The History of West Pittston, PA
In telling the history of West Pittston, it is necessary to begin at a time prior to the founding of our country. What became known as the Yankee Pennamite Wars was the result of a land dispute between the colonies of Pennsylvania and Connecticut for territory granted to them by King Charles II. Charles granted a portion of the same land to both colonies.
Settlers from New England formed the Susquehanna Company for the purpose of selling plots of land in the Wyoming Valley and in 1762 came to the valley to establish a settlement. They were driven out by the Indians in the fall of 1763 but they returned again in 1769 to begin the settlement. It was about that time that colonists from Pennsylvania attempted to take possession of a portion of the same territory. The Connecticut settlers attempted to eject the Pennsylvania claimants which resulted in a series of often very bloody conflicts known as the Yankee Pennamite Wars.
The land dispute between Pennsylvania and Connecticut was suspended for a time during the period of the Revolutionary War as the settlers fought a common enemy. It is vital to remember the events of the Revolution that shaped the history of the area that is now known as the borough of West Pittston.
At that time, Jenkins Fort, one of a series of forts built to protect the settlers of the valley, sat at the top of the river bank near the present day Fort Jenkins Bridge. It was primarily occupied by Judge John Jenkins, Captain Stephen Harding and their families. The tragic story of brothers Benjamin and Stuckley Harding who were savagely killed by Indians just days before the Battle of Wyoming holds a special interest to West Pittston residents. The Hardings left Jenkins Fort traveling up-river to tend to their farming chores, were ambushed by their attackers and overpowered. The bodies of Hardings were later brought back to Jenkins Fort and buried in Jenkins graveyard near the fort. The graveyard still exists today as the Jenkins Harding Cemetery located on Wyoming Avenue at Linden Street. Jenkins Fort was eventually captured by Colonel John Butler’s invading forces on July 1, 1778 and later burned to the ground ending the brief history of Jenkins Fort.
Once the Revolutionary War had ended the disagreement between Pennsylvania and Connecticut resumed. The dispute was finally put to rest through the Pennsylvania Legislature’s Compromise Act of 1799 which offered compensation to the Pennsylvania claimants. At that time the Connecticut authorities divided the Wyoming territory into a group of 17 townships. That portion which contained the present lands of West Pittston was known as Exeter Township.
Early residents of Exeter Township chose to settle mainly in the upper portions of the township where lumbering was a major industry. It was not until the expansion of anthracite mining industry in the 1850’s that the residents of Pittston looked to the west side of the river as an attractive place for a new residence town.
A major force in the development of the town was the West Pittston Land Association, a simple partnership formed in 1850. Members of the association were R. J. Wisner, Jonathan S. Wood, John Hosie, John Love, Augustus Frothingham, John Frothingham, C. F. Bowman and E. A. Coray. The partners purchased the Peter Polen farm on April 1, 1851, laid out the town into streets and divided the lands into lots for development. This land formed the heart of the current boundaries of West Pittston. The association’s lands were bounded on the east by the river, on the south by a line midway between Montgomery and Delaware Avenues, on the west by a line just beyond Parke Street and on the north by Exeter Avenue. The lots sold quickly and soon a thriving village had sprung up. In time, nearly all of the lots had been sold and those remaining were divided among the Land Association’s partners. The West Pittston Land Association then passed out of existence.
A major portion of the current borough, however, had still remained undeveloped. The West Pittston Coal Company was organized in 1856 by Philadelphia sugar refiner, E. C. Knight. The company purchased, from various parties, a tract of land a major portion of which is included in present day West Pittston. Knight planned to establish a rival town to be called Luzerne. An elaborate map of Luzerne was drawn up, lots were divided and the Luzerne House was built on Philadelphia Avenue as a focal point to the future community. The boundaries were: on the west by a point at the foot of the mountain, on the north by a line between Montgomery and Delaware Avenues, on the east by the river and on the south by Schooley Avenue now in present day Exeter Borough. A few lots were sold at first, however the real development continued to take place further north in “West Pittston”. The operations of the West Pittston Coal Company were taken over by the Lehigh Valley Coal Company in 1870 and lots continued to be sold through the new company however the proposed town of Luzerne did not develop and much of the land was eventually incorporated into the new borough of West Pittston.
Smaller sections of present day West Pittston were laid out by other developers. Lacoe and Lowenstein developed the portion between Parke Street and the railroad and between Exeter and Montgomery Avenues. The section bounded by the railroad, Tunkhannock Avenue, Exeter and Montgomery Avenues was laid out by R. J. Wisner, L. G. Damon and H. M. Damon. The remaining portion that was northeast of Exeter Avenue was developed by York Smith and the W. C. Gildersleeve estate.
In 1857, just seven years after the establishment of the West Pittston Land Association, the residents had become so numerous that the various land developments decided to establish a borough charter. A recent law had required a majority of freeholders (land holders) to vote in favor of the proposal in order for it to pass. The application for borough status was approved on August 19, 1857 by the grand jury and on November 23, 1857 the decision was confirmed by the court establishing the new Borough of West Pittston.
The first election for borough office was held on January 7, 1888 at the old Vine Street (now Race St.) schoolhouse. Elected to the office of Burgess was J. Amherst Wisner and councilmen were A. J. Griffith, William Apple, Cornelius Stark, Bradley Downing and Theodore Strong. The first borough clerk was Isaac W. Moister and Peter Polen was elected to the office of borough treasurer.
The new borough was consumed with establishing services that would attract new residents. Sidewalks, curbs, street lighting, a modern sewer system and schools were a major focus. The developing town would also need a town hall and fire department. As early as 1859, the borough was encouraging the planting of shade trees to enhance the beauty of the community.
By the time of the borough’s fiftieth anniversary in 1907, these goals were achieved and West Pittston had become known as the Garden Village. There were only a few building lots remaining and elegant homes set back from the tree lined streets graced the borough.
The oldest home in the borough still standing is the tiny Newry House located at 516 Exeter Avenue near the railroad tracks. Built by Thomas Jenkins, it is estimated by the Luzerne County Historical Society to have been built between 1800 and 1811 and is a colonial salt box in style. The home and Jenkins’ surrounding lands at the time were named Newry after a town in Northern Ireland.
Over the years, the Susquehanna River has flooded portions of the borough on a number of occasions. The most devastating of these was the memorable Hurricane Agnes flood in 1972 which caused immeasurable damage to homes and businesses in West Pittston. Other major flooding occurred in 1875, 1904 and 1936.
The twentieth century saw a number of significant changes in West Pittston. Among them, the decline of anthracite mining in the area in the late 1950’s, the final class of West Pittston High School graduating in 1966, the school district merging with other local communities to form the new Wyoming Area district, the construction of a new town hall in 1974 and the passing of a number of long-time businesses from the borough.
In 1957, the borough paused to reflect on its history during the week long Centennial celebration. As we gather in 2007 for our Sesquicentennial festivities, we can take this opportunity to once again reflect on our past history and look to the future of our still evolving community.
Mary L. Portelli – 2007