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The William Penn Memorial Fire Tower: An Observation

by Corrie Crupi, Mount Penn Preserve Newsletter

Jul 01, 2019

When one thinks of the Mount Penn, or even the City of Reading, the first thing that comes to mind is the Pagoda.

But, overlooking the City of Reading, sits another one of Berks County’s renowned landmarks known as the William Penn Memorial Fire Tower. At the crest of Skyline Drive, it sits in the center of the Mount Penn Preserve. This 120-foot-tall, imposing stone fire tower, is a sentinel that stands silently telling a tale of history and wonder.

Originally, in 1888, an impressive but smaller tower was built on this exact site and was the main attraction of the Gravity Railroad system. A devastating fire in 1923 destroyed this once stunning tourist attraction.

Rising from those ashes, in 1939 the William Penn Tower was built in memory of our once vibrant mountain top. It was a Works Progress Administration project constructed on the same foundation and designated for forest fire observation and operation as a tourist attraction.

With the help of Pagoda-Skyline Inc., a non-profit group of volunteers, City of Reading, Lower Alsace Township, along with assistance from our state representatives and senator, the William Penn Memorial Fire Tower has been under major restoration efforts.

The ongoing nemesis is the moisture problem as the tower is unheated. Since it is perched on top of a mountain surrounded by forest, the tower experiences extreme wind, temperature, and humidity. Although the steel stairs were replaced by Pagoda-Skyline Inc. in 2000, these conditions are degrading and corroding the stairs. We continue to strive to upkeep the tower for the future.

When you visit the tower today there are numerous improvements that have been made including new fencing around the building giving off a stately appeal. A unique walkway shows an impression of William Penn holding the Pennsylvania Charter which is set in garden block.

As you enter the building, inlaid on the entry wall is the “shield of arms” of the William Penn family designed in colored Moravian tile. There are 168 steel stairs and two sets of spiral stairs that lead to a circular observation area that includes an outside deck. A dome roof finished in copper with turret-sized windows encased in bronze completes the tower. Enjoy breathtaking panoramic views of the City of Reading, the Schuylkill and Lebanon Valley and the distant peaks of the Blue Mountains that entice many locals and tourists from all over.

In 2017, a multi modal grant was filed by Lower Alsace Township on behalf of Alsace Township and the City of Reading to reconstruct Skyline Drive and provide safer biking and hiking facilities along this scenic route. The Mount Penn Preserve continues to work together to make the area a better and safer tourist attraction.

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