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?

Mother Cabrini, St. Edward’s Parish Office – Rectory: A Brief History

In 2008, I explored and blogged about three old Shamokin landmark buildings–the 1890 Washington School, the Douty Building, and a Commerce Street F&S Brewery building. Last week, I embarked on my fourth such expedition–a tour of the parish office of Mother Cabrini Church, formerly St. Edward’s, on Shamokin Street. It’s the building that once housed the priests of one of Shamokin’s largest Catholic parishes–a structure with an intriguing history, a somewhat uncertain architectural past, and not without a connection to my own research. But in fact, the whole matter started months earlier with a photograph–an 1870s view of Shamokin, the exact location of which was unidentified.

In Search of Old Shamokin…140 Years Ago

It looks ordinary enough, but it proved to be a real mystery. I tried and failed numerous times to identify the approximate location it shows, and I’m usually familiar with the main sections of Shamokin. The only two distinctive buildings in the photo are the church at the lower left, and the large building just to the right of it. I could not, however, identify either structure.

So I–and some family members–started considering and rejecting a number of theories as to the possible location–Springfield, Market Street, Shamokin Street. It took us forever but we finally struck on the solution when it occurred to us that the residential building in the photo might be the parish office of Mother Cabrini Church, formerly St. Edward’s.

Of course, there was a problem–the office is directly adjacent to the church, but the latter does not appear in the photo, meaning that for some reason the office (rectory at the time) had to predate the church’s construction in 1873.

However, an old letter I’ve had for some time seemed to hold an explanation.

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Revisiting Edgewood…in Maps

Spring’s here again, and that means it’s time to be getting back in gear with the long-put-off local history research. Courthouse trips, library trips, the 2010 Heritage Festival, and a little exploration through a few more old Shamokin landmarks…all are in store for the coming weeks.

So I officially kicked off my return to research with another visit to the Heritage Museum on the second floor of the American Legion Building. If you’ve checked the censuses, vital records and more, and you need a more informal but rich source of information to dip into for leads on your Shamokinite ancestors, the Heritage Museum is the place to go. The beauty of it is that you can never be sure what you’ll find–you may just wind up stumbling onto a gold mine. It’s two good-sized rooms and a long hallway full of miscellany–everything from old photos to diplomas to a large collection of high school reviews to commemorative booklets to letters and coal company papers to trinkets to goodness knows what else. It seems the majority are from this century, but you’ll certainly find some older articles, too.

As for me, I turned up two wonderful pieces of history I hadn’t seen before. Books of Shamokin maps, from 1913 and 1922. These are the types of things that were drawn up by utility companies to mark the locations of water lines, etc., but they contain detailed, close-up maps of every part of Shamokin, showing the streets and footprints of buildings. Some, such as churches and firehouses, are named, and are color-coded to indicate a frame or brick building. The footprints are occasionally a little inaccurate, but they show bay windows, porches, and the like.

For me, this was an excellent opportunity to get a better idea of the layout of Shamokin’s famous Edgewood district in that era. I’ve only seen two other maps like this, one of which was from 1889, before any significant development of Edgewood took place. The 1913 map, however, shows Edgewood in its prime, including several park buildings.

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1913: Lynn Street. East is up. The large block at the upper left is Oaklawn, the famed residence built by M.H. Kulp. An approximate footprint of the house, as well as garage and coops, are shown. The streets, it seems, have changed drastically. Park Avenue is now Kulp Avenue; Edgewood Avenue was renamed Woodlawn. Not visible in this section is the western end of Lynn Street, which now turns southwest and becomes Park Avenue. That turn, it seems, was non-existent in 1913.

At the bottom of this map, across Park Avenue from Oaklawn, is the residence of Millard F. Nagle, probably built in 1910, and still standing. Continue reading

Festival 2009 Part III: The Past Comes Alive at Shamokin Cemetery

Shamokin Cemetery: The large mausoleum is visible in the background

Shamokin Cemetery: The large mausoleum is visible in the background

By many, a cemetery is considered an eerie, morbid, sometimes even macabre place. It’s an overused setting in films and novels of the horror variety, and is not very often associated with anything other than death or desolation in some form. But, although a cemetery certainly marks some of the more despondent moments of history, it is also, to the people who made the Shamokin Cemetery tour on Saturday, May 23rd possible, a place to recognize and remember those who are buried there, and, for a few hours every year, to bring that past back to life.

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