History of Luzerne County

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The Wyoming Valley

When white men first arrived in America from Europe, no more than 20,000 Native Americans lived in all of Pennsylvania, and by the time William Penn arrived in Philadelphia in the last years of the 17th century, only a small population of Iroquois was living here in the Wyoming Valley.  In fact, because they felt they did not have sufficient numbers to properly settle this beautiful valley, the Iroquois had given permission to several other tribes, including the Delaware, to settle along the banks of the Susquehanna River.  This splendid part of Northeastern Pennsylvania is called the Wyoming Valley because the Delaware referred to the Great Plains on both sides of the river as “Maugh-wau-wa-me,” which the early English settlers, somehow, translated into Wyoming.

Penn’s Grant
To understand the numerous conflicts involving the  settlement of the Wyoming Valley, it helps to understand the famous grant that gave William Penn the right to own and administer Pennsylvania. In 1681, in settlement of a large debt owed to Penn’s late father, Admiral Penn, the Duke of York arranged for King Charles II to grant to William Penn a charter for a huge area of land west of the Delaware  River; land the English King called Pennsylvania (Penn’s Woods) – roughly 350 miles by 160 miles.

Penn spent relatively little time in Pennsylvania, and all of that time creating Philadelphia, establishing a colonial government for Pennsylvania, and distributing parcels of land (called Manors) to family and friends. Although William Penn never traveled more than forty miles from the center of Philadelphia his authority over all of the lands given to him under the grant was dominant – or so Penn and his family believed.

As the population of Pennsylvania expanded west and northwest from Philadelphia, it is likely that few, if any, of the settlers that were buying land from William Penn ever ventured up the Susquehanna into the Wyoming Valley. Although immigrants came into Philadelphia by the thousands in the last two decades of the 17th century and into the early decades of the 18th century, the northeastern part of Pennsylvania was remote and entirely too mountainous. This gloriously beautiful Wyoming Valley was unheard of and undreamed of by Penn’s settlers for perhaps as long as half a century.

Conflicting Grants
Although Penn’s family was not aware of it, the Wyoming Valley, clearly in the area contained in Penn’s grant, was also claimed by Connecticut by right of the charter given to Governor John Winthrop Jr. in 1662. Connecticut’s charter stated that lands from sea-to-sea were all part of Connecticut.  Because the King knew little about his colonies, and nothing at all about geography, Connecticut and Pennsylvania claimed the same territory in what is now Northeastern Pennsylvania. More than a decade before the war with England began; Connecticut adventurers began to explore the Wyoming Valley.

This beautiful river valley, from three to six miles wide and with many thousands of acres of relatively flat, fertile farm land, stretching for as many as twenty-five miles between two splendid mountain ranges, was an Eden for the native tribes that occupied the valley, and a splendid “new home” for the settlers from Connecticut.

Because of rapid settlement into Connecticut, and with farm land at a severe premium, settlers and opportunists in Connecticut began to look westward for available lands. Although the logical step for westward expansion for the Connecticut colonists was into New York, New Yorkers quickly said no to that prospective invasion. So, in 1753, private individuals in Connecticut, organized as the Susquehannah Company, persuaded the Connecticut government to support efforts to settle the northern third of the land constituting the colony of Pennsylvania.

The Susquehannah Company had two significant obstacles to overcome:  The Iroquois and Penn’s strong claim upon the land.  Nonetheless, the company began to make plans to move settlers over the mountains and rivers and to begin to settle along the banks of the North Branch of the Susquehanna River. Their first tentative settlement was established in 1762, near what is now Wilkes-Barre General Hospital.

These first intrepid Connecticut Yankees, perhaps one hundred strong, built a small village and waited to see what would happen. Since the British, the Indians, and Philadelphia had all warned the Connecticut Yankees against this settlement, things quickly became interesting. The Yankees headed back to Connecticut for the winter of 1762-63, but returned in the spring.  Several months after the Yankees returned in the spring of 1763, Chief Teedyuscung (the principal chief of the Delaware), was killed in a suspicious fire at his log house. In the fall of that year, the chief’s son retaliated, killing twenty settlers. That massacre persuaded the rest of the Yankees to return to Connecticut.

The First Yankee-Pennamite War
The Yankees stayed put in Connecticut for five years. In late winter of 1769, shortly after a militia sent by the Penn family (known as Pennamites) arrived to maintain the trading post established by Captain Amos Ogden two years earlier, forty Connecticut Yankees arrived on the banks of the Susquehanna River, followed by three hundred more in April. Those forty Yankees eventually gave their name to the community of Forty Fort (the fort of forty).

With 300 aggressive settlers, the Connecticut Yankees were then the dominant players in the settlement of the valley. By the end of that first summer, the Yankees had established five townships – Pittston, Plymouth, Wilkes-Barre, Nanticoke (later Hanover) and Forty Fort (later Kingston) – and had built Fort Durkee.

Historians tell us that all these town names were chosen to honor prominent English places or individuals. One local historian, Sally Teller Lottick, has speculated “The Connecticut settlers may have believed that if their conflicting claims with Pennsylvania ever reached a British court these names would work in their favor.”

Wilkes-Barre was named in honor of John Wilkes and Isaac Barré.  Historians indicate that these two prominent members of the British parliament were “zealous advocates of the American cause.”

Although the Yankees started out as the larger of the two forces, the Pennamites moved a substantial number of recruits into the area during the summer of 1769, and by November they were ready to begin to make life uncomfortable for the Yankees. The Pennamites were moving freely among the settlements, and harassing the Yankee settlers. Life was anything but comfortable for all parties in the conflict during the winter of 1769-70.

On April 2, 1770, with the help of the Paxtang Boys, Scotch-Irish Presbyterians from Lancaster County, the Yankees captured the Pennamite’s Fort Wyoming. That battle marked the conclusion of the First Yankee-Pennamite War. For the next half dozen years, the Connecticut Yankees controlled the Wyoming Valley.

One of the little known facts about this early Wyoming  Valley period was that on June 29, 1774, the entire region (then known as Westmoreland) became a town in Litchfield County Connecticut – even though the actual county was located straight east two hundred miles. Following the start of hostilities in the American Revolution, a significant battle (the Battle of Rampart Rocks) took place between Pennamite forces and Yankees on December 25, 1775.  With the Yankees once again victorious, Connecticut created a separate Connecticut county in the Wyoming Valley of Pennsylvania – Westmoreland County.

The Revolutionary War and the Battle of Wyoming
Once the Revolutionary War began in 1776, the men of the Wyoming Valley were called upon to serve in the Continental Army. While the men of the valley were away, a contingent of British troops and their Indian partners entered the valley. The famous Battle of Wyoming took place on July 3, 1778.

Foolishly, a much smaller American force decided to leave the security of their fort to meet the British and the Indians on the open field of battle. In less than thirty minutes, the Americans were severely routed by the British and their Indian fighters. Those who were able to outrun the Indians made their way back to the fort, but many men were captured and put to death. On July 4, 1778, British Major John Butler demanded the surrender of all forts.  In return for agreeing not to fight for the American side, the settlers were allowed to leave the valley.

During the next summer, in retaliation for the July 4th massacre following the Battle of Wyoming, American forces under the command of General John Sullivan returned to the Wyoming Valley and the upper Susquehanna River and destroyed forty native villages and “ravaged all their farmlands.” General Sullivan’s actions essentially marked the end of the Native American populations in the upper regions of the Susquehanna River.

The Decree of Trenton
At the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, both Pennsylvania and Connecticut claimed ownership of the Wyoming Valley. Congress was asked to decide on the legal owner. With the Decree of Trenton on December 30, 1782, the federal government officially decided that the Wyoming Valley belonged to Pennsylvania. With the decision of the Decree of Trenton in their favor, Pennsylvania then ruled that the Yankees were not citizens of the Commonwealth, could not vote, and were to give up their property claims.

Second Yankee-Pennamite War
This action by Pennsylvania led to the start of the Second Yankee-Pennamite War.  In May of 1784, the Yankees were forcibly and very cruelly marched away from the valley.  In November, the Yankees returned with a considerable force and captured and destroyed Fort Dickinson. With that victory, Captain John Franklin proposed a creative solution by suggesting that a new state, separate from Connecticut and Pennsylvania be created.  He proposed to call that new state Westmoreland.

Recognizing that a compromise was required to resolve the considerable disagreements and hostilities, and not wanting to give up any part of Pennsylvania to a new state, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania reversed its earlier decision and agreed that Yankee property claims prior to the Decree of Trenton should be honored. The Yankees accepted this proposal.

As part of the compromise that ended the Second Yankee-Pennamite War, Pennsylvania separated a significant new county from what had been Northumberland County (which had included the Wyoming Valley). On September 23, 1786, the Pennsylvania General Assembly created Luzerne County, naming it in honor of Chevalier de la Luzerne, the French minister to the United States during the latter stages of the war. This newly created county encompassed a large area; Lackawanna, Wyoming, Susquehanna, and part of Bradford County would all eventually be separated out as independent counties.

Early Immigration and Settlement
Now that peace and some order had been established by the creation of the new county, life in Northeastern Pennsylvania became rather ordinary, if that term can be used for the settlement of America that was rapidly occurring up and down the Atlantic Seaboard. Luzerne County was rural, and destined to stay that way. It was not inaccessible, but it was certainly not easy to get in or out. The Susquehanna River was a treacherous waterway, and the mountains on all sides were daunting. Once a settler was established in the valley, life was challenging, but it was no more challenging than any other place on the American frontier. Life was tough, but these settlers had come a long way from their homes and villages in Europe to seek opportunity in America. This beautiful Wyoming Valley was just one of hundreds of splendid places filled with opportunity in this new land that welcomed settlers.

According to Dr. Paul Zbiek, the valley’s population increased from fewer than 2,000 residents in 1790 to almost 13,000 in 1800. In that decade, settlement occurred throughout the Wyoming Valley. Connecticut Yankees settled in their favorite townships, while Pennsylvania Germans, coming up from other parts of Pennsylvania, rapidly settled the southern parts of the county.

Even before significant settlement of the valley began; early explorers had encountered a new form of coal – anthracite – that was abundant along the banks of the Susquehanna River throughout its length in the Wyoming Valley. However, because this “stone coal” was as hard as granite, it simply would not burn or maintain a fire. There was plenty of this ultra hard coal throughout Northeastern Pennsylvania, but no one had yet discovered a way to make any money from it. Yes, blacksmiths were using it to fire their small forges, and some of the coal was used to fire iron forges during the revolutionary war, but for the most part, anthracite was a valuable commodity without a good use.

Judge Jesse Fell
Historians mark the date February 11, 1808 as the day on which Judge Jesse Fell produced his invention of an iron grate that would maintain a fire using anthracite coal – “using air currents in motion by the heat of the fire itself.” Although it is likely that Judge Fell’s invention was not the first grate to successfully burn anthracite, because it was the first iron grate in the Wyoming Valley to successfully burn anthracite, this invention marked the beginning of a new era, and the end of a quiet rural life for everyone who lived in the valley.

The Development of the Coal Industry
Just because a way had been found to burn anthracite in homes did not mean that anthracite, despite its advantages over soft coal and firewood, became an over night success. Pennsylvania’s anthracite fields were remote and located in deep river valleys surrounded by the significant Appalachian Mountains. Getting anthracite to market was, at first, nearly impossible because the Susquehanna River was so treacherous. Even when a boat load of coal did reach a distant market, imported coal from England or Wales, and Virginia was usually less expensive.

Canal systems that transported coal over vast distances had existed in England and Wales since 1761 with the opening of the Bridgewater Canal that transported coal to Manchester. English canals were designed to bring coal from distant regions to supply fuel for the industrial revolution. Canals played a similar role in the United States, but were designed, financed and built much later; the first major canal system in America was the Erie Canal, opened in 1826. That canal linked the Hudson River with the Great Lakes.  Pennsylvania entered the canal business in earnest that same year. From its humble beginnings in 1826 until the end of the canal era with the introduction of railroads throughout the Commonwealth, twelve hundred miles of canals were designed, financed, and built throughout Pennsylvania.

Anthracite coal from Northeastern Pennsylvania first moved to market from the southern coal field and the western middle coal field (primarily in Schuylkill County) via the Schuylkill Canal, which opened in 1825. The northern coal field, running southwest to northeast through the Wyoming Valley and Luzerne County, was tapped with the completion of the North Branch Canal, which opened in stages from 1830 to 1834. From 1834 until the end of the Civil War, the valley’s anthracite headed south to Baltimore and Philadelphia on an ever-increasing series of local and regional canals, often interconnected with some of the first railroads constructed in the Mid- Atlantic region. With the completion in 1858 of the North Branch Extension Canal from Pittston to New York State, the valley’s coal was able to move (at 1.5 to 3 miles per hour in large, heavy barges pulled by mules) into New York State and New England.

Finally, twenty-six years after Wilkes-Barre’s Judge Fell introduced his revolutionary iron fireplace grate, the anthracite coal that fueled that first grate was ready to make its debut in an increasingly competitive but extremely lucrative coal market.

Although coal fields in Carbon, Lehigh and Schuylkill County produced significantly larger quantities of coal in the early stages of mining and transportation, by 1875 anthracite coal from the Wyoming Valley/Luzerne County represented half the anthracite produced in the Commonwealth. That dominant place in the market was never challenged through the end of the coal era.

Railroad through mountain imageRailroads
With the completion of the Lehigh and Susquehanna River Railroad in 1846, the canal industry, which had existed for no more than one long generation, faced a rapid extinction. The Lehigh and Susquehanna Railroad moved Wyoming Valley anthracite from its various coal fields to White Haven; over the Appalachian mountains that had posed such a challenge to settlers for 150 years. Once the L&SR reached White Haven, an extensive transportation network expeditiously and economically delivered the Wyoming Valley’s “black diamonds” to a waiting market. By 1867, the Lehigh Valley Railroad, which was first established in the Hazleton area’s coal fields, was linked to Wilkes-Barre, and then in 1869, the Lehigh Valley Railroad was connected to other rail systems in New York State.

In the short period from 1846 to the end of the 1880s, coal traffic on the Commonwealth’s network of expensively constructed canals came to an end as new railroad systems reached into every corner of the Commonwealth; extracting minerals and timber, and delivering new settlers – immigrants
from Europe – to work in the mines and towns.

The Wyoming Valley is a beautiful and inspiring place, but it is remotely situated away from the rest of Pennsylvania and New York. If it had not been for coal and the canal systems that were built to export that coal to market, it is unlikely that this beautiful valley would have attained the prominence and the wealth that occurred here in the last decades of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. Without coal there was no reason to build the first canals, and without coal there was certainly no reason to extend canals and rail lines into the mountain valleys of Northeastern Pennsylvania.

Because of the abundance of anthracite coal – the most significant and most easily mined anthracite fields in the world are located here in Northeastern Pennsylvania – hundreds of thousands of immigrants came from thousands of miles away, primarily from Europe, to establish new lives in the New World. Anthracite mining promised immigrants the opportunity to make a living. There were certainly many reasons for leaving Europe to come to America, but the reality is that these immigrants were, for the most part, peasants living in small villages spread across Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and England, from Scandinavia, and the continent of Europe. Fifteen million immigrants from Europe entered the United State from 1870 to 1915 to get jobs. As many as one hundred thousand ended up in the coal fields of Luzerne County.

Anthracite coal, cleaner and hotter burning than any coal available from any other source, fueled the American Industrial Revolution. Much of that coal came from the Wyoming Valley – from Pittston, Wilkes-Barre, Plymouth, Hazleton, Kingston and hundreds of other named and unnamed towns, villages, and settlements spread throughout the region. The places that had previously been townships and villages grew and expanded as immigrants came into the region seeking work in the coal mines. These townships have traditionally been known as “free towns.” Dozens of other, new, small villages – traditionally called “mine patches” – were developed in the vicinity of the coal mines. They were almost always “company towns;” authoritatively controlled by the mining company that owned the land and employed the men and boys that worked in the mines.

Eckley Miners Village near Hazleton is an example of what a mine patch looked like. At one time there were dozens of these small villages spread throughout the mountains and valleys.

For much of the first two decades of rapid expansion, there were two classes of immigrant – experienced miners from England and Wales, and common laborers from England, Ireland, Wales and Germany. After the immigration flow from the British Isles slowed, immigrants from southern and Eastern Europe learned about the opportunities available in Luzerne County. The largest of these substantial immigrant groups was Poles, followed by Italians, Lithuanians, Slovaks, Ukrainians and Ruthenians, and many thousands of Eastern European Orthodox Jews.

Early immigration into Luzerne County’s mine patches and towns was almost always by men – single men, usually, or younger married men with a family left behind in the old country. The exception was the Jewish immigrants; they came to the valley in family groups. Women followed soon after the males. Wives joined their husbands, and single women came into the valley seeking husbands.

From about 1850 on, with the arrival of significant numbers of women, the valley quickly attracted the attention of factory owners in New York and Philadelphia. The newly arriving immigrant women needed jobs, and thus dozens of factories throughout the region were established to take advantage of an ever-increasing pool of available labor.  These women worked in silk, cotton, and woolen mills. They sewed garments and manufactured cigars. They contributed significantly to the growth of the economy; they kept their families together during hard times in the mines, and during times of labor unrest.

A Diverse and Dynamic Culture
Because of the immigrants that made this valley their home during this great period of American immigration, Luzerne County has an incredibly rich and diverse culture. The churches, neighborhoods, schools, gathering places, restaurants, and taverns located throughout this county are a lasting testament to the rich mixture of immigration that came into this beautiful valley. For more than a century, those diverse cultures mixed, inter-married, and merged to create a community that has a unique sense of place; a place that began with coal mining, railroading, and manufacturing, and is now a place that is keenly aware of its heritage and the essential reasons for preserving that heritage.

The End of an Era
Labor unrest and union activity began to develop in earnest at the end of the nineteenth century and into the early parts of the twentieth century. Unrest among miners due to working conditions and pay created tensions throughout the county. One of the most famous and deadly confrontations occurred at the Lattimer Massacre in September of 1897 when the Sheriff and his posse shot and killed sixteen miners and wounded another thirty eight.

In 1902, the United Mine Workers – 140,000 strong – began the “Great Strike,” which lasted for nine months and was finally settled with the assistance of President Theodore Roosevelt.

With the settlement of the Great Strike, production of Anthracite moved forward at a pace never before seen in coal mining. Industrial and home heating demand for clean coal increased monthly. With a war-time economy fueling demand, national output of anthracite reached a record 99.7 million tons in 1917, but declined rapidly from that point through the Great Depression. By the 1920’s consumers gradually switched from coal to oil, gas and electricity.  Production rose again to a peak of 63.7 million tons in
1944 during World War II.

The peak of employment was 1914, when 181,000 miners were employed in the anthracite mines of Northeastern Pennsylvania.

Production has declined ever since. In 2004, total anthracite production in Northeastern Pennsylvania had declined to just 1.7 million tons. Even though the anthracite resource remaining in the ground is substantial, the complex geologic structure, steep terrain, and the inefficient early mining of the thicker and more accessible blocks of coal now preclude the use of modern mechanized equipment underground. The only anthracite mining that still occurs is large-scale surface mining of shallow old works. Essentially, anthracite mining has declined to the rate experienced when production
began about 1844.

The Knox Mine Disaster
Although anthracite production was declining at a fairly steady rate after World War II, production throughout the valley at the end of the 1950s was still fairly good, and thousands of Luzerne County miners still earned their living in the underground coal mines, as well as in strip mines.

Underground mining for anthracite essentially stopped forever on January 22, 1959. On that day, the Knox Coal Company’s mine under the Susquehanna River in the vicinity of Port Griffith, a small town midway between Wilkes-Barre and Scranton, collapsed and the mighty Susquehanna River poured into the mines, flooding mines throughout the interconnected underground system.

According to the Pennsylvania Bureau of Deep Mine Safety – “During the first 64 hours of the emergency, some 2.7 million gallons of water per minute streamed underground from a massive whirlpool near the riverbank. In all, an estimated 10.37 billion gallons coursed into the mines. Work crews toiled around the clock for three days to plug the cavity. They dumped 60 coal hopper cars – 50 ton behemoths called gondolas – into the void. When this did not stop the flow, they added 400 one-ton coal cars as well as some 25,000 cubic yards of dirt, rock, and boulders. Finally the chasm stopped drinking.”

One estimate of the impact of the disaster put the direct and indirect job loss at 7,500. Within months of the Susquehanna River’s flooding of the Knox Mine, two of the area’s largest coal companies announced a full withdrawal from the anthracite business. Other companies whose mines lay some distance from the Knox disaster continued to operate on a much smaller scale into the early 1970s.

Billions of tons of anthracite are still in the ground but remain inaccessible because of underground flooding.

The Agnes Flood
This history of the Wyoming Valley and Luzerne County concludes with the Agnes Flood of June, 1972. Agnes, the first named tropical storm/hurricane of the 1972 season came ashore in the mid-Atlantic on June 23, 1972. She left a trail of flooding and misery that had not been seen in this country at any time before. President Richard Nixon called the devastation caused by Agnes the greatest natural disaster in American history. Essentially, after coming ashore as a not too significant hurricane, Agnes settled over Pennsylvania and New York State and dumped inches of rain on already saturated mountains, valleys, plains, streams, and rivers. It rained hard for days, and as the swollen rivers, creeks and streams flowed into the Susquehanna River, the great river rose precipitously, reaching levels that were beyond anything ever predicted. Agnes was more than a hundred year flood; she was a millennium, or worse, flood, and every village, town and city in the path of this rapidly rising river was in great peril.

After 18 inches of rain in Luzerne County, Agnes left six 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 four feet above the levees that were built after the flood of 1936, which crested at 33 feet. There was nine feet of water in Public Square in downtown Wilkes-Barre.

Population Trends
The population of Luzerne County has been tied to the rise and decline of anthracite for one hundred fifty years. Starting with the 1850 census, when the population of the county reached 56,000, the population of the Wyoming Valley and Luzerne County increased dramatically for eight decades, increasing by more than 70,000 people from 1860 to 1870, and more than 86,000 from 1900 to 1910.

At its peak in 1930, the population of Luzerne County reached 445,000, and then began a precipitous decline that continues into the early years of the 21st century. The estimated population in 2004 was 313,431. This was a decrease of – 1.82% from the 2000 census.

Last Updated: 05/05/08 09:33:14
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