Life In Wilkes Barre PA

Life in Wilkes Barre, Pa. for the Immigrants                       

Sections in this Chapter:

          1.     Why and How Did They Come to Wilkes Barre?

2.     Getting Started

3.     History and Geography of Northeastern Pa.

4. The Story of Anthracite

5.     Luzerne County, Pa.

6.     History of the Roman Catholic Diocese

7.     City and Towns Incorporations

8.     Miner’s Mills Borough

9.     Wilkes-Barre Township

10.  Being a Coal Miner in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries

11.   Lattimer Mine Massacre

12. The Overthrow of the Molly Maguires

Section 1. Why and How Did They Come to Wilkes Barre?

For those of us familiar with Wilkes Barre today and over the course of the past few decades, it may be difficult to imagine that in the late 1800's, Wilkes Barre was a vibrant and growing community. This picture shown to the right was taken in 1887. It is the Public Square as seen from the top of the old Luzerne County Courthouse looking down Market St. towards Kingston. The population data illustrates a vibrant community as well as the organization and incorporation of towns and cities.  Starting with the 1850 census, when the population of the county reached 56,000, the population of the Wyoming Valley and Luzerne County increased dramatically for eight decades.  At its peak in 1930, the population of Luzerne County reached 445,000, and then began a precipitous decline that continues into the early years of the 21st century.  Sections 3-9 will attempt to describe this in more detail. 

Shown to the left is the first electric street car that arrived in Wilkes-Barre on December 13, 1887, just four years after Immigrant Catherine arrived.  In the 1890 population data, the entire population of the US is 63 million people representing a 25% increase over the total population in 1880.  Our relatives immigrated to the USA during the decade of the 1880's.  For comparison purposes, the population of Luzerne County in 1890 was 261,203 versus a population of 551,959 for Allegheny County (Pittsburgh) and 1,046,964 for Philadelphia County. There were no other counties in PA larger then these 3.  Luzerne County's population increased 96% from 1880 to 1890 and in 1890 Luzerne County was 5% of the total Pennsylvania population and .4% of the total US population. The leading countries of origin for foreign born people in the 1890 Pennsylvania census were England, Germany and Ireland; 16% of the people in the Pennsylvania census were foreign born and 36% had foreign born parents.  60% of the males were single and 56% of the females were single.  Scranton was the 39th largest city in the US in this census.   There is no doubt that the vibrancy of the area was a significant draw for the immigrant generation.  Indeed, in 1902 Wilkes Barre was the focal point for the nation as discussed in chapter 6.  

 What else would draw the immigrants to this area?  Certainly they were looking for employment, security and some sense of belonging.  The overwhelming majority of ethnic groups settled where they were sure to find work.  More then 80% of the Irish settled in eastern cities and lived in the states of New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Illinois.  There were a large number of Irish people and perhaps relatives or friends that they knew or were aware of that were already in the Wilkes Barre area. 

In the 1880 census there is a Margaret McTeague living in Plains PA.  She shows up in the 1880 census only.   In that census she is a servant age 30 living in what appears to be a huge house that is owned by Michael Egan. It lists his occupation in the census as Breaker Boss.  Perhaps she was a relative and arranged jobs and a place to stay for the immigrants?  She would have been six years older than immigrant Catherine.  It was the norm in this era for relatives to write to others in their country of origin and make arrangements for them to come over.  In today's terms, they would plan the itinerary, arrange for housing and a job.Perhaps the Luzerne County Historical Society is right when it writes 100 years later about the coal region hospitality:

“The Coal Region is renowned for its warm welcomes and generous spirit. Perhaps it was the constant influx of newcomers brought by the flood of European immigrants in the mid-1800 and early 1900's that makes us extend a hand and a smile so readily. If America was the melting pot, the coal region was the kitchen doorway through which many Irish, Polish, Slovak, Scotch, Welsh, English, Italian, Lithuanian, German, Russian, and so many other ethnic groups entered their new society. The coal mines were a huge draw for the unskilled laborers that disembarked the boats in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and other ports on the eastern seaboard. The coal region, virtually unsettled in 1800, boomed as coal became King.”

At first, the ethnic groups kept to themselves in the small clusters of company homes supplied for their workers by the colliery owners. But as time passed, the lines of demarcation blurred. Friendships were forged, marriages were made, and children were born across the ethnic barriers. Today, most Coal Crackers boast about our hardy genetic makeup. The mixing and mingling over generations created a unique blended culture of traditions, music, language, and lifestyles that can only be found in the Coal Region.

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