The Reading Terminal is a complex of buildings in Philadelphia Pennsylvania in the Market East section of Center City. The complex consists of three different building: the head house, the train shed, and the Reading Terminal Market. The complex opened up in 1893 and was noted as the largest single span arched roof structure in the world during the late 19th Century. Today, the train shed remains the world’s oldest such structure and is a historic part of the Philadelphia area.
The Philadelphia and Reading Railroad was built as a coal road, spanning from Pottsville, Pennsylvania to Philadelphia. By the 1890’s the company was able to extend its rail lines while acquiring control of other railroads in the area. In the year 1889 the Reading Railroad announced that it was going to construct a new train depot for the Philadelphia services on the corner of 12th and Market Streets. In the plans, the construction would include a train shed and an eight story head house. By this time it had more than 2,000 miles of rail line which terminated in Philadelphia, at four located passenger terminals.
The Reading Terminal consisted of two major buildings; the head house, which contained passenger facilities and offices, and a train shed, both of which were separated by a lobby. The eight story head house was designed by Francis H. Kimball in an Italianate style and was constructed by the Wilson Brothers & Company. The front of the head house, facing Market Street, was constructed using granite, brick, and terracotta finished with a copper cornice. The head house was built as a means to contain passenger waiting rooms, ticket office, baggage room, dining halls as well has being the corporate headquarters for the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company. The lobby was 50 feet in depth while extending the entire width of the main building. But the real engineering marvel of the entire project was the train shed with its three centered arch roof. In one single span it covered the whole width of the tracts which consisted of eight platforms and 13 tracks. The roof was made out of wrought iron and was required to be double rolled before installation. During this time period, the terminal was the widest single span train shed in the world. The Reading shed remains as the oldest long span roof structure in the world as well as the sole surviving single span arched train shed in the United States.
The train shed, which was located behind the head house, extended north to Arch Street. When the train shed was constructed, the track came into the shed 25 feet above the street level. Since the train shed wasn’t even with the street level, the ground floor was constructed into a market hall which housed two markets. “Descended from Philadelphia's original market, founded in 1693, their importance to the city was recognized, and the occupants of the old markets were transferred to the new market hall without interruption to business, even before construction of the headhouse.” To this day, the Reading Terminal Market remains Philadelphia's principal farmers' market.
The Philadelphia and Reading Railroad was one of the first railroads that was built in the United States. Because fuel was transitioning from wood to fuel, the railroad was an instant success in the industry upon its 1893 completion. In the following years the company began to acquire most of the railroads in the Schuylkill Valley and Pennsylvania’s vast Coal Region. One of the biggest ventures that led to the railroads success was Port Richmond in Philadelphia. It was constructed as a port to load ships and barges with coal to sell as an exported commodity. This port was noted as the largest privately owned tidewater terminal in the world. Eventually, the P&R railroad created a company called the Philadelphia & Reading Coal & Iron Company to buy up coal mines in the Coal Region. Because of this expansion, the P&R railroad gained almost full control of the coal market from mining and was considered the largest company in the world in the early 1870’s. The company was seen as one of the first true conglomerates in the world through its successful plan to gain control of many rail lines in the Northeast. In 1879, the Reading acquired the North Pennsylvania Railroad which gave them the ability to prosper from the booming steel industry in the Lehigh Valley. It further expanded by gaining access to New York City from the newly controlled Delaware and Bound Brook Railroad as well as the construction of the Port Reading Railroad. This allowed for the direct delivery of coal to New York City by rail and barge instead of the former delivery which required long trips by ships from Port Richmond up to New York Harbor.
In 1890 the P&R railroad realized that revenues could increase by transforming the historical coal railroad into a trunk railroad, or a passenger railroad. It was able to gain control of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, Central Railroad of New Jersey, and the Boston and Maine Railroad. The railroad was close to becoming a true Trunk load rail line, but was unable to be certified because of the efforts of people who were against the competition that it would impose on the northeastern railroad business. From this point on, the Pennsylvania and Reading Railroad was relegated to a regional railroad for the rest of the company’s history.
On November 23, 1971 the P&R railroad filed for bankruptcy due to the failure of regional rail lines which the company depended on since the coal business died off over the years. Upon the year 1976 the P&R railroad died off completely and many of the company’s assets were transferred to the federal financed Conrail while the commuter rail lines were acquired by SEPTA. The last train left the station in November of 1984 and a new station was soon constructed a block away which was called the new Market East Station. The old abandoned terminal building was supposed to be demolished or refurbished for additional use but a renewal effort in the downtown area stated that this building was located in the redevelopment area of the city. After multiple years of negotiation talks, the Reading Company agreed to allow the Redevelopment Authority of Philadelphia to acquire the historical terminal so it could be incorporated into the Pennsylvania Convention Center upon further reconstruction.
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