Not long ago, the two of us decided on the spur of the moment to spend a few days in Reading, Pennsylvania, before heading to our original objective of Valley Forge. When we made this decision, however, we never realized how closely tied both these sites are in our nation’s history and how much they both offer as a dual destination. Actually, we were amazed at what we learned – particularly the sites that Reading, by itself, has to offer.
Just a few examples:
For you Monopoly devotees, yes, Reading, Pennsylvania, is the home of the Reading Railroad. Both the town and the railroad, by the way, are pronounced Red-ing, not Reed-ing. One of the creators of the game, by the way, was from this city.
If you make the trip, consider visiting the Reading Railroad Heritage Museum located in Hamburg, Pennsylvania, 18 miles north of the county seat. The railroad was once the largest corporation in the world, and the cars are still humming down the tracks. However, the system no longer carries passengers, only freight. Nevertheless, most Monopoly players would say the utility is still a valuable buy on the popular game board.
The city of Reading, population 80,000, has what seems like unlimited museums, with many items and displays dating before the Revolutionary War. We particularly enjoyed the Reading Public Museum and also the Berks County Heritage Center in nearby Wyomissing where you can see how hay and box wagons were built by Franklin Gruber and his five sons during the peak years of the company from 1910 to 1920.
Now, as to Reading’s critically important connection with America’s war for Independence with its location just 34 miles Northwest of Valley Forge:
Reading played a major role as a vital supply depot, mainly because it is situated in the strategic Schuylkill River Valley. Additionally, the city, itself, sits smack in the middle of some of the richest farmland in the country—key to supplying the beleaguered Patriot troops with food and other commodities. General George Washington determined that he would do his utmost to prevent this key city and its surroundings from falling into the hands of the British. Another reason was that he did not want to have the British disrupt the flow of flour and other Patriot goods into Philadelphia during those times when the city was controlled by Patriot forces.
Yet another major historical factor you can experience for yourself, as we did, is the Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site located 15 miles Southeast of Reading. We agree, this is a rather unlikely-sounding name for a National Historic Site, but the park is now deemed one of the key players in the American Revolution.
Operating from 1771 to 1883, the surrounding area was chosen because the site provided the essentials for a furnace of this kind — an abundance of fast moving water, limestone, hardwood trees, and iron ore. For today’s visitors, there is the added enjoyment of driving to the park through miles and miles of dense and lovely overhanging hardwood forest trees, known as Hopewell Big Woods – the largest contiguous forest in Southeastern Pennsylvania.
It is at Hopewell – one of many early American “iron plantations” — that Mark Bird, an early entrepreneur, produced well over a hundred iron cannons for Washington’s faltering Navy. One cannon could be produced in a 12-hour shift, and Bird oversaw the patriotic production of these weapons. Unfortunately, in so doing, he went bankrupt because he never received full payment from the fledgling government. Hopewell is now also on the Civil War Trail as well, and admission to the site is free.
During the summer months, the museum offers an informative video, as well as demonstrations by living history workers (park rangers and volunteers in real life) who show the fascinating, interactive process of iron making as it was done in early America. The furnaces, like Hopewell, produced cannon, shot, pig iron, and domestic products, such as cast iron stoves. On the other hand, the forges, like Valley Forge refined pig iron further to make wrought iron that could be used by blacksmiths to produce horseshoes, nails, tools, weapons, and other equipment.
Meanwhile, the poignant site of Valley Forge National Park offers much to the traveler wishing to learn more of our nation’s history and its critical connection with nearby Reading.
To start off, the beautiful Visitors Center provides a short introductory film outlining much of what occurred here. Then there are narrated, 90-minute trolley tours that stop periodically, allowing participants to see sites along the way, including a display of several life-size huts like the ones that once housed 8-10 troops and the more spacious ones built for the officers.
Another trolley stop features living history soldiers explaining and demonstrating the kind of guns used during the war as they fire several volleys on command.
There’s also a stop at the early American home of Isaac Potts, a home that Washington once used as his headquarters. Much inside the home are reproductions, of course, but the oak railing to the second floor is still the same one used by George and Martha Washington and their many guests.
Trolley tours run daily mid-June through Labor Day ($16 for adults/$13 for seniors) and weekends only during early fall and late spring. Bike rentals are also available during the same time period ($10/hr or $20/day). Helmet and park map are included in the price. For specific schedule information, call 610-783-1099.
Valley Forge also offers extensive walking tours, as well as a gift shop and an education center to acquaint the million or more visitors yearly with this historically significant campground – one that played such an important role in splitting the original 13 colonies from their Mother England.
General Washington wisely placed himself and his troops on the higher ground of Valley Forge to prevent the British from moving north and west from Philadelphia to Reading, with its critically important military hospital, as well as numerous nearby iron works, including furnaces at Joanna, Oley, Warwick, and particularly Hopewell.
Sadly, while under Washington’s command, over 2,000 soldiers died at Valley Forge, but not one from a rifle shot. Instead, the tragic deaths occurred from typhoid, typhus, dysentery and a devastating flu. The site, therefore, evokes a sense of gratitude for all that was endured during the cold, cold encampment of 1777-78.
For anyone interested in the interweaving of history and geography between Valley Forge and its highly significant neighbor, Reading, Pennsylvania, this dual destination is one that’s exceptionally well worth experiencing. A third nearby National park, of course, is Independence Hall in Philadelphia where the Liberty Bell sounded for a dynamic, new nation. All three parks are connected by the Schuylkill River.
Reading, meanwhile, also boasts the beautiful, flagstone birthplace and early rural home of pioneer frontiersman Daniel Boone, located nearby in the town of Birdsboro. At a young age, Boone was said to have been the best shot in America prior to leaving Pennsylvania for pioneer lands in Kentucky.
Two great eateries in the outlying areas of Reading are the Grille at Bear Creek Restaurant at the Bear Creek Spa and Ski Resort in Macungie, PA, and also the quaint, Old Yellow House Restaurant & B&B located 20 miles southeast of the city. Both are must-visit eateries and are par excellence.
As to accommodations, we recommend the Country Inn & Suites in Wyomissing just outside Reading and also the Comfort Inn Valley Forge at King of Prussia, convenient to the National Park. Both have exceptionally friendly staffs and are comfortable, well-appointed and nearby, of course, the major historic sites.