tons of coal, surpassing the Schuylkill Canal.  As the railroad's success blossomed it expanded by acquiring numerous smaller railroads, most of which branched from every direction away from Reading, a city that became P&R's primary hub of operations where the company's major shop complex was located.  Its major expansions began on January 1, 1850 when it acquired a portion of the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad in 1850.  It then acquired the Lebanon Valley Railroad on March 20, 1858 which connected Reading with the state capital at Harrisburg (the LVRR opened on January 18, 1858).

The Reading's Passenger Services

Crusader: (New York/Jersey City - Philadelphia)

Harrisburg Special: (Jersey City - Harrisburg)

King Coal: (Philadelphia - Shamokin, Pennsylvania)

North Penn: (Philadelphia - Bethlehem)

Queen of the Valley: (Jersey City - Harrisburg)

Schuylkill: (Philadelphia - Pottsville)

Wall Street: (Philadelphia - Jersey City)

The P&R's other notable acquisitions included the 1869 addition of the East Pennsylvania Railroad to Allentown; in 1870 it picked up the Philadelphia, Germantown & Norristown Railroad via lease which offered a connection to the Philadelphia suburb of Norristown; 1872 saw the acquisition of the Catawissa, Williamsport & Erie which extended its reach to Williamsport and Newberry Junction; on May 14, 1879 it purchased the North Pennsylvania Railroad which extended service to the important steel-production center at Bethlehem while that same year it also acquired the Delaware & Bound Brook Railroad.  The D&BB had been incorporated on May 12, 1874 and opened a line five years later from Yardley (interchanging there with the North Penn Railroad) to Bound Brook Junction (near Manville, New Jersey) where it connected with the Central Railroad of New Jersey.  The D&BB later completed an extension to Woodbridge, New Jersey where Port Reading was opened in 1889 along the New York Harbor.  This proved a vital deep water port for the transportation of anthracite onto Transatlantic ships.

These system proved the most important components of the P&R's network although as Mr. Woodland points out nearly 100 predecessors ultimately comprised the modern Reading Company system.  As the 1800s marched toward their final years the railroad continued to prosper as demand for anthracite soared.  Several other lines also became successful hauling hard, or stone coal.  These systems included the aforementioned Delaware & Hudson, Lehigh Valley, and Delaware, Lackawanna & Western as well as the Jersey Central, Lehigh & New England, Lehigh & Hudson River, and New York, Ontario & Western.  None, however, became quite as successful as the P&R.  The road truly came of age when Franklin Gowen was elected president in early 1870.  He looked to corner the coal market by establishing the Philadelphia & Reading Coal & Iron Company in 1871.  This subsidiary worked to acquire mines for the railroad and was so successful that Mr. Schafer notes it controlled nearly 30% of the anthracite market by on its own before overextending itself and falling into bankruptcy in 1880.

In 1884 the P&R purchased the narrow-gauge Camden, Gloucester & Mt. Ephraim Railway, which connected its namesake cities in New Jersey.  The little operation was soon standard-gauged and through a series of other acquisitions the P&R consolidated all of its southern New Jersey properties into the Atlantic City Railroad in 1889. As the popularity of beach goers exploded through the late 19th century the ACRR was double-tracked along an arrow-straight main line linking Camden with Atlantic City.  In 1933 the ACRR joined Pennsylvania's West Jersey & Seashore Railroad to form the Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines, a successful commuter operation linking Camden with the Jersey Shore.  The PRSL faded over time but survived until the formation of Conrail in 1976.  Today, some of its lines remain in use by various agencies handling both freight and passenger assignments. 

After a series of presidents, Archibald McLeod took the reigns in 1890 leading the Philadelphia & Reading through what could arguably be described as its greatest period.  Backed by the P&R's overflowing wealth that witnessed opening beautiful Reading Terminal in downtown Philadelphia in January of 1893 (a McLeod endeavor), the new president aimed to transform his company into the dominant anthracite carrier throughout the Northeast.  Beginning in late 1891 the railroad leased the Lehigh Valley and soon afterward held stakes in the Jersey Central, Lackawanna, and even Boston & Maine.  At this time the P&R controlled over 70% of the anthracite business and appeared it would enter the 20th century as the region's dominant railroad.  Alas, the financial Panic of 1893 brought down the McLeod empire although the railroad was able to maintain control of the CNJ.  The P&R was forced into receivership and all of the properties under its control (railroad and non-rail interests) were reorganized as the Reading Company.

Less than a decade later Reading was acquired, through stock ownership, by the much larger Baltimore & Ohio.  The 1893 collapse relegated it to regional status, operating right around 1,300 miles within eastern Pennsylvania and parts of New Jersey.  Because of the company's condensed, spaghetti-like network it could not enjoy the lucrative, long-haul movements of merchandise freight that trunk lines like the B&O, NYC, and PRR enjoyed.  Its absolute furthest run was a 202 miles from Newberry Junction (near Williamsport) to Philadelphia.  It did, however, go on to join the "Alphabet Route" consortium, a group of railroads which offered this trunk line status for shippers in the ultra-competitive New York - Chicago corridor.  In a further corporate reorganization it shed all of its non-rail interests in 1923 due to antitrust issues.  During the next few decades, however, the Reading maintained a highly profitable and well-managed operation thanks to its rich sources of coal. The decline of this traffic began in the 1920s and hastened after World War II.  

Mr. Woodland notes that in 1946 the Reading still handled 16 million tons of anthracite with roughly 30 million tons in other freight.  Unfortunately, the loss of its key traffic source quickened through the 1960s and by 1975 it was handling less than 2 million tons of coal annually.  Despite the growing problems Reading did its best and even operated a popular regional streamliner, the Crusader.  The train was tailored towards business clientele connecting New York/Jersey City (in conjunction with the CNJ at its Jersey City Terminal) with Philadelphia. In its initial streamlining the train was powered by a pair of overhauled 4-6-2's (these Pacifics, classed as G-1sa were rebuilt at the Reading Shops) and matched to a lightweight consist of five cars (built by the Budd Company), bedecked in stainless steel.  It was a very classy and successful operation, remaining in service through the 1960s.  There were other notable trains such as the King Coal, Queen of the Valley, Schuylkill, and Wall Street

Interestingly, while the road also operated an extensive, electrified commuter service around the Philadelphia. By the 1930s the railroad had electrified these lines, extending from Reading Terminal in Philadelphia to Norristown, Chestnut Hill, Doylestown, Hatboro, and West Trenton.  Amazingly, even as late as the 1960s, the Reading was continuing to expand its commuter operations!  Alas, the commuter operations also hurt the company's bottom line as demand slipped, a problem facing most other Northeastern carriers which were required to provide these services in the large metropolitan regions.  Finally, there was the Iron Horse Rambles.  These popular excursions became legendary and became a fondly remembered part of Reading's history.  The event began in 1959 when the railroad kept four of its powerful 4-8-4's (#2100, #2101, #2102, and #2124) to host excursions.  They were so popular they kept running through the 1964 season.

The Rambles were not only were a successful public relations campaign during an era when railroads were far more friendly, welcoming, and open to the general public but also demonstrated the importance steam power once played.  The Reading relied on some very large and powerful wheel arrangements during its heyday such as 2-8-8-2's, 2-8-8-0's, 2-10-0's, 2-10-2's, and others alongside the 4-8-4's (rebuilt from former 2-8-0 Consolidations).  Into the diesel era it experimented with examples from all of the major manufacturers, including Fairbanks-Morse's unique H24-66 "Train Master" of the 1950s.  However, it generally relied on examples from Electro-Motive and American Locomotive.  There were first-generation GP7's, F7's, and RS3's while second-generation variants included models like the C630, GP30, and GP40-2.  The early examples wore a striking livery of black with green and yellow pinstriping while later locomotives were clad in a bright green and yellow scheme featuring a large black diamond below the cab with the company name.

Diesel Locomotive Roster

The American Locomotive Company

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
Boxcab50-51 (First)1926, 19282
S150-54 (Second)1940-19415
RS3444-450, 460-475, 481-5241951-195367

The Baldwin Locomotive Works

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
DS-4-4-100026-39, 700-7291946-194944
VO-66036, 61-701939-194211
VO-100055-59, 71-891940-194424
AS16530-554, 560-563, 576-5891951-195343

Electro-Motive Corporation/Electro-Motive Division

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
NW290-92, 100-1041940-19478
GP7600-636, 660-6661952-195344
GP353626-3656, 6501-65061963-196537

Fairbanks Morse

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
H24-66 (Train Master)800-808, 860-8671953-195617

General Electric

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity

Steam Locomotive Roster

Class Type Wheel Arrangement
A-2a Through A5a (Various)Switcher0-4-0T
B-4a Through B-9b (Various)Switcher0-6-0
D-3h Through D-11s (Various)American4-4-0
E-3a/b Through E-5sa (Various)Switcher0-8-0
G-1sa Through G-3sa (Various)Pacific4-6-2
I-1d Through I-10sa (Various)Consolidation2-8-0
K-1sa/sb/scSanta Fe2-10-2
L-1a Through L-10sb (Various)Ten-Wheeler4-6-0
P-1e Through P7sb (Various)Atlantic4-4-2

As the 1960s unfolded the anthracite market had almost entirely dried up resulting in the Reading depending heavily on bridge traffic. The straw that brought down the creation of Penn Central Transportation in February of 1968. Almost immediately the PC began to crumble and along with it most of the other Northeastern carriers fell on hard times financially as they relied on the massive carrier to interchange traffic.  On June 21, 1970 the PC declared bankruptcy and soon afterward so too did most surrrounding carriers, including the Reading on November 23, 1971. Things went from bad to worse as the PC was threatening total shutdown if some assistance was not provided.  Realizing the severity of the situation the federal government stepped and setup the Consolidated Rail Corporation, Conrail, which would comprise the skeletons of several bankrupt Northeastern carriers, including the Reading with operations starting as of April 1, 1976.  While some systems like the Lehigh Valley and Jersey Central were mostly scrapped after Conrail's formation, interestingly, much of the Reading lives on today as Conrail’s initial system included many of its former routes and lines. Today Reading's old lines are under the operation of Norfolk Southern Railway and CSX, who purchased Conrail in 1999.

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