Independence Island along the Schuylkill River
On the west side of the Schuylkill River above the 65th U.S. Infantry Regiment Borinqueneers Memorial Bridge (formerly named Bingaman Street Bridge) sits an island with a narrow channel separating it from the shore that has been lost to the test of time. Few residents of Reading in the present generation know that even before the Civil War the island was the site of banquets and picnics held by major political parties on patriotic occasions. It was customary to visit the place on holidays and Sundays and in the evenings. Bands of music often rendered music there. Men and women went there with fishing tackle and lunch baskets and remained there all day, fishing, dancing and playing games.
Independence Island as it appeared in 1896 just above the iron-truss Bingaman Street Bridge. A trolley bridge passed over the island on its south end. Four years after the cement Bingaman Street Bridge was completed, in 1921, trolleys to Shillington and Mohnton were rerouted over it, and the trolley bridge was abandoned but not removed for a long time. Within the broken lines on the west side of the island is the former course of the Union Canal, abandoned in 1884. It went dry almost immediately.
It was called "Independence Island" because the old-line Whigs celebrated Independence Day there each year. On July 4, 1840, Major John Schwartz, iron master and member of Congress in 1859-60, presided at the celebration. At the celebration of the same party in 1848, when General Zachary Taylor ran for the Presidency, Josiah Randall, father of ex-Speaker Samuel J. Randall, made the principal speech. When Captain Thomas S. Loeser and his company of Reading Artillerists returned from the Mexican War, July 29, 1848, they were escorted to the island by over 800 men under the command of General William H. Keim and treated to a splendid dinner. Lawyer Charles Davis delivered the welcome-home address.
There was a pontoon bridge from the Reading side of the river across the Schuylkill to the island. Along the shore were located little boat houses where small craft were maintained for those who enjoyed a ride down the river. On the island there was a swing and a large dancing platform where maidens and young men danced to the music of an orchestra which was so famous then for its good music. A small hotel was located nearby where all kinds of drinks - from whisky straight to weiss beer, lemonade, mineral water and sarsaparilla - were served. There was a bath house and a stand from which orators addressed their fellow citizens. Franklin Witman conducted a restaurant there for some time.
The island's banks were lined with weeping willow trees whose branches almost kissed the waters of the Schuylkill. There was a strong spring of nearly ice cold water at the lower end. The island was laid out in pleasant walks where listening ears heard many a tale of love. Many a royal banquet took place under its huge shade trees.
The 4th of July was never allowed to pass over by the political parties of that day without a spread to which the leaders came, and after filling themselves with food they would respond to appropriate sentiments of the day, and again renew their pledges of love and veneration for the eternal principles of freedom and constitutional liberty. The Democrats always held 4th of July parties at Mineral Springs Park in East Reading, while Independence Island claimed the Whigs. Men of state and national reputation aired their opinions under its venerable trees. On its green lawn the faithful gathered to hear the story of Washington and the revolutionary fathers, and how the patriots fought their country's battles from Bunker Hill and Lexington to Monmouth and Valley Forge and Yorktown and from Lundy's lane to New Orleans.
The tremendous flood of 1850 swept everything from the island. The pleasant means of enjoyment were never replaced, and the place as a resort of the people fell into disuse.
Prior to construction of the West Shore By-Pass in the 1960s, the old "river road" that paralleled the Schuylkill on the west side, from Bushong's Covered Bridge at Glenside to Lancaster Avenue, went right by what remained of the island. It was more accessible those days because the old road was considerably closer to the river and situated at a lower elevation.
When the present-day West Shore By-Pass was constructed over the abandoned right-of-way of the Union Canal, the roadway was greatly elevated for a greater protection from flooding. At the same time, the massive amounts of fill brought in for the project not only raised the road level, it widened it to the degree the channel on the west side of the island was filled in and fused to the base-mound of the By-Pass. However, if you walk along Reading's waterfront in the wintertime and look across the river, in the area above the Bingaman Street Bridge, you can see what remains of the island. It’s situated considerably lower than the By-Pass. The island is still there but hidden behind trees which nature supplies with each returning spring.