Wilkes-Barre, the “Diamond City,” is the oldest city in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Settlement was attempted in 1762 when Maj. John Durkee, a veteran of the French and Indian War, brought a band of Connecticut colonists into the Wyoming Valley under grants issued by the Susquehanna Company. The first permanent settlement in the area was in 1769, which then became Wilkes-Barre. Durkee named the town for John Wilkes and Colonel Isaac Barré, two British members of Parliament who aggressively defended the rights of the American colonies.
Before the settlement of the colony, Native American tribes known as the Iroquois Confederacy settled in Wilkes-Barre and other parts of the Wyoming Valley. They used the lands to fish and hunt and occasionally invited other small tribes to join them on the land.
The original Connecticut colonists claimed Northeastern Pennsylvania under a 1662 charter from King Charles II of England. In 1681, King Charles issued another charter to Sir William Penn for the same lands, igniting a conflict. To complicate the situation further, Iroquois tribes would sell the disputed territory to colonists who settled on their lands, also known as “Yankees” and Pennamites.” This conflict led to a series of bitter turf battles before Congress permanently awarded the territory to Pennsylvania. After 40 years, the conflict was resolved, allowing the Connecticut settlers to retain title of their lands on the condition they swear an oath of allegiance to Pennsylvania.
In 1770, the town was laid out in typical New England fashion, 50 town plots with the focus on two public spaces: common land along the riverfront (known today as the River Common), and a central civic square (known today as Public Square). The boundaries of the original town plan encompass most of today’s Downtown Wilkes-Barre.
Wilkes-Barre became the seat of the new County of Luzerne in 1786. It quickly grew into a regional center of commerce, and was incorporated as a borough in 1806, led by burgess Jesse Fell. During the 19th century, Wilkes-Barre‘s presence at the center of Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal fields fueled its rise as one of the United States’ great industrial cities. It officially became a city in 1871 and Ira Mandeville Kirkendall was elected the first mayor.
Wilkes-Barre’s economy was agrarian, and its' first export was lumber to the cities of Baltimore and Philadelphia. The city's population exploded around the time of the Civil War due to the anthracite coal industry. As canals and later railroads eased transportation issues to the large coastal cities, the coal industry began to dominate the economy. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants flocked to the city and valley, seeking jobs in the numerous mines and collieries. Wilkes-Barre fueled the Industrial Revolution and helped build America.
"From Planters Peanuts to a birthplace of the labor movement, from Florence Foster Jenkins, Fred Kirby and Edgar Patience, Wilkes-Barre has a glorious heritage."
-Councilman Tony Brooks
The prominence of the city of Wilkes-Barre is still reflected in the city’s built environment; gorgeous structures, such as the Luzerne County Courthouse, the Market Street Bridge, and the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts continue to grace the streets of Downtown, while the city's neighborhoods boast many beautiful churches constructed for the ethnic groups that have made Wilkes-Barre their home.
Celebrate with the city on June 11th at our 2019 EPIC Awards. Register HERE!