Times Leader Arts & Entertainment

Old streets can be navigated

December 27, 1998

The old, forgotten streets of a community can be pathways to puzzlement or avenues to advancement of your genealogical quest.

It all depends on what you make of them. Some years ago, I learned that an ancestor I was researching lived briefly on Fell Street in Wilkes-Barre when he moved here from out of state in the early 1870s.

Fell Street?

Even people who have grown up here are puzzled by that name. Most of our street names go back for generations, and they don't include a Fell Street.

So, I wondered at the time, what's the story? Could this be somebody's misreading of Welles Street, or some other street with a similar-sounding name?

I had something to go on. The name "Fell" suggested a possible connection with the Fell House, a popular tavern and inn that stood for many years on East Northampton Street at the corner of South Washington. Also, the old Wilkes-Barre City Directories described Fell Street as lying in a north-south direction in the downtown. But where exactly was it?

What I needed was a downtown map from a century or more ago -- not an easy item to find. So I spent hours leafing through old local histories. Finally, folded up in the back of a library copy of the Wilkes-Barre Record Almanac from the late 19th century, I found a city street map.

Fell Street, it turned out, was the original name for what later became State Street -- North State and South State. Part of it indeed ran next to the Fell House. In time I found another map and a list of property owners that confirmed my discovery.

Fell Street's new name didn't end the change destined for it. In the city's great era of redevelopment in the mid-20th century, South State Street was bulldozed out of existence. So was nearby Lincoln Street, to which that same ancestor eventually moved.

By late in the 20th century, there was little remaining to show that Fell Street had ever existed --much less that it had been a neighborhood full of homes, rooming houses and businesses where many of our ancestors built lives for themselves.

Fell Street isn't the only local street that has vanished into history. Wilkes-Barre's Cinderella Street was not just a myth. And did aristocrats live on that upscale-sounding Waverly Place?

Sometimes whole sections of town or even the towns themselves get new names as the years move on. Part of what is now South Wilkes-Barre used to be called West End. Avoca was once Pleasant Valley, while Duryea used to be called Marcy.

You don't have to wonder forever about old names. Almost any historical and genealogical question can be answered through our libraries and history organizations.

Visit them, join them, get familiar with their holdings. Don't wait until you need information. Take a Saturday or another day off to go there and browse. Find out what they've got. Your investment will pay off someday.

Dealing with out-of-town ancestors? Researching Wyoming Valley roots from afar? Library reference rooms often contain bibliographies of historical and other works about other states, their counties and their cities. If these books are not available locally, they may be ordered free-of-charge through interlibrary loan. If there's something you want to buy, several publishers offer huge lines of genealogy-related books about towns all over America.

You don't have to stay lost in your ancestors' streets. Directions are right at your fingertips.

Searching: George D. Peltz of Massachusetts is researching the SAEGER (also SEGAR and SAGER) family, which is the family of his great-grandmother Minerva Elizabeth Saeger (1850-1932). The family moved from Bloomsburg to Scranton. Peltz says the family goes far back into the area's history, with Minerva's father Henry having been the driver of a coach between Scranton and Easton. Minerva had brothers George and Will, and a half-brother Winfield McHenry of Shickshinny. Contact George D. Peltz at 5438 A Lemay Ave., Air Station, Cape Cod, Mass. 02542.

Update: An out-of-town reader recently wrote that she has been unable to get her hands on records from a very large and very old area cemetery. She said she has been trying for months to get an answer from the caretakers, but with no success.

She is certainly not alone. Someday, though, that kind of difficulty will be a thing of the past. All existing cemetery, church service and funeral records from Luzerne County will be available on a single microfilmed database -- filed and indexed in some central place for the genealogist to use.

For several years, volunteers from the Northeastern Pennsylvania Genealogical Society have been collecting records from cemeteries, churches and funeral homes throughout the county. They index the names, cemetery by cemetery, and microfilm them. In time, they will be available to the public.

"We make a copy for the church and we keep a copy for ourselves," says Tammy Lamb, society president. "In the event something does happen to the church records, there's a backup copy."

The project is being carried on by just a few people. Of course, it will take years to complete. But it can be speeded up if more people offer to help. Contact Lamb, care of the society, at P.O. Box 1776, Shavertown, Pa. 18708-0776.

"If any churches want to have their records done, they can feel free to contact me," says Lamb.

Incidentally, Lamb would like to see records from the funeral homes that have gone out of business over the years. If you know where any of them are, please contact her.

News notes: The Northeastern Pennsylvania Genealogical Society is taking a holiday for a few weeks. Its meeting schedule will resume in January.

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

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