Seeing Wilkes-Barre Up-Close—And Through New Eyes
Dec 09, 2016 08:13PM
By Melanie Heisinger
I’ve driven by Wilkes-Barre on I-81, and viewed the town as
a nondescript, unremarkable macrocosm. An overnight visit gave me a chance to
see the town up close and personal, and left me with a deeper appreciation of
its cultural, historical and architectural allures.
Story and photographs by Dave S. Zuchowski
After arriving in Wilkes-Barre, I set as my goal four of the area’s most historic structures, representatives of the town’s colonial era and, later, the height of its industrial age.
Some of the first Caucasians to arrive in the area were from Connecticut (King Charles of England granted some of the same land in what is now northeastern Pennsylvania to both Connecticut and William Penn). Starting in 1769, armed bands of Pennsylvania Pennites tried to evict, forcibly, the Connecticut Yankees.
The skirmishes halted during the American Revolution but resumed until 1782 when Congress, under the Articles of Confederation, ruled in favor of the Pennsylvania claim.
During the Revolution, the British and Indian allies attacked local residents who grouped to defend the area. On July 3, 1778, they were defeated in what is now known as the Battle of Wyoming, resulting in more than 300 American dead.
Following the American surrender, the British commander, Col. John Butler, paroled the rebellious combatants. The British Indian allies, however, took a different approach and are reported to have committed atrocities against the Americans. The subsequent massacre was immortalized in a poem by Thomas Campbell titled “Gertrude of Wyoming.”
According to Jan Lokuta, a Wilkes-Barre history buff whose family has lived in Northeastern Pennsylvania since the 1880s, the poem became a rallying call for the American effort, much like the Alamo and Pearl Harbor.
Sights to see
Speculation has it that the popularity of the poem led to the naming of the territory and state of Wyoming after the Pennsylvania valley. Today, a tall, majestic obelisk resting on a stone pediment in the nearby borough of Wyoming commemorates the battle and subsequent massacre. The monument holds the remains of some of those killed during and after the battle, and a commemorative ceremony is held there each July.
The terms of the surrender were signed by Col. Nathan Denison, second in command of the American forces during the battle. Originally from Connecticut, Denison and 39 others moved to the Wyoming Valley in 1769 and erected a small fort on the banks of the Susquehanna (hence, Forty Fort, named after the number of settlers). Denison’s house, a 2-1/2 story frame building with the central chimney typical of Connecticut houses of the colonial era with fireplaces on three sides, was built around 1790 and is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
Guided tours of the house are offered from 1 to 4 p.m. on Sundays, through September 30, by docents of the Luzerne County Historical Society. The paneling and flooring are original as is the bee hive oven in the kitchen, and the current furnishings reflect the conservative tastes of its original owner. Phone (570) 823-6244, ext.3.
A nearby historic house shows the area’s transition from an agrarian society to an industrial one. Construction of the Swetland Homestead began in 1803 as a one-story log cabin by Luke Swetland, one of the original 40 Connecticut settlers, and through the years family members continued to add on to the structure as they grew more prosperous. Also on the National Register of Historic Places, the L-shaped, 2-1/2 story house and its period rooms span a 70-year period that extends from an early summer kitchen to an 1860s Victorian parlor.
Tours of the house are offered by the Luzerne County Historical Society by appointment only, and special events take place throughout the year, including a Candlelight Christmas tour in early December. This year, the event takes place December 4-6. Phone (570) 623-6244, ext. 3.
Swetland helped build the 1806-08 Forty Fort Meeting House, the oldest house of religious significance in Northwestern Pennsylvania. Shared by Connecticut Congregationalists (who later became Presbyterians) and Methodists, who held services on alternate Sundays, the building was abandoned in 1837. After the two congregations grew in number, they eventually moved on and built their own separate churches.
Prior to the Civil War, Luke Swetland took steps to preserve the two-story, white clapboard meeting house, a goal the Forty Fort Cemetery Association later assumed in 1869. Still almost pristinely original, the meeting house is used for occasional weddings, funerals and special events such as concerts. Phone (570) 287-5214 or visit fortyfortmeetinghouse.org.
“The Denison and Swetland Houses and the Forty Fort Meeting House represent the founding history of the Wyoming Valley and are relics of the history and culture of the Connecticut Yankees who put their stamp on Northeastern Pennsylvania,” Lokuta said.
The story continues
A reflection of the second important era of Wilkes-Barre history, the Frederick Stegmaier Mansion heralds the height of the industrial era, which started with the discovery of anthracite coal in the 19th century and prompted the immigration of hundreds of thousands of Eastern and Southern Europeans into the region.
Built in 1870, the mansion is an example of High Victorian exuberance with its many opulently furnished rooms. Now part of the River Street Historic District, the mansion is surrounded by the stately homes of others who made their fortunes in mercantile and coal between 1860 and 1930.
Beer brewer Frederick Stegmaier purchased the mansion for his family in 1906, and it remained in the family until the late 1940s. In 2001, Joseph Matteo bought the property and began restoring it to its former splendor to serve as a bed and breakfast. “The vision I had for the mansion was to achieve the [original] look and feel—as if the Stegmaiers could walk through the door at any moment,” Matteo said. Phone (570) 823-9372 or visit stegmaiermansion.com.
I made my way to the mansion across the Susquehanna from Forty Fort via the gorgeous Market Street Bridge, an elegant structure of which even Paris would be proud. On the downtown side of the Susquehanna, I drove along the river past many beautiful homes and buildings, many of which are located on the campus of Wilkes University.
Richly furnished with period furniture, elegant paintings and works of art, the mansion shares the spotlight with other River Street Historic District buildings, including St. Stephen’s Episcopal Pro-Cathedral, the First Presbyterian Church, Temple Ohav Zedek, the YMCA, the Osterhout Library, St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, the Penn Bank Building and St. Nicholas Roman Catholic Church.
For those with an interest in history and architecture, Wilkes-Barre is destination worthy of consideration.