Pennsylvania has a rich railroading history, and few railroads are quite as well known today as the Reading Railroad. In addition to being one of the largest and most influential railroads in the region, they are also widely known thanks to Monopoly which made the railroad a square in the game.
Wanting to learn more about the railroad’s history, I visited the Reading Railroad Heritage Museum in Hamburg. This spot had long been on my list of things to do in Berks County, so I was excited to finally have a chance to visit in the summer of 2021.
The Reading Railroad (produced “Redding”) started in 1833 as the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, one of the first railroads in the country. Its primary purpose was to haul coal from the anthracite coal mines in northeastern PA, starting in Pottsville, to Philadelphia.
Over time, the railway expanded to nearly 1,500 miles of track at its peak, and, in 1871, the Reading Railroad was the largest company in the world.
In addition to coal, the Reading Railroad also ran passenger trains, primarily in eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey. While their terminal in Philadelphia is no longer used for trains, the market below the train shed is still known today as the Reading Terminal Market.
The Reading Railroad ceased operations in 1976 and sold most of its operations to Conrail. Interestingly, the remaining assets eventually were sold to a private company that used them to finance movie theaters in the United States, New Zealand, and Australia (which still retain the name “Reading Cinemas” because of the railroad).
Today, only memories remain of the historic Reading Railroad, but the Reading Railroad Heritage Museum is doing its best to keep those memories alive.
The museum is located in Hamburg, Pennsylvania, near I-78 and just north of the city of Reading and is run by the Reading Company Technical & Historical Society.
While the building the museum is located in has no real connection to the railroad (it was a steel foundry), it offers a great place to show off their fantastic collection of Reading Railroad trains and memorabilia.
The museum consists of two large rooms as well as a railyard in the back.
The best place to start visits is with the museum’s 15-minute film, which does an excellent job covering the history and impact of the Reading Railroad. Watching this video first will give you a nice starting point for understanding the importance of the artifacts that you’ll see in the museum.
After the film is over, head into the museum’s display area. This space consists of one large room broken into several different sections.
Throughout the space, you’ll find many incredible artifacts from the Reading Railroad’s history, including both large and small pieces. These range from signs from railroad stations and hand tools to switching boards and many more amazing artifacts.
One especially interesting area is the recreated 1930s station agent’s office. This room really brings the history of the railroad to life and offers an interesting insight into the railroad’s past.
In the museum area, you’ll also find several model railroads that utilize replicas of Reading Railroad rolling stock. Whether you are traveling with a child or simply love trains, these model railroads are quite interesting to see.
While signage was a bit minimal in some areas, the displays were very well done and interesting to look at.
The final part of visits to the Reading Railroad Heritage Museum is the tour of the outside yard. These tours are held at various times throughout the day and, other than on special event days, are guided.
Tours last around 45 minutes and take visitors past many large pieces of Reading Railroad rolling stock (locomotives, passenger cars, hoppers, and cabooses). Most of these pieces are diesel locomotives used by the Reading Railroad during the second half of the 20th century, many of which have been donated by other railroads as they have been decommissioned.
Guides offer a wealth of knowledge about these engines, and I could definitely feel the passion for these trains as the tour went along.
This outside space contains dozens of interesting pieces of Reading Railroad history, though I was only allowed to climb aboard one during my visit: a historic Reading Railroad caboose.
Despite having seen the interior of historic cabooses before, guides do a great job telling all of the functions that it would be used for during a journey along the tracks.
While I would have liked to have seen more pieces from the early 20th century or even the 19th century on display at the museum, it was still great to be able to learn about the museum’s collection and how these pieces of rolling stock evolved over the years and impacted the railroad’s operation.
Overall, if you love trains, you’ll definitely want to plan a visit to the Reading Railroad Heritage Museum. And, while the collection is a bit wonky and will be of most interest to those that are really into trains, it’s still a neat spot for anyone that wants to learn more about the history of Pennsylvania.
So, the next time you find yourself in Reading, PA or traveling I-78 through Berks County, take a bit of time to stop at the Reading Railroad Heritage Museum.
Reading Railroad Heritage Museum
Hours: Saturdays: 10a-4p
Cost: Adults: $7, Kids: $3
Address: 500 South Third St