This railroad was chartered in 1833 to provide low-cost transportation from the Schuylkill and Mahanoy anthracite coal fields in eastern Pennsylvania to Philadelphia. The Main line from Philadelphia to Pottsville opened in 1842.
The Reading expanded by acquiring other railroads, and by 1869 had monopoly of coal traffic from Schuylkill anthracite region. Expansion accelerated when Franklin B. Gowen became president (1869) and attempted to dominate entire anthracite trade. The company purchased Schuylkill Canal (1870) to eliminate competition for coal trade; then organized the Philadelphia & Reading Coal & Iron Company in 1871 to purchase and operate coal mines. In doing so, the company secured over 40 percent of U.S. anthracite reserves, but the debt incurred led railroad to bankruptcy and receivership in 1880.
Gowen's reckless style drove the Reading into second receivership in 1886, and he was forced to resign. Gowen's Successor, Archibald A. McLeod, tried to increase company control over anthracite trade (1892-1893), then control of several New England railroads. The Reading went bankrupt again and McLeod was ousted.
In an 1896 reorganization, the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad and the Coal & Iron Company became properties of the Reading Company, a holding company. Later additions to system were infrequent and largely confined to short branches and improvements inalignment. Due to anti-trust proceedings, company divested mining subsidiary in 1923 and merged wholly owned railroad companies into an operating company.
The reading went bankrupt in early 1970s, and conveyed portions of its lines to Conrail in 1976.