Reading Terminal Market Stands the Test of Time

April 14, 2020 | by Edward W. Duffy

Reading Terminal at 12th and Market Streets circa 1980s. | Image courtesy of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia

The 1889 decision of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad to construct Reading Terminal came less than a decade after the company’s emergence from bankruptcy. It was a bold statement of confidence in management’s reorganization plan. The company also announced its belief that the Reading would be the equal of arch rival Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) within the foreseeable future. Its choice of a site directly fronting onto Market Street occupied by indoor food markets would have long-term consequences on Philadelphia’s food distribution and the city’s quality of life. There was also a detectable degree of management’s edifice envy over the PRR’s recently opened Broad Street Station.

Philadelphia was growing rapidly through the 19th century, its population expanding from 81,000 in 1800 to almost 1.3 million in 1900. Beginning with just 80 families counted in 1683, when William Penn returned to Philadelphia in 1699 the population had blossomed to roughly 4,500 living in 700 houses. In 1720, City Council resolved to erect a proper brick market on High Street and, anticipating 21st century sensitivities, decreed that “No person shall be suffered to Smoak Tobacco in the Market House or any of the Stalls.”

Reading Railroad’s 9th and Green passenger station, the predecessor of Reading Terminal. | Image courtesy of Print and Picture Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia

With the city’s population growth, a race ensued to provide its citizens with sufficient food shopping opportunities. In 1745, residents of the southern part of the city petitioned to have a market house on 2nd Street from Pine to Cedar (South) Streets. This was followed by a market on North 2nd Street in Northern Liberties extending from Hickory Lane (Fairmount Avenue) to Poplar Lane, a mirror image of the South 2nd Street market. High Street remained the favorite market and open air food stalls grew along it from the Delaware River docks westward, extending all the way to 17th Street by 1859. By then, everyone knew High Street as Market Street so in 1853 its name was changed. Market Street’s popularity as a shopping destination was now put in conflict with Philadelphia’s fledgling railroad industry.

The Main Line of Public Works, constructed by a predecessor of PennDOT, was a mixed railroad-canal system extending from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh that opened on Christmas Day in 1833. It crossed the Schuylkill River on the Columbia Bridge near Peter’s Island and terminated on Broad Street which was then the rural outskirts of the city. From its terminus near Vine Street, the Main Line turned over its passenger and freight cars to a municipal railroad, horse-drawn because the city feared fires and collisions caused by locomotives. This Broad Street railroad connected the Main Line with another railroad entering Philadelphia from the south, the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore with a terminus at Broad and Washington Avenues. Its freight shed still exists at 15th and Carpenter Streets and was renovated in 2018 for Arizona-based grocery store chain Sprouts Farmers Market. Meanwhile, two private companies built railroads extending from Broad Street to the Delaware River, one running on Washington Avenue in Southwark Township and the other in the beds of Willow and Noble Streets in Northern Liberties and Penn Township. Together these three railroads circumscribed the center of Philadelphia in the 1830s.

This was not good enough for the city’s port and merchant interests clustered much closer to Market Street below 8th Street, which successfully petitioned in 1837 for the municipal railroad to extend a branch down High Street to 3rd Street and from 3rd Street south to Dock Street.

The Spring Garden Farmer’s Market at 1026 Spring Garden Street opened in 1889. In recent decades it was used by the restaurant chain Spaghetti Warehouse. It is now home to the live music venue Union Transfer. | Photo: Ed Duffy

The Pennsylvania Railroad, opening for business in 1849 to create an all-rail improvement over the Main Line, used a Main Line branch to the bridge at 30th and Market Streets to access the downtown area, and the horse-drawn municipal railroad extended its Market Street line to the bridge to interchange cars with it. The PRR puzzled over how to serve Philadelphia, trying out several stations along Market Street with a station first at 8th Street, then a passenger station at 11th Street in the Bingham House Hotel, and a freight depot at 13th Street. This depot later became Wanamaker’s Department Store. The PRR bought and then sold sites along the north side of Market Street and acquired and sold the indoor Franklin Market near the Bingham House depot. The railroad company’s various improvements to the Main Line had allowed it to use newer and larger railcars, but when its clearance improvements were completed to Philadelphia the sides of these cars collided with the merchant stalls along Market Street. Getting rail cars to Dock Street, where the PRR had leased a pier for its export cargo, would mean that the Market Street stalls would have to go.

In 1852, a chorus of complaints arose against the Market Street stalls as unsanitary and a nuisance, with demands that all outdoor markets be removed from the beds of all public streets. Private interests, primarily farmers, attempted to create the necessary indoor markets with mixed results. Four were successful: the East Market, where the Philadelphia Bourse is now, and the West Market, the future site of the PRR’s Broad Street Station. The other two–the rail-served Farmers Market on Market Street east of 12th Street and the adjacent Franklin Market on 12th Street–occupied the sites coveted by the Reading for its terminal.

Drawings of the Keene Mansion, Franklin Market, and the Farmers’ Market on Market Street, 1922. | Image courtesy of The Library Company of Philadelphia

Ironically, the PRR had sold the Farmers’ Market its site in 1860. The PRR had acquired the Franklin Market with its 2nd floor statue of Benjamin Franklin greeting visitors from an alcove over its entrance. This market was located on a site along 10th Street opposite of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. The PRR’s plans for it were to expand its adjacent Bingham House station, but the railroad company changed its mind and built a passenger station in 1864 at 31st and Market Street, the forerunner of today’s 30th Street Station. In 1869, the PRR then sold their vacant Franklin Market building to the Mercantile Library on 5th Street at Independence Square, but not before first selling its marble statue of Benjamin Franklin, sculpted by Joseph A. Bailly, to the Philadelphia Public Ledger. The newspaper company installed the Franklin statue facing northeastward from the corner of 6th and Chestnut Streets after the Public Ledger built its headquarters there in 1867. In 1924, the newspaper’s new owners, the Curtis family, finally brought Franklin indoors where he presides over the Public Ledger Building’s 6th Street lobby. The private Mercantile Library used their Franklin Market building as an annex. A charming account of a visit to this annex was written by Christopher Morley in his 1919 book Travels in Philadelphia. He noted the old market’s cavernous basement used before refrigeration to keep produce fresh. The old market was finally demolished in 1952 as the site for a parking garage and a new Mercantile Library was built around the corner on Chestnut Street.

Photograph of Reading Terminal in 1912. | Image courtesy of Print and Picture Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia

After the PRR acquired its site, the Franklin Market relocated along 12th Street adjacent to the Farmers Market and thus it was also known as the 12th Street Market Company. This was the situation confronting the Reading’s chief operating officer Archibald MacLeod, who would have to acquire both the Franklin and Farmers Market sites for his terminal. MacLeod at first threatened to use the railroad’s power of condemnation, but the market owners defied him, and he knew that it would be bad publicity to close two food markets that so many depended upon. The merchants then threatened to sue the Reading. After considerable negotiations, an agreement would be reached with the Reading to pay the merchants $1 million for their sites, build them a new market beneath the Reading Terminal’s train shed, and keep the markets functioning during construction. Better yet, the new 78,000 square foot market would have a 500,000 cubic feet of refrigerated space beneath the market.

Reading Terminal Trainshed, looking north, in 1920s. | Image courtesy of Hagley Museum & Library

The PRR tried to raise trouble, but the negotiated agreement meant that the Reading would not only build a beautiful new station, but would also separate the grade of its approach traffic from 9th Street, too sweet a deal for the mayor and City Council to pass up. On April 17, 1888 a meeting of citizens was held at the City’s Board of Trade, forerunner of the Chamber of Commerce, to protest the track elevation. But on April 19 the ordinance authorizing the terminal to proceed was introduced into Select Council. After its approval the City issued the required construction permits on August 1, 1891. That was lightening speed even by current standards.

Reading Terminal’s construction was sequential, with “swing space” planned for the markets to continue to operate in the Market Street frontage, that is, the original Farmers Market, while the Franklin Market was demolished and the 13-track terminal train shed, designed by Wilson Brothers & Company, was constructed. After the shed and the market beneath it were completed, the merchants moved into the new market. The Reading demolished the Market Street facade and erected its headhouse headquarters office building, designed by Francis H. Kimball with eight floors of salmon-pink brick and cream terra-cotta in Italian Renaissance style crowned with a balustrade. This replaced the railroad company’s general offices on 4th Street. The first train departed from the new shed in January 1893 and not a moment too soon as the Reading again relapsed into bankruptcy in February. The city was the singularly fortunate beneficiary of this major investment of Reading funds in such a magnificent terminal and market during its brief window of solvency and independence.

Ridge Avenue Farmers’ Market at 1810 Ridge Avenue was built in 1875, placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, and demolished in 1997. | Photo courtesy of Vincent Feldman

The City’s decision to close open air food markets in public street beds had far-reaching repercussions beyond Market Street. Enclosed markets were built all around Philadelphia, like the beautiful Spring Garden Street Market near 10th Street, opened in February 1890 and now occupied Union Transfer, a live entertainment venue, the rail-served Girard Avenue Farmers’ Market at 9th Street, opened in December 1885 and demolished in the 1960s, and the Ridge Avenue Farmers’ Market designed by Frank Furness contemporary Davis Supplee, which opened in December 1875 and was demolished in 1997. Reading Terminal Market is the only survivor of that era that still operates daily. The corporate supermarket industry, originating in the 1920s, replaced these farmers’ markets.

Ask any Philadelphians to name their favorite indoor public spaces in the city and Reading Terminal Market is sure to get some votes. Any mention of supermarkets? Not likely.


About the Author

Edward W. Duffy is the author of "Philadelphia: A Railroad History" (Camino Books, 2013) and "Philadelphia Celebrates: Three Great Anniversaries - 1876-1926-1976" (Camino Books, 2017).


  1. James Hill says:

    What a wonderful and informative piece. How nice to see Christopher Morley and the old Mercantile Library remembered.

    There seems to be tendency nowadays — almost a trend — to write ‘Peter’s Island’ as if there were some fellow called Peter who once owned it. Surely, as it was a part of the Peters family’s Belmont estate, ‘Peters’ Island’ would be more appropriate.

    1. Edward W. Duffy says:

      ‘Peter’s Island’ is how Christopher Morley spelled it in 1919 in his ‘Up the Wissahickon’ story in his book ‘Travels in Philadelphia.’

  2. Aidan says:

    What a great history! I think this story would be well accompanied by a map showing all the buildings and railroads mentioned. Thank you.

  3. Paul Steinke says:

    What an excellent, detailed overview of the history of public markets in Philadelphia, and Reading Terminal Market in particular. One interesting footnote is the parallel between the recent experience during the building of the Pennsylvania Convention Center in the early 1990s, and the construction of the Reading Terminal in the 1890s. In both instances, market merchants resisted early efforts to close them down for construction, managing to extract concessions that enabled them to stay open throughout the construction process. In each case, 100 years apart, the merchants were able to successfully advocate for themselves because of a broader public perception that the merchants provided an essential public service and needed to remain open. Here we are again, in 2020, with many RTM merchants open during the pandemic crisis , and providing an essential public service.

    1. Edward W. Duffy says:

      Great insight, Paul! Thank you, Ed

  4. Matt says:

    Like an above reader mentioned a map with locations and dates would be helpful as I had google maps open on another tab throughout the article to keep track of where everything was located. I also had difficulty tracking the location of Franklin Market throughout time.

    1. Edward W. Duffy says:

      You can trace the evolution of Market Street’s railroad terminals and farmers’ markets by looking at the Philadelphia Atlases on http://www.philageohistory.org/tiles/viewer/

      Focus on the area between Centre Square (City Hall’s location) and 9th Street and between Filbert and Chestnut Streets on the 1862, 1875 and 1895 Atlases.

  5. Barry Shore says:

    Is it true that a locomotive fell through the floor of the building and is still buried there?

  6. RJ MacBride says:

    Our Mother use to sell Railroad tickets at the Philadelphia Reading Terminal during World War II. We would love to find images of the interior where the ticket windows were.
    Do you have an idea of where we could look for images like this?

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