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Picture-perfect trip down memory lane Tom Mooney Remember When

February 19. 2013 9:17PM
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When Elena Castrignano was a child, she thought a trip to downtown Wilkes-Barre from her Washington Street home was just about the most exciting thing in the world.

My mom and I would walk down to shop, she said. She would tell me stories about how she would take the trolley out to Harveys Lake and visit the zoo at Kirby Park. She instilled in me that this was a nice place to grow up in. I liked growing up in the city.

Those stories, that mother-daughter vision of a good life in a small city, years later would set Castrignano off on compiling old postcards illustrating Wilkes-Barre's past. She turned them into a book in 2008.

This month the Hanover Township resident is bringing out her second book about the area — Images of America: Wilkes-Barre, a compendium of photos of historic scenes from the mid-1800s to the middle of the 20th century.

She will meet her readers and sign copies of the new book at 5 p.m. on Dec. 15 at the Barnes & Noble bookstore in the Arena Hub Plaza, Wilkes-Barre Township.

What it (the city) is now is not the same, she said. This is pretty much about the changes that have occurred. That was my point. The last one was about the beauty of the city.

A library clerk at Luzerne County Community College, Castrignano works in a world of books, images, research and people who love learning, but never saw herself getting her name in print. Chief among her influences was former research librarian Fred Walters, who noticed her interest in old-time postcards and suggested – to her surprise – that she become an author.

What did I know about writing a book? But he encouraged me, and everyone here encouraged me to do it.

Her latest volume, Images of America: Wilkes-Barre, is part of a series by Arcadia Publishing, of South Carolina. The book has more than 100 pages of photos and a short introduction sketching out the history of the community.

The photos Castrignano collected, largely from the Luzerne County Historical Society, offer a panorama of times past. Ever wonder what preceded the now-decrepit Hotel Sterling on its downtown plot of land? There's a shot of the Music Hall, where a long-gone era's household names in entertainment performed for local audiences between 1870 and 1897.

The larger-than-life personalities of a century ago get space in the book. You'll see legendary priest the Rev. John J. Curran, who believed helping the coal miners was God's work, meeting with United Mine Workers boss John L. Lewis.

Castrignano grows animated talking about her favorite photo in the book — an 1873 shot of the elegant Wyoming Valley House, a hotel in the first block of South River Street, torn down in 1909.

I wish I could go back in time, she said of the grainy picture of children playing croquet on the lawn in front of the big building with its turrets and balconies. People came from everywhere to stay there. This (Wilkes-Barre) was a destination. It wasn't just a city: it was a destination.

Though the book is just being launched this week, she is already envisioning a second edition, with more photos, including one that she once despaired of ever finding.

Teddy Roosevelt came here often. He was friends with Father Curran. But I couldn't find a decent picture of him. Then a co-worker came in and said, ‘There's a big picture of Father Curran and Teddy Roosevelt at my church'.

That's an image worth remembering and sharing.

Tom Mooney is a Times Leader columnist. Reach him at

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