Sunday, July 10, 2016

Seeing Wilkes-Barre Up Close - And Through New Eyes

The Monument to the Battle of Wyoming

In the past, I’d driven by Wilkes-Barre several times on I-81 on my way north and east, and seen the town as a nondescript, unremarkable macrocosm from the interstate. Unlike Scranton, its sister city fifteen miles to the north, which has several noteworthy attractions, Wilkes-Barre’s major attraction is its casino, the Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs.

But an overnight visit gave me a chance to see the town in up close and personal,  a look that left me with a deeper appreciation of its cultural, historical and architectural allures.
I happened to arrive on the day of the area’s 11th annual church tour, but, instead, of church hopping, I set my sites on four of the area’s most historic structures, representatives of the town’s colonial era and the height of its industrial age.

Named for two members of the British Parliament who supported colonial American causes, Wilkes-Barre is surrounded by the Wyoming Valley and protected from the sometimes ravaging waters of the Susquehanna River by huge flood walls fronted by beautiful parks on both sides. Although the levees have been largely successful, they  didn’t manage to hold back the flood waters of Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972 when the river crested four feet over the top of the levees inundating the downtown area with nine feet of water.

Historically, some of the first Caucasians to arrive 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 Pennamites tried to evict, forcibly,  the Connecticut Yankees.
The skirmishes halted during the American Revolution but resumed until 1782 when the Congress under the Articles of Confederation ruled in favor of the Pennsylvania claim. The settlement proved to be the sole interstate dispute settled by the Continental Congress under the auspices of the Articles of Confederation.

During the Revolution, the British and Indian allies attacked the 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, provided they refrained from further hostilities for the rest of the war.
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.

Speculation has it that the popularity of the poem led to the naming the territory and state of Wyoming after the Pennsylvania valley in which the massacre took place. 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 annually.

Docents Irene Moran and Sherry Emershaw lead tours at the Denison House
The terms of the surrender were signed  by Colonel Nathan Denison, second in command of the American forces during the battle. Originally from Connecticut, Denison and 39 other families 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, which owns the property. 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 40 original 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 seventy 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. Phone 570-623-6244, ext. 3.

Nancy Lychos at the Forty Fort meeting House
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.

According to Nancy Lychos, president of the Meeting House Preservation Committee, an ecumenical vespers service is held the last Sunday in September. The site is also open for public viewing and docent tours from 1 to 3 every Sunday. Phone 570-287-5214 or visit website
"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 Forty Fort Meeting House, the Deinnison House, the Swetland House and the Wyoming Monument are within walking distance of one another. If visitors like, they can walk from the meeting House to the Swetland House and the Wyoming Monument and thereby walk the line of march from the settlement of Forty Fort to the pickett line which was set up before the battle and urged by Lazarus Steward with a disastrous result.

A reflection of the second important era of Wilkes-Barre history, the Frederick Stegmaier Mansion heralds the height of the industrial era, which got its birth with the discovery of anthracite coal in the 19th century and spawned the birth of two railroads that marketed the coal to New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore. The discovery also prompted the immigration of hundreds of thousands of Eastern and Southern Europeans, into the region.

Built in 1870 by notable architect, Missouria B. Houpt, the mansion is an example of High Victorian exuberance with its many rooms opulently furnished. Now part of the River Street Historic District, the mansion is surrounded by 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.  "The vision I had for the mansion was to achieve the look and feel as if the Stegmaiers could walk through the door at any moment," Matteo said. Phone 570-823-9372 or visit website

Joseph Matteo at the Stagmaier Mansion
I made my way to the mansion across the Susquehanna from Forty Fort via the gorgeous Market Street Bridge, an elegant  structure even Paris would be proud of. 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.

The mansion now serves as a grand bed and breakfast and is also available for weddings, banquets and afternoon teas. Richly furnished with period furniture, elegant paintings and works of art, the mansion shares the spotlight with other River Street Historic District buildings such as 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.

According to Lokuta, the Wilkes-Barre region has the highest per capita concentration of higher education institutions than any where else in the country including Boston and Philadelphia. As to the future of the city, he cites design and manufacturing as the two most important components of its modern economy.

At the moment, the city of 41,498 projects a healthy economic and cultural vibe, and as part of the Scranton- Wilkes-Barre-Hazleton Metropolitan Statistical Area, forms the fourth largest metropolitan area in the state with a total population of 563,631.

For more information on Wilkes-Barre, phone 888-905-2872 or visit website

Place to Dine
Currently, about 10 percent of Wilkes-Barre’s population has a Greek ancestry. It’s not surprising, then, that the city would support a Greek restaurant with authentic ethnic cuisine.

Unpretentious, Theos serves authentic Greek Cuisine along with American options

Theos Metro, located at 596 Mercer Avenue in Kingston, is owned by Peter Theodorelos and his wife, Cathy. Peter is a native of Levidi, Greece and has been owner of Theos Metro since 2001.

Housed in what was once a popcorn factory, the current restaurant sports equipment, tools and supplies once used by the operation. That why you’ll find hand-painted table tops decorated with scenes of Greek mythology and the islands resting on repurposed factory dollies.

The beer list is surprisingly inventive and large, but no Greek wine was available the evening of my visit, although it is included from time to time. The menu includes basics like Moussaka and Pastisio, Grape Leaves, Kabobs, Gyros and Baklava, it also offers steaks, seafood, pasta even vegetarian fare.

Lamb Chop Entree at Theos with Greek Lemon Potatoes
Dishes I’d recommend are appetizers of Mediterranean Shrimp Strudel ($8.95), described as oven roasted shrimp mixed with feta and boursin cheese wrapped in flaky filo pastry finished with a Mediterranean lobster sauce, the Mussels Saganiki ($7.95), mussels tossed with homemade saganaki sauce, and the Dolmades Platter entree ($14.95), Grape Leaves stuffed with seasoned ground beef, rice and onions. You can't go wrong with the Lamb Chops either.

Phone 570-283-2050 or visit website

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