Most persons who are natives of Berks will be able to recall the great iron bridge which spanned the Schuykill at the western end of Penn Street from 1884 to 1914 when the present concrete structure was opened to the public. The iron bridge was the third bridge to connect Reading with the western portions of the county. The iron bridge was built upon the original piers of its predecessors at a cost of $100,000. Most of the cost was borne by the Pennsylvania and Schuykill Valley Railroad Company and approximately one-third by the County of Berks.
The railroad company was willing to make the outlay to protect certain rights which it acquired to build its tracks along the side of the old canal. The cost of this operation was high because it involved the removal of the old wooden structure, the elevation of the base of the new bridge and the extension of the bridge to the eastern bank to permit the location of a trackway underneath the span.
In 1895 the Reading Traction Company acquired the right to run trolley cars across tracks which it built on the iron bridge. In return for this right the traction company repaired and strengthened the bridge.
Traffic increased rapidly during the early years of the present century and soon there were fears that the capacity and strength of the bridge were not equal to the demands made upon it. After a series of investigations and reports it was decided that the bridge was not safe for all kinds of vehicles.
In 1910 the bridge was closed to trolley cars and watchmen were stationed to see to it that the span was not subjected to heavy loads. The closing of the bridge led to many protests from the citizenry in October an injunction was asked to restrain the commissioners from closing the bridge. The injunction was refused by the courts and the public was forced to bear the inconvenience.
Some us can recall the days when he were forced to walk across the old bridge when changing trolley cars.
The Penn Street Viaduct, 1913
The construction of the present bridge at the foot of Penn Street began in October, 1911. It was an ambitious undertaking for it involved extending the bridge to the intersection at Second Street and the removal of privately owned property from that point almost to the river’s edge; it called for the best engineering skill and huge sums of money.
A bond issue of nearly one half million dollars was authorized and sold – almost entirely to Berks County subscribers. The total cost was $610,840 shared by the city and county in rations agreed upon before construction was begun, the county bearing the larger cost.
One striking fact about the building of the present bridge is that most of the materials came from Berks County, In his tract entitled “The Penn Street Viaduct.” Daniel K. Hoch states in 1914:
“Nearly everything that went into the structure was furnished at home. The cement came from Evansville; the stone was quarried immediately beyond the western end of the bridge; the sand was procured at Temple; the contractors are Berks County people and the money to pay for the enterprise was furnished by the people of the county, the bonds having been purchased by persons in all walks of life.”