To the many thousands of travelers who pass over the Schuykill River each day on the Penn Street Viaduct it must seem strange that the city of Reading existed from the founding year 1748-1816 without a bridge to connect it with points westward. By means of fords and ferries travelers and traffic moved in and out of Reading for 68 years before local enterprise was equal to the challenge of providing a dry crossing. From 1796 to 1818 there were a number of abortive efforts to build a span but all came to naught.
The Dottery 1796-1798
The earliest plans for a span westward over the Schuykill called for a stone bridge estimated in cost at nearly 100,000. A portion of this sum was to be raised by selling lottery tickets and the right to conduct a lottery was granted by the state legislature. The lottery method of raising revenue for public works was in common usage in the early history of our republic. Most of the monies raised to build the Union Canal were raised by selling chances on prizes and some of our colonial churches resorted to this method to induce wealthy burghers or hopeful speculators to part with cash. It was hoped that citizens of Berks would contribute $60,000 dollars to the Penn Street Bridge lottery.
But the thrifty farmers and townspeople of Berks could not be induced to purchase lottery tickets in sufficient quantity to raise that sum and the lottery plan had to be abandoned. The money was returned to investors.
The Osborn Fiasco
In 1801 a sum of $16,000 was appropriated to build a wooden bridge upon stone piers. One Obediah Osborn of York was awarded a contract to build the piers and a structure. Osborn posted security for compliance with the terms of the contract and work was begun. Between the years 1801 and 1804 Osborn spent almost $30,000 and succeeded only in constructing four stone piers, two on each bank and two in the river. In 1804 Osborn defaulted and quit the undertaking. When the county commissioners brought suit against his bondsmen the contractor left the state.
The First Bridge – 1816
In 1814 the county commissioners entered into another contract this time with Lewis Werwag and Joseph Johnson to build a wooden bridge, using the stone piers which had been erected by Osborn ten years earlier. The total cost of the first bridge was approximately $50,000. It was opened to the public in 1816 even though its construction was not quite complete at the time.
Tolls were fixed by the county commissioners as follows:
Foot passenger. . . . . one cent each
Horses or mules . . . .four cents each
Horse and Rider. . . . six cents
20 sheep . . . . . . . . . .six cents
20 hogs . . . . . . . . . . .six cents
20 cattle. . . . . . . . . . twenty cents
Vehicles according to the number of horses employed.
John Weldy was appointed as the first toll collector.
In his booklet on the Penn Street Viaduct (1914) Daniel K. Hoch, then county controller, has the following to say about the appearance of the first Penn Street Bridge:
“The bridge was well constructed and at the time was considered a very handsome affair. External ornament was not neglected. Two wood-carved effigies, the one representing ‘Commerce” and the other ‘Agriculture’ were placed upon the pediments at either end of the Bridge.”
Artist, H.F. Graeff, drawing of first Penn Street Bridge erected in 1815. (Not a first hand account.)