In Search of Old Shamokin: Before Coal Was King

The following is the inaugural installment of my new column in the News-Item, In Search of Old Shamokin. Find it monthly in the Lifestyle section.

I started researching this fascinating topic while writing my short feature film, “Jesse’s Diamonds,” inspired by the story of Jesse Major, John C. Boyd, and the founding of Shamokin. The film is currently in the casting phase. Find out more here.

Before Coal Was King
Jesse Major, John Boyd, and the Origins of Shamokin

In 1824, a notorious outlaw pays down the paltry sum of twelve dollars for a tract of land which will one day become the center of a prosperous city. The outlaw is Jesse Major, who ultimately sells his land for two hundred thirty dollars and a horse to a land speculator named John C. Boyd. The city? Shamokin, Pennsylvania.

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New exhibit coming to the Heritage Museum

Recently we featured the Kulp Memorial Church on this blog as one of the Shamokin area’s Great Buildings. Next weekend, Saturday, September 21, visitors to the Greater Shamokin Heritage Museum can view the contents of the Kulp church’s original cornerstone in a new exhibit.

Myself and Dave Shinskie of Kulpmont100 visit the Kulp church in August 2019.

The cornerstone was laid in 1912 and contained coins, a Bible and prayer book, and a number of rare issues of Shamokin newspapers including the Dispatch, Herald, and Daily News. Most of these will be on display during the September 21 event, which runs from 1:00 P.M. to 3:30 P.M.

The museum would like to extend special thanks to Kulpmont100 for lending the cornerstone contents to this exhibit.

In addition to the opening of the exhibit, there are several community activities and events also scheduled for September 21, including an AOAA ride, Shamokin Cemetery community cleanup, and the Edison Illuminating Walking Tour at 6:30 P.M.

The Great Buildings: Kulp Memorial Church

The following article is the second in a series featuring the landmark structures of the Greater Shamokin Area. For more, see The Great Buildings category.

On a bright, clear winter’s day in 1912, a building contractor left his card in the cornerstone of a new unfinished church. Just ten days before, the cornerstone had been laid with pomp and circumstance, a speech from the bishop, and a ceremony held in the schoolhouse across the street to shelter attendees from the cold weather. A box was prepared containing three coins, a small bible and prayer book, and a collection of newspapers. Finally on December 10, all were sealed in the cornerstone together with the builder’s business card, where they would remain for the next century.

This same church can still be found today along Chestnut Street in Kulpmont — a small, modest structure of gray stone and stucco to match. It’s easy to miss on the fast-paced Route 61 that follows the town’s main street, but if one does stop for a glance, it appears there is not much to see. It is not a particularly imposing edifice. It has been called a chapel, though it did once serve a large and active congregation. Even when it was first built, its otherwise plain facade was adorned only by a large stained glass window and a simple cross at the gable’s peak. But what it lacks in ornamentation, it has more than made up for in history.

The Kulp Memorial Church of today, and as it appeared around forty or fifty years ago. Historical image from the Thomas Photography collection, courtesy of Larry Deklinski.

Completed in 1913, this Protestant Episcopal church was the first of its kind in the town, and would continue to serve an active parish for several decades. It was a church to many, but it was more than that — even today, with the structure long since deconsecrated, it still stands as a monument to the memory of one man. It is a widow’s tribute to her husband, for whom the church was named the Monroe H. Kulp Memorial Episcopal Church of the Ascension.

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The Great Buildings: Trinity Episcopal Church

As curator of the Greater Shamokin Heritage Museum, I am excited to announce a new series of articles focusing on the historic architecture of Shamokin and its environs. The Great Buildings series will focus primarily on extant examples, giving you the reader a chance to accompany me virtually as I explore these unique buildings and, of course, learn something of their history along the way.

Introducing the Great Buildings of Shamokin is Trinity Episcopal Church, the landmark Lincoln Street Tudor Revival. Some of you may recall the church having been recently in danger of demolition after the Episcopal congregation relocated to Mount Carmel. It has recently been revealed that the church building has been purchased by a private party and thankfully is saved from demolition. For more information, see this article in the Daily Item. The new owners plan to convert the chapel space into a coffee shop.

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The McConnell Building

Last week I had the privilege of touring a landmark Shamokin structure–the McConnell Building, corner of Sunbury and Rock Streets. Its red-brick facade has been a distinctive feature of downtown Shamokin for more than a hundred and twenty years, but most locals have probably never been afforded the opportunity of a close look at its architecture and history.

The McConnell Building was named for William C. McConnell (1860-1949), a prominent local businessman and later state senator. Originally hailing from a small town near Harrisburg, McConnell removed to Shamokin and aligned early in the 1880s with the Kulps and McWilliamses, pioneer merchants of lumber, brick and ice.

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A Crisis of Heritage

(The following is a guest commentary by yours truly which appeared in Thursday’s edition of the News-Item.)

Shamokin is in crisis.

It is a crisis which stems not from the issues of crime, poverty, or even blight—topics which have been exhaustively lamented, and remain constant and serious threats to our community. Behind these more familiar issues—and perhaps contributing to some of them—is a danger as deeply rooted and similarly destructive to the past, present and future of Shamokin. That crisis is the indifferent and reckless eradication of the city’s history, heritage and culture, one landmark at a time.

In an article of August 7, 2018, the News-Item announced the imminent demolition of the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church located on Lincoln Street. The old-world charm of the chapel’s stone facade, together with its adjoining Tudor-style rectory, has been one of the most recognizable and distinctive examples of local architecture since 1891. Generations of worshippers have passed through its great oak doors. Sarah W. Kulp (1862-1931), the wife of Kulpmont founder Monroe H. Kulp, was one well-known parishioner. A stained glass window above the altar was commissioned in her memory over eighty years ago, and remains a central feature of the chapel today. In the 1970s, national attention was drawn to the Shamokin church after an image of Christ was said to have appeared on an altar cloth.

Now, citing structural issues the Church deems too costly to repair, the diocese has elected to desacralize Trinity Episcopal by the end of the year. Despite the fact that the structure is clearly not beyond saving—and undoubtedly at a far less substantial cost than the exaggerated repair estimates obtained thus far—it has been decreed that simply because it is considered unsuitable for regular public use in its current condition, this cornerstone of history must be razed to the ground in short order.

If this occurs, Trinity Episcopal will join the long list of landmarks wiped off the map in recent decades. The former Independence Street YMCA building, Edgewood Lake and the surrounding Edgewood Park, the Park Hotel, the McConnell Mansion, and the J.H. and C.K. Eagle Silk Mill together with its iconic clocktower are among the lost. Many historic structures, rather than being preserved and restored, were destroyed and replaced with projects deemed more worthwhile, such as the Victoria Theatre on Independence Street, razed in the 1990s and currently the location of a Rite-Aid. In the 1970s, the palatial Queen Anne residence known as Oaklawn, which stood on lands occupying an entire city block in Edgewood and was once the home of Trinity Episcopal’s own Sarah Kulp, was demolished to make way for a housing development.

Time and again, the powers that be have sacrificed heritage in the name of profit and convenience. Yet one has only to look around to recognize that for their efforts, Shamokin ultimately has been left with neither heritage, nor profit, nor convenience. The affliction in the city is not only economic, but spiritual. With each landmark lost, a part of the region’s identity is discarded. We are on the road to becoming a city of Rite-Aids and parking lots. As the soul of a community withers, it is little wonder that its citzenry and businesses take flight. While most communities take measures to safeguard the treasures of their past, we have repeatedly demonstrated by our actions and by our inaction that to Shamokinites, our history is not worth the gravel we pave over it.

As we so cavalierly dispose of our past, so should we prepare to dispose of our future.

The recent unveiling of a time capsule, secured in the cornerstone of the former YMCA and Masonic temple since 1901, comes at a timely moment to remind us that history should be protected and preserved. We look back in wonder at one bequest of a lost age, by a people who wanted to be remembered—just as we stand ready to obliterate another.

I urge my fellow citizens, whether in Shamokin or anywhere in the anthracite region, to take action before another chapter of history is erased with the impending destruction of the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church. This is an issue which, like our heritage, we cannot allow to be buried and forgotten. Instead, share it with neighbors, friends, parishioners, and city officials, and make it known that the destruction must stop now. Recently, an historic church in Kulpmont, the Church of the Ascension, was preserved and restored in a project led by Kulpmont100. Likewise, through a joint effort of our citizens, elected officials and community leaders, we have the ability—and the responsibility—to save Trinity Episcopal Church, and with it, an irreplaceable block in the foundation of our own community identity.


Shamokinites of 1929: Do you know them?

A busy schedule may have kept me absent from this blog for a while, but I just had to check in to post this rare glimpse into the coal region of old. What were Shamokinites and natives of the surrounding area doing in 1929? Many, it seems, turned out for the celebration at Richardson Field (presently Northumberland County Airport) given on the occasion of the dedication of two new hangars, as well as the retirement from the Navy of Captain Holden Chester Richardson, a native of Shamokin.

A good friend of mine recently discovered an old film reel from this event, which she purchased and converted to digital. She let me view this historical find, a copy of which she is currently offering via eBay auction, and allowed me to take a few snapshots of some of the area residents shown on the film. The following individuals are unidentified, but while I don’t know them, I wish I did! Do you recognize anyone?