Wilkes-Barre is a city in the State of Pennsylvania and the county seat of Luzerne County. It is one of the principal cities in the Scranton–Wilkes-Barre–Hazleton, PA Metropolitan Statistical Area. Located at the center of the Wyoming Valley it is second only to the nearby city of Scranton. The Scranton–Wilkes-Barre–Hazleton, PA Metropolitan Statistical Area had a population of 563,631 as of the 2010 Census making it the fourth largest metro/statistical area in the state of Pennsylvania. Wilkes-Barre and the surrounding Wyoming Valley are framed by the Pocono Mountains to the east, the Endless Mountains to the west and the Lehigh Valley to the south. The Susquehanna River flows through the center of the valley and defines the northwestern border of the city.
Wilkes-Barre was founded in 1769 and formally incorporated in 1806. The city grew rapidly after the discovery of nearby coal reserves and the arrival of hundreds of thousands of immigrants. The city reached the height of its prosperity in the first half of the 20th century when its population reached just over 86,000. Following World War II, the city's economy declined and the Knox Mine disaster accelerated this trend when large portions of the area's coal mines were flooded. Today the city has a population of 41,498, making it the 13th largest city in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
The Wyoming Valley was first inhabited by the Shawanese and Delaware Indian tribes in the early 18th century. By 1769, a group led by John Durkee became the first Europeans to reach the area. The settlement was named Wilkes-Barre after John Wilkes and Isaac Barré, two British members of Parliament who supported colonial America.
The initial settlers were aligned with Connecticut, which had a claim on the land that rivaled Pennsylvania's. Armed men loyal to Pennsylvania twice attempted to evict the residents of Wilkes-Barre in what came to be known as the Pennamite Wars. After the American Revolution, the conflict was resolved so that the settlers retained title to their lands but transferred their allegiance to Pennsylvania.
In 1797, several decades after the city's founding, Louis Philippe, later the King of France from 1830 to 1840, stayed in Wilkes-Barre while traveling to the French Asylum settlement.
19th century (Industrial foundations)
Wilkes-Barre's population exploded due to the discovery of anthracite coal in the 19th century, which gave the city the nickname of "The Diamond City". Hundreds of thousands of immigrants flocked to the city, seeking jobs in the numerous mines and collieries that sprung up. The Vulcan Iron Works was a well-known manufacturer of railway locomotives from 1849 to 1954.
During Wilkes-Barre's reign as an industrial and economic force in America, a number of franchises decided to plant their roots in the city, such as Woolworth's, Sterling Hotels, Planter's Peanuts, Miner's Bank, Bell Telephone, HBO, Luzerne National Bank, and Stegmaier. In addition, the demolished Old Fell House on Northampton St is believed to be the first place in the entire world Anthracite was burned for heat.
It is said that Babe Ruth hit one of the longest home runs in history in Wilkes-Barre early in the 20th century. This statement is quoted from the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders News page: "On October 12, 1926, Babe Ruth visited Wilkes-Barre's Artillery Park to play in an exhibition game between Hughestown and Larksville. Suiting up for Hughestown, the Yankee slugger challenged Larksville's hurler Ernie Corkran to throw him his 'best stuff'—a fastball right down the heart of the plate. Corkran obliged and Ruth crushed the pitch into deep right field. When the ball cleared the fence, a good 400 feet away from home plate, it was still rising. It finally landed in Kirby Park on the far side of a high school running track. Ruth himself was so impressed by the feat that he asked for his homer to be measured. Originally estimated at 650 feet, the prodigious blast is considered to be the longest home run in baseball's storied history."
In November 1972, 365 subscribers of Service Electric Cable were the first to receive HBO's service, making Wilkes-Barre the birthplace of modern cable TV programming.
Manufacturing and retail remained Wilkes-Barre's strongest industries, but the city's economy took a major blow from Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972. The storm pushed the Susquehanna River to a height of nearly , four feet above the city's levees, flooding downtown with nine feet of water. While no lives were lost, 25,000 homes and businesses were either damaged or destroyed; damages were estimated to be $1 billion, with President Richard Nixon sending aid to the area.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Wilkes-Barre attempted to repair the damage from Agnes by building a levee system that rises 41 feet; it has successfully battled less threatening floods of 1996, 2004, and 2006, and the Army Corps of Engineers has praised the quality of the levees. In 2006 the city made the front page of national newspapers when 200,000 residents were told to evacuate in the wake of flooding that was forecast to reach levels near that of 1972 but fell short of predictions.
In late August 2011, Hurricane Irene off the New Jersey coast caused the Susquehanna River to rise to flood stage but was no cause for alarm for the city. However, from September 6 to September 8, heavy rains from the inland remnants of Tropical Storm Lee and Hurricane Katia offshore funneled heavy rain over the Wyoming Valley and into the Susquehanna River watershed. The Susquehanna swelled to record levels across the state, and in Wilkes-Barre crested on September 9 at an all-time record of , nearly two feet higher than the previously disastrous water levels from 1972's Hurricane Agnes. Wilkes-Barre was spared from any major flooding by the levees built on the river banks of the city, however nearby boroughs that were unprotected by levees such as West Pittston, Plymouth, and parts of Plains Township were affected by extreme flooding and the subsequent water damage.
Revitalization and construction
On June 9, 2005, Mayor Thomas M. Leighton unveiled his I believe... campaign for Wilkes-Barre, which was intended to boost the city's spirits. Construction began on a planned downtown theatre complex which had a grand opening on June 30, 2006, and renovation of the landmark Hotel Sterling was being pursued by CityVest, a nonprofit developer. The expansion of Wilkes University and King's College took place. Also, the canopy and matching street lights in Public Square and across downtown were removed; the replacements are new green lampposts.
The City of Wilkes-Barre celebrated its 200th anniversary in 2006. Several events, including a Beach Boys concert, were planned but canceled due to extremely heavy rains which caused most of the city's population to evacuate on June 28, 2006. The celebration took place on Labor Day weekend, Sunday September 3, 2006, and was attended by Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell and the Beach Boys.
The Riverfront revitalization project (River Common), broke ground in 2007 and completed in early 2010, once again making the riverfront accessible to the public. The riverfront now includes an amphitheater, handicapped-accessible ramps and sidewalks, fountains, and color-changing lights underneath two bridges which carry pedestrian traffic across the normally-open levee breachings. The project stretches approximately four blocks from the Luzerne County Courthouse to the intersection of S. River Street and W. South Street. The River Common has since hosted concerts and charity events. Sadly, parking for residents was ignored and few but the adjacent college students use it on daily basis.
Since completion of the River Common, various improvements to city infrastructure have been progressing. New crosswalks have been installed downtown, which include signage reminding motorists that pedestrians have the right-of-way. The completion of the James F. Conahan Intermodal Transportation Facility has added parking and moved Luzerne County Transportation Authority buses from their former Public Square staging locations, reducing congestion in the square. Private carrier Martz offers coach bus service from the terminal as well. The widening and realignment of Coal Street, a major road connecting Wilkes-Barre city with Wilkes-Barre Township, was completed in 2012. The new Coal Street provides four lanes over the original two lanes, making travel between the highly commercial Wilkes-Barre Township and the city itself much easier. The 2012 realignment also provides a rather spectacular view of the city center when traveling west into Wilkes-Barre City.
Kids for cash scandal
Political corruption in Wilkes-Barre and Luzerne County became a major regional news story following nationwide publication of stories about the Kids for Cash scandal, a kickback scheme involving two local judges, Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan, charged with enriching themselves by investing in juvenile detention facilities to which they subsequently sentenced children under their judicial power. The judges were implicated by another county judge who was being investigated as part of an FBI probe of events at the courthouse in Wilkes-Barre and corruption generally in the county. In the following months over 30 persons were charged as a result of the corruption probe. In August 2010, former Luzerne County Commissioner Greg Skrepenak, a former professional football player and Wilkes-Barre native, was sentenced to 24 months in prison for accepting a bribe, unrelated to his involvement with the for-profit juvenile detention center. Ciavarella and Conahan withdrew their guilty pleas. Instead of risking a trial Conahan reconsidered and accepted a guilty plea. A federal jury convicted Ciavarella on corruption charges in February 2011. More recently a series of scandals in the end of 2012 through the beginning of 2013 involving the city's towing firm and his connections to the Mayor of the city and the chief of police has further caused more concern over a growing feeling of widespread corruption within the city's government. The arrest of the city's towing firm LAG Towing has increased these fears. Following up the towing company LAG's owner Leo Glodznik being found guilty in May 2014.
Another story that developed from the case involved implications of fraud involving the towing contractor, police force and the cities credit union. When an investigation was started by the FBI the head of the credit union killed himself. This new revelation came as a result of the towing scandal. The cities decline is no more evident in recent history when figures were released showing that per capita, Wilkes Barre has a higher murder rate than Detroit and New York City. Drug and related crimes are at an all time high with little sign of slowing down. The city continues to decline with a high number of its citizens being on welfare or other forms of public assistance. Add in a shrinking industrial base and lack of high paying jobs, Wilkes Barre like many cities is in decline with no sign of recovery.