The history of the WK&S goes back to 1870 when a charter was granted for the construction of a new railroad, the Berks County Railroad (BCR). The BCR was about 44 miles long and connected at its south end with the Wilmington & Reading Railroad (W&R) in Reading, Pennsylvania. At its north end, the BCR connected to the Lehigh Valley Railroad (LVR) in Slatington, Pennsylvania.
The BCR was completed by 1874, but the company went bust before it really even got started. The company's founders envisioned trains of Pennsylvania anthracite coal flowing from the LVR to the port of Wilmington, Delaware by way of the W&R. Thus the BCR would compete with the mighty Philadelphia & Reading Railroad (P&R). Legend has it that the P&R bullied the LVR into not doing business with the BCR. Without its LVR partner, the BCR basically had no trains to run.
In 1874 the bankrupt BCR fell to its arch competitor the P&R. Eventually the line became known as the Schuylkill & Lehigh (S&L) branch of the P&R. The line provided a connection between the Schuylkill river valley and Lehigh river valley, hence the name.
The S&L, nicknamed the "Slow and Lonesome", lived an uneventful sleepy country railroad life except for a brief period during the early 1890's. In a daring take over move the P&R gained control of several railroads in a push north to New England. The S&L served as the P&R's springboard north. But the venture was a disaster and lead to a P&R bankruptcy. Following reorganization, the P&R shrank to its former size and the S&L was once again the "Slow and Lonesome".
The S&L was a boom to the local communities it served. But these were small agricultural communities. There were no large cities or industries along the line. Once the automobile and truck took hold, like most branch lines, the S&L began fading from existence.
By 1962 the P&R (now called the Reading Company) operated the S&L only as far north as Kempton. At this point the newly formed WK&S purchased the 3 miles of track from Kempton north to Wanamaker. The WK&S also acquired another 1.2 miles south from Kempton (hence the name Wanamaker, Kempton & Southern). By 1972 the Reading Company began scrapping track and the 4.2 mile WK&S became landlocked. Most of the WK&S's locomotives and rolling stock arrived before the tracks came up, but now everything must come and go by truck.
Aside from the WK&S, a few bits and pieces of the old S&L still exist. From Reading the line remains to a point a few miles north to Evansville where a cement plant still requires rail service. In 1900 the P&R created the Reading Belt Line as a bypass around downtown Reading. Portions of the S&L right of way would eventually be incorporated into this bypass which now serves as a hub connecting Norfolk Southern freight trains between the cities of Allentown, Harrisburg and Philadelphia.
One of my favorite aspects of the WK&S is its authenticity. Instead of focusing on its own identity, the railroad pays tribute to its Reading Company roots. The WK&S is located on a former Reading Company branch line. All WK&S stations are former Reading Company stations painted in their former Reading Company colors. All WK&S rolling stock is painted and lettered based on its heritage and most of that rolling stock is from the Reading. Except for the modern automobiles in the parking lot and the modern dress of the passengers, one feels transported back in time to the first half of the twentieth century on the Reading Railroad.
By the way, "Reading" as in the Reading Company or the city of Reading is pronounced "redding", not "reeding".