First Posted: 3/4/2012
Roger Samuels, at 86, has vivid memories of the old Kirby Park Zoo. He especially liked the monkey house.
"They used to throw things at you," laughs Samuels, from Kingston Township. "Oh, they were dirty monkeys."
The zoo was a fun part of the young life of Mary Gmiter, 82. A school friend, she says, would convince her to play hooky and take the streetcar from Wilkes-Barre Township to Kirby Park, where they would try to hide out for the day.
"We used to walk around and feed our lunches to the monkeys" she smiles.
The Kirby Park Zoo, which vanished in the World War II era, has passed into local legend. In the early 1990s, when preservationists began clearing brush and debris from the long-forgotten area between the levee and the Susquehanna River, the legend gained new currency because of the discovery of a string of concrete ruins. "Animal cages," so the popular belief went, obviously the remains of the zoo.
Kirby Park used to be twice its present size. More than 70 years ago, construction of a levee system to protect the area from devastating floods necessitated slicing the magnificent riverfront park in two. The western side of the park remained a neatly manicured public area for picnics, sports, concerts and fireworks. But the half cut off by the levee deteriorated and was forgotten.
Cheri Sundra makes her way through a veritable jungle, climbing over downed trees and patches of mud, sometimes encountering cracked pavement that doesn't seem to lead anywhere.
"It's hard to believe something that attracted so many people on a Sunday is forgotten," she says, referencing old newspaper accounts of crowds in the thousands filling this part of the park to hear band music and watch the zoo animals back in the 1920s and 1930s.
She points to some tumbledown walls with a set of crumbling steps in front. An object that looks like a concrete planter still stands in front. When that was a house, she says, the park caretaker lived there. Like everything else here, it's decorated with graffiti.
Why does she spend her time slogging through the dirt and disorder?
"I was just interested in the whole zoo concept because my friend's grandmother when we were children told us that there used to be a zoo in Kirby Park, and we didn't believe there was one," she says.
"Years later a cousin of mine mentioned he saw structures back there when he was fishing. At the same time I happened to be looking through things online and just happened to Google the Kirby Park Zoo and found some information from an old almanac that was listed on eBay that mentioned a deer being born in the Kirby Park Zoo, which was rather interesting."
Though the area she's picking her way through is just a few hundred yards from Public Square, it might as well be part of an Asian high desert or an Andean rain forest. Tall trees tower against the sky; others, torn out by the roots and lying about like a giant's pickup sticks, block a person's every move.
"So I set out to play detective and see if I could figure out what was true and what wasn't. At the same time I became interested in urban exploration photography, where you would go and take pictures of abandoned structures. So I went further with that and began to blog about abandoned structures in the area and decided to just go further with that research and see if I could try to preserve a bit of the history of the area."
Restoration efforts have been made since the 1990s, and signs mark the Olmsted Trail (named for park designers the Olmsted firm). But the ravages of 2011's Tropical Storm Lee and its floodwater that came within inches of topping the levee are everywhere. A visitor must step carefully to avoid scrapes and twisted ankles.
Sundra believes that she has the five sets of ruins pinned down by what they used to be. Besides the caretaker's house there was a bandshell with a towering arch (now gone), a pavilion and two nearly identical square buildings. She points to small holes, apparently for plumbing, that could peg them as having been men's and women's restrooms.
These last two buildings, she theorizes, flanked a small zoo, with cages probably "constructed out of chicken wire and wood," of which nothing remains. She believes that none of the concrete ruins, with their steps, doors, windows and human-size dimensions, could possibly have housed animals.
The existence of some kind of zoo is undeniable, even apart from eyewitness accounts. An old news story tells of Wilkes-Barre having to find dried bananas to feed the monkeys when World War II interrupted the supply of fresh ones. Another, from 1931, tells of a plan to place a captured German World War I artillery piece near the zoo. Sundra's blog has a photo of the bears climbing high in their cages to escape the 1936 flood, with the National Guard Armory as a backdrop.
"I found that historical research is more difficult than I thought it would be," she says. "I caution anyone doing it to double- and triple-check your facts because it's so easy for one misprint to send people off on a completely different tangent, like people saying that the Kirby Park ruins are zoo ruins, and I don't believe they are."
Sundra's own research has been exhaustive. She's gone through original plans for the park; plans for a relocation of the zoo, which might or might not have taken place; accounts of "Kirby Day," honoring the park's namesake, chain-store magnate Fred M. Kirby; and reams of material at the Luzerne County Historical Society.
It was an old Kirby Day story that became her turning point. "That's when all of the pieces fell together. I began to see what all the structures were for."
To provide a clearinghouse for her research, and encourage other people to pitch in, Sundra has established a blog containing photos of the ruins (plus one of a possibly relocated bear house), photos of the bandshell and other attractions that once stood there and a summary of her findings thus far. There is a single photo of a child feeding a young deer. Access her blog at www.cherisundra.wordpress.com.
But the overall dearth of photos of the old park is a concern for her.
"Maybe the public can start looking through their attics," she says. "If you have any relatives in their 70s, 80s or 90s you can take a peek at their pictures and see if they have any pictures of monkeys or other animals they can trace back to the Kirby Park Zoo."
Kingston resident Effie Marshall, 95, remembers happy days at the zoo with her family in the 1920s and 1930s.
"We used to go over on Sundays," she said. "We would take our lunch."
The experience of Len Kuchinskas, 86, who used to live in Kingston was similar. "We usually walked; we didn't have a car. I remember the bands on Sundays. But mostly the zoo – that's what we came for. I can see it vividly."
Sundra believes her quest must become a community concern and go far beyond this one piece of land.
"I think that the Kirby Park Zoo is sort of a cautionary tale about history today. The Historical society is making a push to collect artifacts from the '50s, '60s and '70s from the area, and if we don't collect that information now then it can be just like the Kirby Park Zoo in a couple of generations. We'll completely forget about landmarks like Angela Park, and things that we all remember from the most recent past now will be faded away."