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The Philadelphia & Reading Railroad (P&R) was one of the first railroads constructed in the United States, chartered in 1833. It opened in 1842 from Philadelphia along the Schuylkill River through Reading and Pottsville, Pennsylvania, having the distinction of being the first double track main line in the country. The purpose of the railroad was to carry anthracite from the mines in northeastern Pennsylvania's coal region to Philadelphia. Like many Eastern U.S. railroads, growth occurred by acquiring and leasing other roads. The P&R assisted construction of the Lebanon Valley Railroad from Reading to Harrisburg; in 1858 the Lebanon Valley was merged into the P&R. By 1869 the P&R had acquired the East Pennsylvania Railroad between Reading and Allentown, and in 1870 the P&R leased the Philadelphia, Germantown & Norristown Railroad (PG&N), which had built between 1831 and 1835 from Philadelphia to Germantown and along the east bank of the Schuylkill to Norristown.
The P&R's Philadelphia terminus was located at the state-owned Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad (P&C) on the west side of the Schuylkill, from which it ran east on the P&C over the Columbia Bridge and onto the city-owned City Railroad to a depot at the southeast corner of Broad and Cherry Streets.
An extension northwest from Reading to Mount Carbon opened in January 1842, allowing the railroad to compete with the Schuylkill Canal. At Mount Carbon, it connected with the earlier Mount Carbon Railroad, continuing through Pottsville to several mines, and would be extended to Williamsport. On May 17 of that year, a freight branch from West Falls to Port Richmond on the Delaware River north of downtown Philadelphia opened. In January 1851, the Belmont Plane on the P&C was abandoned in favor of a new bypass, and the portion of the line east of it was sold to the P&R, the only company that continued using the old route. In 1859 the P&R leased the Chester Valley Railroad, providing a branch from Bridgeport west to Downingtown, Pennsylvania. It had formerly been operated by the PG&N.
In 1869 Franklin B. Gowen became president of the P&R and began buying coal lands for the railroad. The P&R constructed Port Richmond in Philadelphia to load coal into ships and barges for export. This increased the potential market for anthracite and was key to the P&R's success. Port Richmond was the self-proclaimed "largest privately owned railroad tidewater terminal in the world." The heavy investment in coal paid off quickly. By 1871, the P&R was the largest company in the world, with $170 million gross.
P&R continued their growth at a breakneck pace. The Port Kennedy Railroad, a short branch to quarries at Port Kennedy, was leased in 1870. Also that year, the P&R leased the Pickering Valley Railroad, a branch running west from Phoenixville to Byers, Pennsylvania. P&R then established the Philadelphia & Reading Coal & Iron Company, which acquired approximately 30 percent of the anthracite land in Pennsylvania but the cost of the land put the railroad into receivership in 1880. During Gowen's administration the P&R acquired the North Pennsylvania Railroad, which ran from Philadelphia to Bethlehem (gaining access to the burgeoning steel industry in the Lehigh Valley) and Yardley, and built the Delaware & Bound Brook Railroad from Yardley to a connection with the Central Railroad of New Jersey (CNJ) at Bound Brook, New Jersey. Between 1880 and 1890 the P&R reached out to Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, with a line that would eventually carry much of the railroad's bridge traffic, and extended a line from Bound Brook to a new port, Port Reading, on the New Jersey shore of the Arthur Kill, the body of water which separates Staten Island from the mainland.
On its second attempt the railroad emerged from receivership, and Archibald A. McLeod became president on 1890. The P&R leased the CNJ (P&R had previously leased the CNJ between 1883 and 1887) and the Lehigh Valley Railroad (LV); the three railroads transported more than half of the country's mined coal at the time. The RDG supplemented its coal traffic with overhead traffic between the Western Maryland Railway at Shippensburg and connections at Allentown for New York and New England. To get a better grip on the New England coal market, the P&R acquired control of the Poughkeepsie Bridge route, the Boston & Maine, and the New York & New England. The P&R was reaching out for the Old Colony when it collapsed once again into receivership.
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