PLAINS TWP. -- Maps of canals and train lines dating back nearly 200 years sprawled across the tables as retired teacher John Quinn recounted the region's glory days in coal and rail to Wilkes-Barre Area Career and Technology Center students Wednesday.
Quinn, the president of the Wilkes-Barre Area School Board, is on a quest to keep that history from fading. He and retired railroad worker Patrick Conway salvaged old maps about to be discarded, gathered information by the hopper car full and have started touring schools, talking to students on a weekly, even daily, basis.
I've always been proud to be from this area, and I want to see history passed down, Quinn told the students.
Quinn and Conway have so much information in their heads, the short presentations – 45 minutes total on Wednesday – range far and wide. It's more of a sampler than a seven-course meal.
So the criminal Red Nose Mike gets only a brief-enough mention for Quinn to note: He fled back to Italy and was caught; he was hung on Public Square. Likewise, Jesse Fell, the first person to burn anthracite coal on an open grate indoors – and in Wilkes-Barre, no less – gets only short attention.
Quinn pointed out that the first inter-urban electric train in the country ran from Scranton to Pittston, and that George Westinghouse – of the You can be sure, if it's … corporation – personally came to do that. Quinn also recounted how coal dominated life through family history. My grandfather, when he was 7, his occupation was listed as coal miner. So too, incidentally, were that grandfather's two brothers, ages 9 and 6.
The area had the country's first standardized railroad and the first deep mining for coal; it boasted the most skilled people in rail and mining machinery, drawing companies here when they needed custom parts. And the wealth from coal and mobility from rail attracted all types of factories lining the rail lines. The area just oozed history, Quinn said.
Quinn and Conway prefer to give their presentations to groups of 100 or fewer, so the students can ask questions and study the maps and images. At the Career Center, they planned four sessions Wednesday and another four today.
They have more scheduled, and had done a few before Wednesday's sessions. Quinn recounted how, when he asked what students knew about anthracite at a Coughlin High School session, one mentioned the Anthracite Café on Scott Street in Wilkes-Barre.
Kids don't know about this. Teachers don't know about this. And we have to pass it on, said Quinn. If we lose that history, it's gone forever.