History of Lackawanna County
Governor John F. Hartranft signed a proclamation officially declaring Lackawanna County the 67th county of Pennsylvania on August 21, 1878. The court system first opened on October 24, 1878. The first election of county officials was conducted on November 4, 1879.
Despite its relative youth, Lackawanna County has played a large role in not only the development of the State and Country, but also the world.
From the river to the county, the term “Lackawanna” is abundant in Northeastern Pennsylvania. It is derived from a Lenape term that translates to “stream that forks.” Appropriately, the Lackawanna river does indeed fork. The river rises in two branches along the modern boundaries of the Susquehanna and Wayne county lines. At around 40 miles in length, the Lackawanna river is the major tributary of the Susquehanna River and a major waterway for both modern and historic peoples of Northeastern Pennsylvania.
The Lenape Tribe of Native Americans was the original inhabitants of the area that would become Lackawanna County. A number of Lenape gravesites historically existed on the river near what is now Scranton, but were eventually destroyed. According to Horace Hollister's History of the Lackawanna Valley, one of the destroyed graves may have belonged to Capouse, a Lenape chieftain who was visited by Count Zinzandorf, a Moravian missionary, near the river in about 1750. However, in the late 1700’s European settlers traveled from Connecticut to the valley because of the rich iron ore deposits used to make iron and steel. Soon, blast furnaces and forges began populating the landscape, marketing their product to neighboring towns. Small businesses followed the forges and modest communities began to form. Slocum Hollow, located where Scranton is today, opened a post office in 1811.
Another valuable asset to the area would soon be discovered. Anthracite coal lay underneath the entire region. Perhaps the first to realize the importance of coal were brothers John, William and Maurice Wurts. The brothers purchased land in what is Carbondale today and began mining. The Wurts had planned to ship the coal to Philadelphia but when coal mining began in the Lehigh and Schuylkill regions, those areas supplied Philadelphia. The brothers then formed the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company. The idea was to transport coal from Carbondale’s mines to Honesdale via a gravity railroad and from Honesdale to Roundout, New York, by a canal. From Roundout, the coal was transported down the Hudson River to New York City. With the success of the gravity railroad and canal system, additional gravity lines were extended from Carbondale down throughout the valley.
The Delaware and Hudson Canal Company was the first million-dollar private enterprise in the United States, and it led to the first suspension aqueducts that were built by John A. Roebling of Brooklyn Bridge fame and later to the first operation of a railroad locomotive, the “Stourbridge Lion,” in America.
In 1842, William Henry, a native of Nazareth who had been operating a blast furnace in New Jersey, arrived with his son-in-law, Seldon T. Scranton. William Henry was a geologist and surveyor. He had previously visited the area and had discovered deposits of iron ore in the hills surrounding the Roaring Brook and Lackawanna River. Soon, Seldon’s brother, George W. Scranton, arrived from Connecticut; the Slocum property was purchased, and funds were secured from a number of venture capitalists for the construction of the Lackawanna Furnace. By 1846, the Lackawanna Furnace and Rolling Mills Company was producing nails for market.
In 1847, the Scranton brothers invited their cousin, Joseph H. Scranton, who was a successful Georgia merchant, to invest in the growing industry. George secured a contract from the Erie Railroad to produce “T” rails for a line from Port Jervis to Binghamton. Conversion of the small iron-mill to a rail-producing factory was both expensive and risky. The project was completed on December 27, 1848. In the same year, a U.S. Post Office was established in the town then called “Scrantonia” named after the Scranton family. Also, during this time period the first wave of immigrants from England, Wales, Ireland, and Germany was beginning to settle in the region.
The Scrantons, realizing that money was located in coal, began to concentrate on its mining and transportation in the 1850’s. Their efforts led to the formation of the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad. The railroad company controlled a network of coal mines that had mined and shipped two million tons of coal by 1868.
Coal, steel and railroads played huge roles in the development of late 19th and early 20th Century America. The industrial boom was happening here, and in Europe, and these three items were in great demand. Lackawanna County happened to manufacture all three. This led to a very prosperous time in Northeast Pennsylvania. Residential settlements popped up wherever coal was mined and, despite lacking access to ports or navigable waterways, the economy ran smoothly because there was a need for “black gold”, steel and rail ties.
While the coal boom was taking place a movement was also being undertaken by the people of current day Lackawanna County. In 1810, Bradford and Susquehanna County seceded from Luzerne County with little fanfare; however, in 1839 when the people of Lackawanna County first asked for their own sovereignty the powers that be in Wilkes-Barre, the County seat, became alarmed. Shortly before this time the valuable anthracite coal fields of Lackawanna County had been discovered and Luzerne County did not want to lose this asset.
The initial attempt at secession failed. There was no representation of upper-Luzerne County in Harrisburg and the motion fell on deaf ears. To prevent the idea from gaining momentum, Luzerne County consented to the formation of Wyoming County, which had very little value, on the notion that Luzerne County had been reduced to a size too small to lose any more territory.
However, Scranton continued to grow and was now bigger than Wilkes-Barre in population, industry and tax-base. There was an increasing pressure for a new County. Wilkes-Barre struck again and pushed a constitutional amendment through that would not allow the establishment of a new County without the majority vote of both segments of the county about to be divided. It was thought to be the straw that broke the camel’s back as far as the secession of Lackawanna County.
It wasn’t until 1874 that a new development in the battle took place. A new State constitution omitted the provision passed that needed a majority vote through both segments of the potentially divided county. The new law allowed voters of the proposed county to decide their fate. On August 13, 1878, after nearly forty years of struggle, citizens of Lackawanna County voted nearly 6 to 1 in favor of the creation of a new County. On August 21st of that year it became official. It was a move that made sense. Scranton had long surpassed Wilkes-Barre as Northeast PA’s first city and it was impractical for Scranton’s municipal business to take place in Wilkes-Barre.
Lackawanna County enjoyed nearly a century of growth and prosperity. In the 1880’s, the first electric street car system in the United States was built in Scranton, thus earning it the nickname “The Electric City”. Coal breakers dominated the skyline of every community in the County and modern day America was being built off the resources of Lackawanna County. Silk factories became an important part of the local economy, with the first one opening in Scranton in 1872. Many institutions of higher learning were formed during this period as well including Keystone College in La Plume (1869), St. Thomas College (now known as the University of Scranton, 1888), Marywood College (now a university, 1915) and many more.
This time also saw many immigrants coming to the area in search of employment in the coal mines. Scores of Irish, Polish, Italian and Russian immigrants took to the mines and thus the rich, ethnic history of our County began to take form. The fingerprints of this heritage can be seen throughout our County today.
Shortly after the turn of the Century things slowly turned for the worse in Lackawanna County. Labor strikes were becoming increasingly more frequent as members of the coal miners’ union fought for higher wages and better working conditions, the biggest taking place in 1902. That same year the Scranton's own Lackawanna Steel Company left for Buffalo. In the following decade, oil was discovered as a cheaper, cleaner means of energy. Coal became increasingly less popular as time went by, hitting rock bottom during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, seeing new life during World War II, but disappearing for all intents and purposes in the 1950’s. The driving force behind Lackawanna County’s economy was gone.
Since 1878, over fifteen United States presidents have visited the region, making it an epicenter of national politics. Those presidents include Rutherford B. Hayes, 19th President; Theodore Roosevelt, 20th President, William Howard Taft, 27th President; Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd President; Harry Truman, 33rd President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th President; John F. Kennedy, 35th President; Lyndon Johnson, 36th President; Richard Nixon, 37th President; Gerald Ford, 38th President; Jimmy Carter, 39th President; Ronald Reagan, 40th President; George H.W. Bush, 41st President; William J. Clinton, 42nd President; George W. Bush, 43rd President; Barack Obama, 44th President; Donald J. Trump, 45th President and Scranton born Joseph R. Biden, 46th President.
President Joseph R. Biden was born and raised in Scranton, PA. As Vice President for two-terms under President Obama, and now President, Scranton was/is never far from the thoughts of President Biden, often referred to in the State of the Union and peppered throughout other speeches. A recipient of the Medal of Freedom, President Biden ushered the Nation through the pandemic with grace. "From Scranton to Wilmington to the White House — with thousands of train rides in between."
The last 50 years have seen two Pennsylvania Governors and one United States Senator hail from Scranton. William Scranton, a direct descendant of the family the City is named after 1964-67 (Mr. Scranton also ran a campaign for President in 1964, and later became U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations under President Ford), Gov. Robert P. Casey from 1986-1993 and Senator Robert P. Casey, Jr. from 2006 to Present.
For the past half-century, Lackawanna County has transformed itself economy from fueling the Industrial Revolution to fueling new and innovative entrepreneurial small businesses across various business sectors.
A new partnership between the New York Yankees and Lackawanna County brought a new state-of-the-art Triple A baseball stadium to Lackawanna County, a long-term local investment of $72 million and annual economic impact of over $45 million.
The Commonwealth Medical College, which is the first MD-granting medical school built in Pennsylvania since 1962, is providing state-of-the-art medical education to medical students from across the globe. In addition, Commonwealth Health and Geisinger have entered the medical market in Lackawanna County and are investing over $300 million in innovative technology and improved medical care.
Lackawanna County has also launched an aggressive economic development program designed to encourage the creation of private sector jobs, improve the quality of life for its residents and lead the nation in its economic recovery. Some of the economic development programs available in Lackawanna County include:
Small Business Administration Loan Fee Waiver Program – Lackawanna County launched the nation’s first SBA Loan Fee Waiver Program, which is designed to stimulate private sector job growth and economic development. Lackawanna County pays the SBA fees for SBA approved loans to businesses deploying 100% of the loan proceeds in Lackawanna County.
Technology Infrastructure Incentive Program – This county-wide wireless internet umbrella network reduces start-up and ongoing technology costs for businesses and will improve emergency management telecommunications.
Community Re-Invest Program – This county program provides financial assistance to local governments and community groups to assist in revitalizing communities. Special consideration is given to projects that demonstrate matching fund commitments.
BioScience Fund – Lackawanna County is partnering with the eight-County consortium in the Regional Bioscience Initiative, local hospitals, universities, and The Commonwealth Medical College in making a significant investment in life science research, development, and manufacturing to help stimulate private sector job growth.
WorkForce Training and Financial Assistance – PA CareerLink Lackawanna offers 50% wage reimbursements to offset training costs during the initial training period of new hires for qualified employers. PA CareerLink Lackawanna also offers a full suite of human resources services including job postings, resume and candidate pre-screenings and coordinating interviews in their office.
Internship Pilot Program – Lackawanna County is partnering with local universities, businesses, and job-training partners to coordinate structured internship programs that train and retain talented young professionals and reduce “brain train” in Northeast Pennsylvania.
Keystone Opportunity Zone – Lackawanna County supports Keystone Opportunity Zones as an important economic development tool. This unique partnership between the state and local taxing bodies offers tax abatement’s for the development and use of land within underdeveloped and underutilized zones. The KOZ tax benefits last for a duration of up to ten years with the anticipation of job growth and economic development.
From fueling the Industrial Revolution to fueling new and innovative entrepreneurial small businesses across various business sectors, Lackawanna County continues to be on the cutting edge of society and it’s future remains bright.