A treasure trove awaits eager genealogist

June 28, 1998


By TOM MOONEY
Times Leader Staff Writer

Almost dwarfed between the magnificence of St. Stephen's Church and the Westmoreland Club in downtown Wilkes-Barre is the Bishop Library of the Wyoming Historical and Geological Society.

Yet this modest old building in the city's historic district, a one-time private home, contains some real treasures for the genealogist.

Note that its name includes "geological," not "genealogical." In the society's earlier years many of its leading members were as interested in rock strata and fossils as in the events and personalities shaping Wyoming Valley.

But on any given day in the 1990s the reading rooms are packed with local people or visitors from out of town researching their families' histories. In fact, receptionist Ruth Bevan says that about three-quarters of the requests for help she receives are from people doing genealogy.

Let's take a trip through this little wonderland and find out what's drawing the crowds.

Much of what you see at the Historical Society is exactly what you would expect to find in a centralized library of local history. There are Pennsylvania-oriented history books and pamphlets galore, along with a card catalogue. A rack is filled with current issues of history magazines and newsletters. Standard historical reference volumes such as "Famine Immigrants" and Bates' listings of Pennsylvania's Civil War soldiers are on the shelves.

But as you gradually learn your way around the reading rooms you will find specifically local resources that will help you discover and study your Wyoming Valley ancestors. Some of them are unavailable anywhere else in the area. Here are some major ones.

  • Microfilms of the U.S. Census for Luzerne County from 1790 on. Several readers are available. The reels are indexed by sections of the county. Some of the earlier censuses are on the shelves in bound volumes.

    • Wilkes-Barre City Directories, beginning with the 1871 edition. If your ancestors lived in the city, or in a few adjacent communities, they will be in those volumes, which will also list their occupations.

      If you want to find the locations of your ancestors' businesses, employers, churches, schools or social clubs -- even the stores where they shopped -- they too will be in the directories.

    • Wilkes-Barre Record Almanac. This book, published annually by the old Record newspaper from 1886 to 1962, contains typical almanac information, such as community populations and lists of public officials and election results.

      But you can also use the books to get the name of an ancestor killed in a coal mining or railroad accident, lists of which were published annually for many years. Summary pages of local events and the day-to-day news highlight listings will give you dates for major events such as disasters, strikes or weddings of prominent people.

    • Local history books. If your ancestor was noteworthy in a business or profession, he might well have been profiled (and photographed) in Dwight Stoddard's "Prominent Men," published in 1906, or the huge Smith-Harvey history of Wyoming Valley, published in the 1920s.

      The "Valley Views" column, published in The Times Leader from 1956 to 1975 is photocopied in several volumes, offering concise historical studies of everything from local bands to the once-flourishing lumber industry. Histories of individual Wyoming Valley communities are also available.

    • "Phillips." Just ask for it by that name. Everybody at the society will know what you mean. Teacher Edward D. Phillips, who died in 1958, indulged his passion for local history by compiling 15 typewritten volumes of facts about the area. For nearly everybody who visits the society's library, Phillips is the starting point.

      Genealogists can find good use for much of what Phillips offers. Locations of coal mines, naming of streets, movement of remains from one cemetery to another, old-time social clubs -- there's almost no limit to the research the books contain. Everything is well indexed.

    • Photographs. For the serious researcher, the society has files containing many hundreds of photos of local buildings, streets, railroad stations, events. Did your ancestor work on the famous Black Diamond train of the Lehigh Valley Railroad? It's there, in its various incarnations over the years.

      . . .

      Don't expect to find everything you're looking for in one day. There are too many jewels of information to admire and study. Take out a membership, just $25 a year, and make the library at 49 South Franklin St. one of your regular stops.

      Out-of-town researchers also would do best to visit the library. Staff is limited and cannot readily reply to phone or letter queries. Times of operation are Tuesday through Friday from noon to 4 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Non-members may use the library for a small daily reading fee.

      The Northeast Pennsylvania Genealogical Society won't be holding any meetings until September, but joining now will assure you of receiving the fall edition of the society's informative quarterly newsletter.

      The summer issue contains, among other things, a mention of the Pennsylvania schools established to care for children orphaned by the Civil War -- a piece of history not all genealogists are aware of. The orphans' schools are pretty much forgotten today, but in their time they enrolled thousands of young people. Student names are listed in U.S. Census records. One, located in Harford, Susquehanna County, operated until 1901.

      In the meantime, acquaint yourself with the society's web page at: http://www.rootsweb.com/-panepags/nepa.html. Luzerne County Genweb is at http://www.pagenweb.org/~luzerne/. You can use them to help find your Luzerne County ancestors.

      News notes:

    • Do you ever wish you could get into a time machine and head back to the days of your ancestors? Well, you can do something fairly close to that. There are many "openings" to their world.

      All through the summer Eckley Miners Village, near Freeland right here in Luzerne County, offers glimpses of the past through authentic re-creations of 19th-century coal region life. You'll find everything from restored miners' homes to a visit by Civil War re-creators, acting out the occupation of the anthracite region in the days of 1863 draft resistance. Watch The Times Leader for dates.

      Willing to travel a bit farther? Take in New York's Ellis Island, with its collection of immigrant mementos and recorded voices of the immigrants themselves looking back on their first experiences in America. Local bus companies offer frequent trips.

      Did you have railroaders in the family? Check out the Steamtown trains and displays in Scranton. The 18th-century Dennison House in Forty Fort is shut down for renovations this summer, but the nearby Swetland Homestead offers tours and programs (including a re-creation of the 1778 Battle of Wyoming) showing Wyoming Valley life from the colonial through the Victorian eras.

    • Remember, this column is now accessible through your computer at WWW.LEADER.NET. Then click on "Arts and Entertainment."

    • Have you solved some tough genealogical problems in your research? Do you have some tips you'd like to share with others? Would you like to report a success story? Drop me a line here at the paper. I'll get in touch with you and help you bring the benefits of your experience to others.

      Tom Mooney, The Times Leader, 15 N. Main St., Wilkes-Barre, Pa. 18711.

      1998 The Times Leader