Wilkes-Barre is in the center of the Wyoming Valley anthracite coal region. It was founded in 1769 by John Durke and colonists from Connecticut, and was originally known as Wyoming. Later, it was renamed in honor of two British members of parliament, John Wilkes and Col. Isaac Barre, who had defended the American colonies in parliamentary debates.
Fort Wilkes-Barre was built in 1776 as a defense against Indians. On July 4, 1778, one day after the Wyoming Massacre, Wilkes-Barre was burned to the ground by Indian and British forces. It was rebuilt but again destroyed by fire during the second Pennamite-Yankee War.
Conflicting claims by Pennsylvania and Connecticut were finally settled in favor of Pennsylvania. Title to lands occupied by Connecticut settlers were resolved by a series of statutes passed by Pennsylvania between 1799 and 1807. In 1818, Wilkes-Barre was incorporated as a borough, with a city charter following in 1871.
Coal mining was not the only element of the Wilkes-Barre economy. Charles Stegmaier began brewing beer in 1857 and by 1916 was producing 200,000 barrels year. Silk manufacturing became important, with companies like Empire Silk Mill importing silk from Japan to be fashioned into women's garments.
However, coal was the most important element and its gradual decline impacted the local economy badly. Many of the mines had already closed when the Knox Mine disaster struck in January, 1959. Floodwaters from the Susquehanna River swamped the Knox Mine and killed 12 men. In addition, an entire network of underground mines was flooded, ending deep mine operations in Wilkes-Barre and throwing thousands out of work.
This was not to be the final tragedy for Wilkes-Barre. Hurricane Agnes, although reduced by then to a tropical storm, struck in June, 1971, pushing the Susquehanna four feet above the levees built after the 1936 flood. More than 2,000 businesses were damaged, but the city has been completely rebuilt and revitalized since the disaster.
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