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Berks County

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The region that is now Berks County has a spatial order that parallels its shaping historical forces. The Schuylkill River follows a roughly northwest–southeast line through the county's center and the South and Blue mountains establish a northeast–southwest boundary. The Kittatinny Valley runs through the center and comprises most of the county. Reading, the county seat, was laid out in the strategic center where the valley and the river intersect. The region's geography determined the color of the early architecture. On the northwest, the Blue Mountain is a rim of brownstone that gives Hamburg's architecture its dark hue. Through the center is the limestone belt that unifies the buildings of the German settlements from Womelsdorf on the west to Oley Valley on the east. And to the southeast is another band of brownstone, a rich reddish-brown that established the hue of settlement-era buildings but continued in the Victorian era in industrial Birdsboro. These stones form the building materials of a valley where English and German styles merged before giving way to the influence and shared heritage of Philadelphia's architecture of the industrial age.

In the late 1730s William Penn's sons began to exploit their estates when they laid out a town on the banks of the Schuylkill. Berks County was carved out of Lancaster County in 1752. The proprietors recalled their English homeland both in the name of the county and in its county town, Reading. Welsh immigrants are memorialized in Caernarvon and Cumru, but the Welsh were quickly outnumbered by the tide of Germans who swept north and west of Reading and left such German place names as Hamburg and North and South Heidelberg as well as places named for early settlers—Kutz, Douglas, Shoemaker, and Oley. In its mix of settlers, Berks County is very much a Pennsylvania in miniature but with an obvious tilt toward the Germans who gave the county its strongest character. When WPA historians surveyed the county in the 1930s, the German presence was the centerpiece of their narrative.

Settlers initially came for the rich valley lands, but when coal was discovered just to the north, the county was quickly crossed by canals and then by railroads. William Penn had proposed linking Philadelphia with a second entrepôt on the Susquehanna by joining tributary streams—the Schuylkill's Tulpehocken with the Susquehanna's Swatara—but the change in altitude of nearly 400 feet and the difficulty of providing adequate water sources delayed the project for more than a century until tunnels were made a part of the system ( LE12). An easier canal route had connected Philadelphia with Reading along the Schuylkill River in 1824 and a year later reached Port Carbon, the western access point to the Southern Anthracite Field. Though the Schuylkill Navigation Company was conceived as an aid to the general economy, it was soon primarily carrying coal to Philadelphia and in turn creating secondary industrial concentrations along its route, the greatest of which was at Reading. By the 1830s, railroads had supplanted canals and Reading had become the operations center for the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad. The railroad's arrival in the coal districts of Schuylkill County just to the north coincided with the shift to the hot blast method of iron making that depended on hotter fuels, the best of which was anthracite coal. The combination of iron ore, anthracite coal, transportation, and a skilled workforce made eastern Pennsylvania's Schuylkill River valley an important center of the nation's iron industry before the Civil War. After the war, development of processes to convert bituminous coal into coke meant that much of the iron and steel industry moved to Pittsburgh. The Schuylkill iron manufacturers then shifted to specialty products that continued to employ vast numbers until after World War II.

Modern Berks County reads as a center of opposing forces, the gentle, steady character of thrifty German agriculture versus the harsh, peopledevouring but wealth-creating forces of industry. Nineteenth-century industrialization changed the hue and the directional axis of the region as industrial brick buildings spread along the Reading and Pennsylvania Railroad. The twentieth century has been shaped by new forces, the most important being the depopulation of many of the small towns, the rise of Latino populations in industrial centers, and the growth of new suburban villages near the interstate highways that connect to the wider region. The result is a county that no longer reads as a unified community and whose evolution was recorded in John Updike's Rabbittetrology novels.

For some, the decision to remain was rooted in cultural values. Alexis de Tocqueville's journal entry for November 21, 1831, on the Germans in Pennsylvania rings true today, “Not less than fifty years ago, colonies of Germans came to settle in Pennsylvania. They have kept intact the spirit and ways of their fatherland. Round them is all the agitation of a nomadic population, with whom the desire to get rich knows no limits, who are attached to no place, held back by no tie, but go off everywhere where the pursuit of fortune beckons. Immobile in the midst of this general movement, the German limits his desires to bettering his position and that of his family little by little.” The Scots-Irish, among them Berks County native Daniel Boone, were drawn by the lure of the frontier. He and his compatriots moved to the Appalachians then to the prairie and ultimately to the west, anticipating the route of James Fenimore Cooper's fictional westerner (1826). Others moved into the region lured by the promise of jobs, especially during World War II. As global forces have undercut industry, new populations have settled in Reading, bringing cultures quite unimagined in William Penn's age and without the work opportunities that built the city. This region above all others makes clear the split between the stability of German patterns, the consequences of the dynamics of Scots-Irish mobility, and the effects on those who are now economic prisoners of a changing economy.

Writing Credits

Author: 
George E. Thomas

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