Within a few years, the three Wilkes-Barre public high schools will be only memories. Just last week the district announced that the consolidation plan has been expanded to include all of them – Coughlin, GAR and Meyers – in the new combined high school planned for a site in Plains Township.
When that happens, an era stretching back a century will end. Let’s take a look at how the long story of the three high schools began.
Students from the upper grades in Wilkes-Barre found something new when September of 1867 rolled around – their first-ever high school. They would no longer have to share a building with younger children.
That building, small by today’s standards, was built in the first block of North Washington Street at Butler Alley. Old maps show that it occupied the space today utilized for a parking lot and the Coughlin High School gym. The teachers, according to records, were women from Philadelphia.
There weren’t very many students in this first Wilkes-Barre high school, but the city’s population – driven by the anthracite industry – was beginning to grow. From just a little over 4,000 in 1860, according to the U.S. Census, it would surpass 10,000 in 1870.
So fast was the growth, in fact, that the district’s leaders decided to build a larger high school as soon as possible. In 1881, with the city’s population having soared past 23,000, the district opened a new school on East Union Street at North State Street. This building would remain as the Wilkes-Barre High School for three decades.
Once again, though, population growth drove local education. By 1900, Wilkes-Barre had 52,000 residents. Plans were laid to build a third and still larger high school.
The site chosen was the first block of North Washington Street, between Butler Alley and East Union. Construction soon began, and by 1909 the massive building that still stands there was open. It was the largest school building in the area.
But two other parts of the city – the Heights and West End (today’s South Wilkes-Barre) – were now growing rapidly. It was decided to build a new high school in each of those sections, one right after the other
By 1925 the Heights had a school, named GAR Memorial (a bow to the Civil War veterans’ group Grand Army of the Republic). Almost immediately, work began on the third school and by 1930 it was open, honoring school board member Dr. Elmer L. Meyers. The old Wilkes-Barre High School was renamed for former superintendent James M. Coughlin.
The district now had the three high schools whose names are familiar today.
The school building boom was fortunate, because in the 1920s the city of Wilkes-Barre absorbed the adjacent boroughs of Parsons and Miners mills, bringing its population to more than 86,000 by 1930.
Even though some young people were still leaving school early to work, the total number of students grew by leaps and bounds up through the 1930s.
When the combined high school opens in Plains Township, it will replace this trio of historic but aging buildings, the newest of which will have passed its 90th anniversary. It will continue to serve the towns that joined with the city to form the Wilkes-Barre Area School District in the 1960s, giving up their own high schools in the process.
There will be a new name, new colors, a new mascot and a new alma mater. But the story, as it did when that first high school opened its doors in 1867, will go on
Tom Mooney is a Times Leader history columnist. Reach him at [email protected]