Sunday, February 4, 2001

The answer to a genealogical question can be found in a will, an obituary, a news story, a birth certificate, a church record.

But how about a weather report?

John Darken of Florida is on a quest to find out what happened to cause the collapse of the new Presbyterian church in Wilkes-Barre in November 1830.

His interest is more than just historical curiosity. His ancestor, a British architect also named John Darken, was blamed for the disaster and suffered damage to his reputation and career.

Writes the modern-day Darken, who suspects weather was the cause, ``I am trying to determine what actually happened during the efforts to build that church.''

Here are the agreed-upon facts. When the leaders of Wilkes-Barre's Presbyterian community decided to move out of the Old Ship Zion church on Public Square and build their own, they called in John Darken, an architect from Norwich, England, to do the job.

Darken arrived in Wilkes-Barre in 1830, and soon afterward his family joined him.

The trustees had obtained a lot on South Franklin Street. The plan called for a wood frame building, approached by a flight of steps, with four Corinthian-style columns in front and a tall steeple above. It would seat about 400. The cost would be about $4,000, a hefty sum in those days.

But in November 1830, disaster struck. Workmen were putting the roof on the building when, according to a later newspaper account, ``the whole structure collapsed and timbers, boards, plank and some half dozen carpenters went down into the cellar.'' Continued the article, ``The men were badly hurt though none of them were killed.''

Darken thinks the cause might have been ``a major ... storm and flooding that did major damage to buildings (existing and under construction),'' something beyond his architect-ancestor's control.

Trustees of the Presbyterian church saw it differently. They fired Darken from the job. He returned to England, never being fully compensated for his work, according to ``Meet the Pastors of the First Presbyterian Church,'' by Robert E. Ogren (1997).

Architect Darken, it is said in the church history, kept a diary. In that diary he wrote that the weather that fall was atrocious - windy, with flooding - and despite those handicaps the construction project held up well.

``But notwithstanding this,'' he said in his diary, ``the Wilkes-Barre native builders, jealous of me and my mode of building, which was different to which they had been accustomed to see done, exerted themselves to circulate a report to its injury, and availed themselves of every trifling circumstance to excite prejudice.''

Incidentally, the building Darken had worked on was replaced in 1851 by a beautiful brick structure, which still stands there as the Osterhout Free Library, one of Wilkes-Barre's architectural gems. In 1887 the present-day First Presbyterian Church opened just a few doors down the street.

So what caused the 1830 collapse? Was it an architect's mistakes or an outbreak of bad weather?

The church history gives both sides and does not settle the matter. Neither does the book ``Pocono Weather,'' a study of Northeastern Pennsylvania's weather from the 18th century to the present. It mentions no floods or storms for 1830. A Times Leader list of local floods also conains nothing for fall 1830.

Probably John Darken's best hope lies in poring over old newspapers of the time for discussions of weather. The Times Leader's library has microfilms of four local papers published in that year.

But beware: Old-time newspapers are not always dependable on what today we consider meat-and-potatoes news. Editors of the early 19th century tended to be activists who filled their papers with political news, often ignoring events that today's readers would consider vital.

John, my best advice is this: Stop by the Times Leader's library during the public hours of 10 a.m. to noon Wednesday-Friday and check out the old papers.

Perhaps you will get lucky and there will be stories about buildings being damaged by high winds and flooding in November 1830.

You have nothing to lose. And no matter what you do find, it is truth that will be the winner.

Local History Moment: Coal mining was certainly the deadliest occupation Wyoming Valley ever had. But railroading, also a large local employer in times past, offered its own sometimes-spectacular dangers. In January 1900, a 45-car Jersey Central freight train went out of control while descending the mountain and crashed into standing locomotives and cars lined up below in the Ashley rail yards. One of the runaway train's cars was loaded with dynamite, which exploded and blew out windows throughout the small town. Five people were killed. In February 1918, another Jersey Central train descending the same mountain went out of control, plowing into the yards and demolishing rolling stock and an office building. Two people died.

News Notes: Next Sunday at 1 p.m. I will offer my two-hour introduction to genealogy at Boscov's Department Store in Wilkes-Barre. The session, which is free, will be held in the fourth-floor auditorium. It will be repeated at the same time on the 28th. Beginners and experienced genealogists are all welcome. Bring questions, suggestions and problems. It's run seminar-style, with plenty of opportunity for discussion.

Ever think of getting into volunteering to help your fellow genealogists? A recent issue of the AARP Bulletin tells of the explosion of volunteerism in Internet genealogy. Older people are doing everything from transcribing immigrant ships' passenger lists to taking over supervision of Web sites. Many just offer their services online to look up vital information in their communities, helping people living far away.

A nonprofit foundation is trying to preserve Virginia's Civil War battlefields as a legacy for future generations. The Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation was formed late last year, with the blessing of federal authorities. Said the Associated Press, ``Development pressures have increased over the past few decades. In the 1980s, Washington's suburbs began to spread into the valley's northern fringes, while agriculture woes have made farmers more willing to sell.'' The group will try to get land classed under conservation.

Remember, this column is now accessible through your computer at Then click on ``Generations.''

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. Email is