In 1748, William Parsons laid out the town of Reading. It was named Reading, after the county town in Berkshire, England. The streets were laid out running east and west. In choosing names for streets the dutiful William Parsons tried hard to flatter his employers, the Penns. The main thoroughfare was named for the Penn family and the main intersecting street was named Callowhill (now Fifth St.) in honor or Hannah Callowhill, William Penn's second wife. Present-day Franklin St. was named Richard and Washington was named Thomas, both names honoring sons of the Founder. Walnut St. was originally Margaret St. in honor of one of Penn's daughters. Other streets were named in honor of Penn's friends in England.
Penn Square - Originally named Market Square, Penn Square was the center of the Penn's 1748 plan for Reading, and the earliest development of the town took place here. The first Berks County Courthouse was built in the center of the square in 1762 and remained there until 1841. Two farmer's market sheds were erected - one in the center of the 400 block of Penn Street in 1799 and one in the 500 block in 1766 - and they were not removed until 1871.
Model of Penn Square in the Colonial period showing open air markets and the first court house at the center of the intersection of 5th and Penn..
"Callowhill Street" is the original name for Fifth Street, Reading's major thoroughfare from south to north since its founding. When William Penn's sons, Thomas and Richard Penn, authorized William Parsons to lay out the city in 1748, they directed that the maiden name of their mother, Hannah Callowhill Penn, be given to one of the two main streets. This was done, and the street bore the Callowhill name for nearly a century. The name was changed in 1833 during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, a time of Heightened democratic feeling in many parts of the United States, because references to British royalty were thought inappropriate in an American town.The old name persists in a number of other Pennsylvania cities of colonial settlement - Philadelphia retains its Callowhill Street.
The present Sixth Street was originally named "Prince Street" in honor of the Prince of Wales by Thomas and Richard Penn in 1748. The name was changed in 1833. By the 1870s, Sixth Street had become a densely populated neighborhood, and one of Reading's first trolley lines was installed here in 1874.
Franklin Street was originally named "Richard Street" in honor of Richard Penn, son of William Penn and one of the founders of Reading.
Chestnut Street was originally named "Hamilton Street" after James Hamilton, Governor of Pennsylvania in the 1740s when Reading was laid out, and it was the southernmost street in the Penn's city plan.
Bingaman Street was a private road opened by Peter Bingaman, the proprietor of all the land bordering on the south side of the street from Mount Penn to the river, and subsequently named after him. It marked the southern boundary of the town until 1813. Its diagonal slash across the Penn's gridiron of streets forced the creation of numerous oddly-shaped lots. The bridge at the foot of Bingaman Street was originally called the Lancaster Bridge when it was built in 1831, but in 1876 the name was changed to Bingaman Street Bridge in honor of Peter Bingaman. The Pennsylvania House of Representatives voted in February, 2016 to change the name of the Bingaman Street Bridge to The Borinqueneers Memorial Bridge in honor of a Puerto Rican military unit.
Canal Street takes its name from a period in Reading's history before the railroad when the Schuylkill River was used as a highway of commerce. As early as 1690, William Penn had hoped that a canal might connect the Susquehanna and Schuylkill Rivers providing a commercial route from Philadelphia by way of the Schuylkill deep into the interior of the new colony. It took almost 140 years for this hope to be realized, and the result was a triumph of early nineteenth century architecture and engineering. Indeed, Reading was eventually connected to both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh by water.
The Schuylkill and Susquehanna Navigation Company was organized in 1791, and the Delaware and Schuylkill Canal Company was chartered a year later, but they made little financial progress until 1811, when the two organizations were joined to form the Union Canal Company.
The canals provided cheap transportation in their day, cutting the cost of shipping to Philadelphia from 40 cents per hundred-weight to 12 1/2 cents, but as the Civil War approached, the newer railroads began to draw away the canals' business, and after the war idle canal equipment could be seen rotting in the locks. The Philadelphia and Reading Railroad leased the Schuylkill Navigation Canal for 999 years in 1870 and transferred it to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1947.
Original route of Schuylkill Canal through lower Reading, and its 1832-1833 relocation.
1899 view looking northward from the Franklin Street Guard Lock showing the Schuylkill Canal running beneath the 1884-1914 Penn Street Bridge and the Pennsylvania Railroad depot.
Remains of the Schuylkill Canal along the riverfront were very much in evidence until 1972, at which time a $142,000 cleanup effort was begun. This included removing vast quantities of coal silt and industrial waste and leveling out the general section with clean fill.
Centre Avenue - Centre Avenue was formerly known as Centre Turnpike. Started in 1805 and completed to Sunbury, Pennsylvania, in 1809, the turnpike was never profitable and tolls were discontinued in 1884. The general path of the original turnpike is now covered partly by Pennsylvania Route 61 and Pennsylvania Route 54. By the late 1880s, trolleys ran on Centre Avenue as far north as Charles Evans Cemetery. The present residential development of Centre Avenue began in the 1870s, and by the 1880s it had become one of Reading's most fashionable addresses - an address more suburban in character than Fifth Street, which still attracted elegant townhouse construction. Development continued for about fifty years and was largely complete by 1920. There has been relatively little demolition and new construction since that time, so the blocks of Centre Avenue lying within the Historic District contain a fine collection of American upper middle and upper class residential buildings of the fifty years from 1870 through 1920.