In Search of Old Shamokin, December 2020 edition. Find more local history in the Weekender the last Saturday of every month.
The digital age has reinvented the way researchers of all kinds obtain information. For historians and genealogists, digitized newspapers, vital records, and an immense variety of books can now be accessed from home, adding historical research to the ever-growing list of pursuits which have “gone virtual.” Even those studying a topic as specialized as local history or genealogy can conduct most of their research online. Sometimes, however, the romance of research in the field still beckons–and for historians of Greater Shamokin, that romance resides in the Northumberland County Courthouse in Sunbury.
The iconic 1865 Italianate courthouse structure, known to most as a familiar symbol of the county seat and a landmark in its own right, is also home to the county’s largest and oldest collection of original historical records. Almost every type of transaction recorded at the county level and disclosed to the public in the past two hundred years–whether a real estate sale, a last will and testament, or a lawsuit–is preserved in the Northumberland County Courthouse’s offices. While its most frequently accessed collections have been digitized for reasons of convenience and preservation, every record still exists in its original format–a bound book, a typewritten document, a will hastily scrawled in the original handwriting of its author. The courthouse is not a museum, nor a library, nor an online database–but for historians, it is something even better: a vast, raw quarry of information, as organic as an archaeological site.
In Search of Old Shamokin, November 2020 edition. Runs last Saturday of every month in the Weekender.
Anyone who’s visited downtown Shamokin knows the Shamokin-Coal Township Public Library and the imposing edifice it calls home. But whether you’re a frequent library patron or just a passerby, there’s more to the iconic American Legion Memorial Building than meets the eye.
Located at the busy intersection of Independence and Liberty Streets on the site of the former Windsor Hotel, the American Legion Building, or Memorial Hall, was completed in 1924 as Lincoln Post No. 73’s headquarters and dedicated in memory of those who served in World War I. Drawing up the plans was noted Shamokin architect William H. Lee, the man behind the design of the Shamokin High School on Arch Street and two Victoria Theatres in Shamokin and Mount Carmel. At the time of the Legion Building’s opening, the upper floors housed the Legion’s meeting rooms and gymnasium, while the first floor contained several storefronts in what is now the library.
While the building’s commercial first floor has changed frequently over the decades, much of the facade and the former meeting rooms retain many of their original details. Perhaps most recognizable is the entrance hall on the east side of the building, with its marble staircase reminiscent of the similarly monumental foyer of Lee’s 1917 Shamokin High School. The Legion’s entrance hall features the craftsmanship of local contractors, specifically marble work by Joseph Cannistra, and tile flooring by Peter Barr and Sons, although the latter has been replaced with carpeting in modern times. Bronzework contracts were awarded to the Cooper-Nichols Company of Philadelphia. Following the perimeter of the room is the inscription: “This memorial is dedicated by a grateful people to the memory of their fellow citizens who so nobly served in the World War.”
Shortly after the turn of the 20th Century, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was rocked by an unprecedented political controversy surrounding the gubernatorial race of 1902. What would result was a statewide internecine contest between members of two opposing factions that extended to Northumberland County, and would determine the political futures of the most influential local leaders of the era.
In 1902, the political climate of Republican-controlled Pennsylvania was characterized by the reign of local “bosses,” popular leaders—elected or otherwise—who used their influence on a county or city level to promote their party’s interests and sway elections. Dominating this hierarchy of bosses within the Republican Party was Senator Matthew S. Quay, known by his admirers and detractors alike simply as “the old man,” a skilled political tactician who had discreetly directed the Pennsylvania “machine” for decades. The ever-increasing numbers of state Republicans who opposed Quay and his methods became known as the anti-Quay or anti-organization forces, or simply “insurgents.”
The conflict became an intimately familiar one even in Northumberland County, now back under Democrat control after having previously handed the district to Republicans with the election of Shamokin lumber magnate Monroe H. “Farmer” Kulp to the Seventeenth Congressional District from 1895-1899. Though no longer in office, Kulp was by no means retired from politics. Having declined to seek a third term ostensibly to focus on his business interests, Kulp sought to retain his influence in the region despite having had many of his political projects in Congress frustrated at the hands of machine leaders like Quay. By 1900, Kulp was already becoming known as Northumberland County’s “boss.” Local offices were constant sources of heated debate and rife with favoritism, including the particularly notorious postmaster offices. Kulp worked actively to install his own candidates in that office, ruffling feathers county-wide whenever another post office hopeful was passed over in favor of a “Kulpite” appointee.
In a city founded on industry, best known in its heyday as the commercial metropolis of the coal region, it is easy to overlook the role of the arts in Shamokin’s history. Nevertheless, music, dance, and theater were enthusiastically promoted in the community from its beginnings.
In the early years of the borough, musical selections were presented in concert and meeting halls in the upper floors of local businesses, or at the Academy of Music located at the current site of the American Legion Memorial. For the classically inclined, the G.A.R. hall at Independence and Cleaver Streets offered operas and ballet. Popular music also thrived with the formation of a number of brass and marching bands. But it was in the 1920s that Shamokin experienced what later authors would term a “Golden Age” of music in the history of the city.
Prior to the rise of Edgewood Park as Shamokin’s beloved recreational destination, area residents looked forward to the yearly opening of another attraction: the Shamokin Driving Park, located at Weigh Scales in Ralpho Township.
Built under the auspices of the Shamokin Agricultural & Driving Park Association, incorporated April 1, 1889, the destination combined a racetrack and fairgrounds, its busy season spanning late summer and fall after the model of similar harvest fairs and their venues in the region, such as the Milton Driving Park and the Bloomsburg Fair. Like its successors, the trolley parks of the early 20th Century, the Shamokin Driving Park’s sustaining force was transportation—in this case, being located near the confluence of the Pennsylvania, Reading, and Lehigh Valley Railroads.
“In addition to the railroads,” the Shamokin Herald wrote, “there is a wagon road leading to the park, capable of being transformed into one of the most beautiful drives to be found in the country, winding as it does, along the banks of Shamokin Creek, fringed on either side with tall and stately monarchs of the forest.”
Just over 100 years ago, a Shamokin native played a vital role in a remarkable yet often overlooked achievement in the history of aviation—the first successful transatlantic flight. In an arduous three-week journey in May 1919, Holden Chester Richardson was one of a crew of naval aviators who pioneered the way across the Atlantic Ocean aboard three U.S. Navy seaplanes from New York to Great Britain.
There is perhaps no chapter of aviation history more misunderstood than that of the first transatlantic flight. Traditionally, the distinction is attributed to Lindbergh, who completed the first nonstop solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927. It could just as easily be accorded to the two British aviators Alcock and Brown for having made a similar nonstop journey from June 14-15, 1919. But both were preceded in crossing the Atlantic by the trio of seaplanes known as the NC, or Navy-Curtiss, flying boats. Because the flight was neither continuous nor solo, it was quickly overshadowed by the later record breakers, leaving the story of the NCs to an undeserved obscurity.
In the midst of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, we find ourselves in a period of challenges unprecedented in our lifetimes. Even in areas comparatively spared from the spread of the virus, the effects of the pandemic are keenly felt in the prolonged closures, restrictions, and quarantines which extend to every corner of the nation, including Shamokin. But history reminds us that this is not the first time our community has experienced—and survived—the ravages of plague.
In particular, the effects on our area of the current virus are mild in comparison to the Spanish influenza of 1918. The virus, which reached its peak in the United States in the fall of 1918, brought about a pandemic with a death toll of at least 500,000 nationally and millions more worldwide.