Saturday, January 31, 2009

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From Wilkes-Barre Times, December 19, 1901

From the charming historical narratives of Oscar Jewell Harvey, we find tht Major John Durkee, of Norwich, New London, Connecticut, first settled in this region in May 1769 and with 110 men built a fort on the river bank now marked by a stone monument. Then while some of the company cleared and broke up land for cultivation, others built a number of log houses, all of them being erected within the territory now bounded by South, West River, Ross and River streets.

The compounder and originator of the almost unique name "Wilkes-Barre" was Major Durkee, who bestowed it upon settlement at Fort Durkee several months before the township to which the name was subsequently applied was actually surveyed or laid out, as evidenced by several existing original documents in the handwriting of Durkee and others, written and dated at "Wilkes-Barre on the Susquehanna" in July, August and September 1769.

The explanation of the selection as given by Mr. Harvey reads: "In the spring of 1769, when the Wyoming colonists left New England, it was well known that Col. John Wilkes (who had been a member of the British parliment and whose name was indissolubly connected with Liberty in the minds of the American colonists and their friends) was suffering what his admirers and followers believed to be an unjust imprisonment in the King's Bench Prison, London. At the same time Col. Isaac Barre (who had been a fellow officer of Major John Durkee in the expedition against Cape Breton and Quebec during the French and English war), stood in the British House of Commons as the foe of American oppressors, and was almost unrivalled as a brilliant speaker, and hardly surpassed by any of the Opposition party - even by Edmond Burke himself - in violent denunciations of the government."

March 1, St. David's Day. 1774, the freeman of Westmoreland, as the whole Connecticut tract was named, assembled in town-meeting at Wilkes-Barre, and the new town was formally organized by the transaction of certains matters of business and the election of one hundred town officers - clerk, treasurer, selectmen, constables, collectors of rates, surveyors of highways, fence viewers, listers, grand jurors, etc. Some months later certain courts were established, representatives from Westmoreland to the General Assembly of Connecticut were elected, and the 24th Regiment, Connecticut Militia (constituted of Westmoreland Men), having been organized, its officers were "established" by the General Assembly and duly commissioned.

By the Act of Pennsylvania Legislature passed Sept 25, 1786, Luzerne County was erected. Seventeen of the townships (Wilkes-Barre among the number) which had been laid out in the Wyoming region by the Connecticut Susquehanna Company, and had been more or less settled under the auspices of that company were comprehended in the new county of Luzerne, and "Wilkesburg" (Wilkes-Barre being meant) was named as the county town in the Act of Assembly previously mentioned. In a sumplement to this act passed in 1788 the name of the town was spelled "Wilkes-borough", and during 1787 and '88 it seems to have been written and printed by various persons indiscriminately "Wilkes-borough", "Wilkesburrough", "Wilkesboro" and "Wilkesbury".

On St. Patrick's Day 1806, by Act of the Pennsylvania Legislature, the village or town-plot - including the Public Square - of Wilkes-Barre (as laid out by Major Durkee), the adjacent river common and a strip of land adjoining the northeast boundary of the town plot were incorporated into the borough of Wilkes-Barre then contained 1000 inhabitants.

Wilkes-Barre continued for many years to be, in some measure, an isolated village, situated as it was in the interior of the country, remote from the great thoroughfares of travel. The region surrounding it was devoted largely to agriculture and the surplus products of the farms were marketed principally at Wilkes-Barre. From here they were hauled in sleds or big canvas-topped wagons over the mountains at Easton, sixty-five miles distant, or else shipped in arks down the Susquehanna to Middletown in Dauphin County or to Columbia in Lancaster County, whence they were conveyed acroos the country to Lancaster and Philadelphia. Easton being the most accessible town, however - especially after the construction (in 1802 - 1808) of the Easton and Wilkes-Barre turnpike - was for many years the chief market town for the merchants of Wilkes-Barre and the principle farmers of Wyoming Valley.

It was not until 1834 that the Wyoming division of the North Branch Canal was completed, by which Wilkes-Barre was connected with the other towns along the Pennsylvania system of canals, and it was a number of years later (1843) before the first railroad tapped Wilkes-Barre.

By Act of the State Legislature May 4, 1871, the borough of Wilkes-Barre was incorporated into a city. The old town had exceeded its limits, and the territory - apart of the township of Wilkes-Barre - immediately adjoining it on three sides, having built upon, contained a considerable population. The bounds of the new corporation were established so as to include this contiguous area, as well as to extend to the center of the Susquehanna River, and Wilkes-Barre entered upon a new career with an area of 414 square miles (exclusive of the river), divided into fifteen wards. In 1890 a new ward, the Sixteenth, was erected from a portion of the Second ward.

By an ordinance passed by the City Council and approved by the Mayor March 3, 1892, certain boundaries of Wilkes-Barre were changed and extended so as to embrace within the limits of the city the whole bed and northwesterly bank of the Susquehanna, running the entire lenght of the city.

The steady and rapid growth and solid prosperity of Wilkes-Barre for the twenty-five years following 1855 are attributable, in great part, to the development of the anthracite coal interests in the vicinity. Although the existence of anthracite ("stone coal" it was commonly called) in the valley of Wyoming was known for many years following the first settlements here by white people, it was not until 1808 that the mineral began to be esteemed of very much value. Up to that year it had been used for the fires in forges, foundrties and blacksmith shops, but not for domestic purposes. No one supposed that it would burn without the aid of an air blast.

As noted before, the material prosperity and progress of Wilkes-Barre from about 1853 to 1880 were largely, if not entirely, dependentl upon the mining and shipping of anthracite coal. Within the past twenty years (1880 - 1900), numerous diversied, remunerative industries have been eith established in the town, or have been gradually enlarged and built up from small and earlier beginnings here. Many of these industries are of considerable importance, and some of them are among the largest of their kinds in the country.

There are about sixty industrial plants manufacturing lace curtains, cotton goods, silk ribbons, silk, notions, stockings, axles, mining, hoisting and railway engines, cutlery, tools, mining drills, wire screens, iron fences, fire escapes, flour mills, soap, boots and shoes, tinware, cigars, wagons, carriages, artificial ice, furniture, lace trimmings, beer and other malt liquors, and many other valuable products.

Seven railways are directly connected with Wilkes-Barre: the Pennsylvania Lehigh Valley; Central Railroad of New Jersey; Delaware & Hudson; Delaware Lackawanna & Western; Erie & Wyoming; and the Wilkes-Barre & Eastern. Four of these are trunk lines of the highest order and the traveling public need have no trouble in getting in and out of the city to any part of the country on magnificently equipped fast trains. Over one hundred regular passenger trains enter and leave the city every twenty-four hours. Seventeen of them being daily to and from New York. The time of the fast trains between New York and Philadelphia and Wilkes-Barre, is less than four and one-half hours.

Wilkes-Barre is on the route of the Black Diamond Express - considered the finest train in the world.