The 1868 Wilkes-Barre station of the New Jersey Central Railroad has a storied history that was just getting started during its first century of service as a station house. Next came its transformation into a hotel, then its reincarnation into a music venue and nightclub. In each role, the old station existed in one form or another as a community hub – until the club closed in the early 2000s. It was during that era of disuse that I first saw the old building over a decade ago. I was in the city of Wilkes-Barre, PA, filming at an unrelated site, and on my way home I happened to pass the station, catching sight of the spire over rows of rusted out train cars. I stopped to see the place up close and found the building wide open, doors ajar, some windows missing entirely. It was as if the place had gone from being loved by generations to utterly forgotten. I took some photos on my walk around and through, documenting the sad ending of a beautiful piece of history. Or so I thought.
Fast forward a decade and I receive a message from a friend showing the same old train station, only now it’s not the ragged, broken down husk I recalled. It looks beautiful, with new paint, windows and title: headquarters of Visit Luzerne County. I immediately reached out, getting a hold of Sarah Harris, director of sales and marketing, who was very happy to offer a tour and interview. Stepping foot back in a place I knew only as a ruin proved a bit more intense than I had anticipated. I recalled things I didn’t even know I remembered about the place, and I was only there once, so it’s difficult to imagine how it must feel for those who truly knew the place.
I was greeted by Harris as well as tourism bureau director Alan Stout, formerly a journalist at the Times Leader. Stout stepped out of his office, previously a storage room, and said, “Two months after we moved in, I said to my staff: ‘We are in the business of promoting attractions, and now we are one ourselves.’” His comment couldn’t be more true. Here I am driving an hour and a half each way just to see the old station again, after being told of it by a friend who lives in Parsippany, NJ. Far from locals.
We made our way to the conference room to discuss the station and their organization. As we sat I realized that the room we now occupied was once the nightclub bar. I remembered seeing it covered in filth and debris, and though it was dark at the time in the then-abandoned building, I recognized that the ceiling trim and detailing all remained. “Years ago I actually worked the bar right here!” Stout said. “I have pictures of me pouring beer right were we’re sitting. It’s wild to think about.”
Harris added that her parents had recently found an old photo of her as a very young child, sitting in one of the rail cars when the station served as a hotel.
Stout chimed back in: “Pat’s in once a week and is 88 years old. She saw her boyfriend off to the Korean War when this was still running trains.” The train crashed after departing the station that day, injuring her boyfriend, but also saving him from going to war.
What fueled the move from their nondescript office across town to the vacant station? “It was in process before I was even here,” said Stout. “It was talked about for years.” The developer, Market Square Properties Development LLC, was interested in saving the station, and Visit Luzerne County agreed to lease the bottom level if the project was seen through. With a guaranteed tenant, work commenced, and the official ribbon cutting took place in September. The community has been incredibly supportive, and people have already paid visits from farther flung places, like the buses of train history buffs from Binghamton, NY.
“The road out front here, it never had a name,” said Stout. “We just officially named it: Old Train Station Road. The day the signs went up I was taking pictures.”
The pair mused that the station’s new role is reminiscent of its original purpose: to help see people off to their destinations. I could see they were proud to be a part of the station’s future, and their enthusiasm was contagious. They understood the importance of the history held in these bricks; they’re part of it themselves.
Visit Luzerne County is located at 200 Old Train Station Road in Wilkes-Barre, PA; visitluzernecounty.com.