During the early 1700's various Indian tribes, such as the
Shawanese, Delaware and Nanticoke, settled in the fertile valley of Wilkes-Barre. In 1768,
a group of Yankees, led by Major John Durke, built Fort Durkee near Ross Street. They
named the area for John Wilkes and Iasaac Barre. Several battles took place in the
following years, but the Yankees were finally recognized as the owners of the land. By the
turn of the century, the area had a Newspaper, a post office, and court house.
|In the late 1800's and early 1900's, hundreds of
thousands of immigrants flocked to the region to work the anthracite
coal. This transformed the Wyoming Valley from an isolated farming area to a
metropolis. However, the costs of extracting the clean-burning coal from the deep mine
shafts were great in human and environmental terms. One out of every four mine workers was
a boy. Boys as young as 7 worked the breakers, sorting out rocks from the coal. "When
mining was at its peak in this area, almost every day the papers carried an account of
someone being killed...The most common injury was from fallen rock," said William
Breaker Boys sorting coal
Miners waiting underground to go up
Road to Riches
The success of coal brought a steady stream of entrepreneurs
who grew very rich and powerful. J. C. Atkins built the Wilkes-Barre Lace Manufacturing
Co., and Fred Kirby opened his first five-and-dime stores at 172 E. Market St. Men like
Charles Parrish and the Coxe brothers owned mines, powder mills, timber companies, and
railroads. In 1857, Charles Stegmaier began brewing beer on Hazle St, and he was turning
out over 200,000 barrels a year by 1916. Silk and garment mills became major employers for
mining woman with companies such as the Empire Silk Mill importing silk from Japan. Richard Jones, a mill worker, founded Vulcan Iron works on S. Main St in 1849, which grew to 1,600 employees, producing locomotives and iron products.
boats, and buses competed for shipping dominance, but railroads eventually won out.
However, Frank Martz opened what is now the very successful Martz Trailways bus line in 1908. The Boston Store
opened in 1879, and Pomeroys followed in 1927.
Decline of Anthracite
Typical Coal Breaker
|As the stock market crashed in 1929, the coal
industry struggled, but it never recovered after World War II. By the 1920's consumers
gradually switched from coal to oil, gas, and electricity. One by one, the collieries were
shutdown, and mine operators moved on to other enterprises, leaving the area with an
unemployment rate in excess of 12% after the war.
||Click for more photos of
Area Coal Breakers
|Many miners suffered slow but fatal lung diseases from the
coal dust they breathed, in addition to the violent deaths from mine accidents. However,
the final blow occurred in January of 1959. The swollen Susquehanna River pushed through
the roof of the Ewen Colliery River Slope section of the Knox Mine near Port Griffith.
Susquehanna River rushing into the mines
|Twelve miners died, but thousands more lost their jobs as
the entire network of underground mines flooded and forced the end of deep mining in the
area. "To close the huge hole in the river bed through which millions of gallons of
water poured, the tracks of the Lehigh Valley Railroad were diverted and 30 railroad
gondola cars and 400 mine cars were pushed into the brink," wrote Donald Miller and
Richard Sharpless in the "Kingdom of Coal."
Trying to fill the hole
The Agnes Flood
|Unfortunately, this was not the only major disaster to hit
the area. On June 23, 1972, tropical storm Agnes swept through the area. In her wake, she
left 18 inches of rain, 6 people dead, 25,000 homes nearly destroyed, and $1 billion in
damages. The river rose to 40.9 feet, 18.9 feet above flood stage, and 4 feet above the
levees that were built after the flood of 1936, which crested at 33 feet. Although 2,278
businesses in Wilkes-Barre were damaged by the 9 feet of water that flooded the square,
downtown Wilkes-Barre has been totally revitalized by the new businesses and buildings
that have sprung up after the tragedy.
Market St, Wilkes-Barre